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A distress call in Sumatra

Artists work with charity to send out an SOS for Sumatran wildlife and rainforests
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
SOS call in Sumatra, Ernest Zacharevic

<span class="larger"Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic has carved a giant SOS distress call into the landscape of a Sumatran oil palm plantation (main image), calling attention to the ongoing destruction of Indonesia’s forests and the demise of iconic species such as the Sumatran orangutan.

Art and conservation

In early 2017, Zacharevic curated a series of unique art projects in and around Sumatra as part of Splash and Burn, an art initiative run with SOS. The idea was to use art in critical areas to give rise to a wider conversation on issues affecting community, consumerism, climate change and the ever dwindling wildlife population.

For its latest intervention, Splash and Burn is challenging the idea of art as an abstract gesture by physically altering and shaping the Sumatran landscape.

The canvas for Zacharevic’s latest intervention was an oil palm plantation, land almost totally devoid of wildlife, directly next to the Leuser Ecosystem – the only place in the world where orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos coexist.

Ribbons and chainsaws

In order to restore the land for wildlife, the charity first needed to remove the oil palm trees. Zacharevic and his team seized the opportunity to send a dramatic message: armed with ribbons, a drone and a chainsaw-wielding crew, they worked across approximately 20 hectares, carving a giant distress call into the landscape of the plantation by selectively removing oil palms to spell out the letters SOS.

‘The nature of my work is very spontaneous and site-specific. I often prioritize the relationship of the artwork to its surrounding environment and community over the aesthetic pleasure of viewing the art. The Land Art movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s has always been an inspiration to me. Just like graffiti, the context and location of Land Art is often as meaningful as its content or artistic expression.

‘I have had the ambition of creating a Land Art piece since the beginning of the Splash and Burn campaign. I wanted to communicate the magnitude of the problem to a wider audience as well as provide creative outlook, hope, and inspiration to local communities and conservationists.’

Splash and Burn artist and curator

Through months of collaboration with NGOs and charitable organisations including Orangutan Information Centre, The Sumatran Orangutan Society and LUSH, the involvement of creatives and with the help of local communities, this idea came to life in Bukit Mas.

‘From the ground, you would not suspect anything more than just another palm oil plantation’, Zacharevic said. ‘The aerial view however reveals an SOS distress signal. ‘Save Our Souls’ is a message communicated to those at a distance, a reminder of the connectedness we share with Nature. As more of the forests are lost, we lose a little bit of ourselves in the process.’

Saved by soap

At the end of 2017, cosmetics company Lush partnered with conservation charity Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) with the launch of the #SOSsumatra campaign and a limited edition Orangutan Soap across Europe.

‘We’ve fought to remove palm oil from our products for over a decade at Lush. Now, with the help of Sumatran Orangutan Society and their partners we are doing the same on the ground in Sumatra. Lush is committed to going beyond sustainability and by returning native habitat to Sumatra we hope this SOS message inspires others to take action.’

Head perfumer and head of ethical buying at Lush

There are only 14,600 orangutans remaining in the wild in Sumatra. In tribute to them, Lush made 14,600 soaps, which flew off the shelves in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Ireland, Belgium, Norway, Czech Republic, Finland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Estonia, Switzerland and the UK, selling out in many countries in a matter of days and raising £126,014.

The proceeds enabled the UK charity’s Indonesian partners, the Orangutan Information Centre, to buy 50 hectares of oil palm plantation land, to reclaim and restore native forest to an area on the edge of the Leuser Ecosystem in Bukit Mas, Sumatra.

Helen Buckland, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society, said that this part of the forest ‘was under attack, with more and more orangutan habitat being lost every week as illegal agriculture encroached into the protected area.’

‘By supporting us to buy this land on the buffer zone of the national park, Lush and their customers are enabling us to hold back, and reverse, the tide of forest loss.’

Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society

The fallen palms will be used as compost to prepare the land for restoration. Helen Buckland, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society, explained that, with the backing of the local community, the charity’s partners, the OIC, will plant tens of thousands of rainforest tree seedlings to return the land to wildlife. ‘We expect to see orangutans and many other species roaming in the new young forest within a couple of years’, she said.

Click here to find out how UK imports could be damaging an area the size of Greece each year.

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