Meet Kodi Twiner: musician and environmental activist, whose multi-faceted career ignited following her participation in a documentary about destructive palm oil production in Indonesia. Why should you care about the use of palm oil in your products? Read on to find out, and learn how Kodi uses music as an educational portal for topics like conservation and ecofeminism. She currently tours Australia and internationally with her nu-soul/jazz band Ladyslug, and leads eco-tours of rural Borneo amidst studying for her Honours.
(Originally intended for magazine publication in 2016.)
“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
These words — taken from Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, a book about female empowerment in the workplace and in life — resonated with 24-year-old Kodi Twiner so much that she had them delicately tattooed around the curl of her left thumb and forefinger in Indonesia, a country that fundamentally shaped her creative and cultural identity.
It’s a powerful question, and one I ask myself repeatedly as Kodi describes her experiences as a teenager in remote Borneo, taking part in an experimental documentary titled Rise of the Eco Warriors.
“The dramatic question [behind the documentary] was, ‘What can ten young and passionate people do in the jungle for 100 days?’” Kodi explains.
It’s a simple, yet deceptively weighty concept, for these participants were not there to simply play tourist: they, a handful of locals, and a Dutch environmental scientist named Dr. Willie Smits, were tasked with creating solutions to a dire palm oil problem, responsible for the destruction of ancient rainforest and displacement of native orang-utans – not to mention the local people, the Dayaks.
Why is palm oil such a problem?
Because palm oil is in such high demand around the world (with 85% of its production exported from Indonesia and Malaysia), Dayak communities, trees, and burial sites are being flattened to make way for giant monoculture plantations. With no legal rights and no one to defend them, the Dayaks are powerless to stop the onslaught.
“After twenty years [when oil palms stop producing fruit], companies abandon the plantations and leave Jurassic-sized palm trees that are going to be hell to remove, and soil that’s poisoned from all the pesticides. The soil is so dry and full of canals, when it used to be biodiverse and ancient,” Kodi explains.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get the land back to how it was; there’s no obligation for these companies to rehabilitate the land.”
Kodi applied to take part in Rise of the Eco Warriors after seeing a casting call on Facebook. She, along with hundreds of other hopeful participants, was required to fundraise $5000, attract a following of at least 500 supporters, and make a video detailing her passion for environmental conservation before even being considered for the project.
Having finally cemented her place in the group, and touching down in Pontianak in tropical Borneo, she and her counterparts were transported by minibus far into the heart of the jungle. Their accommodation was a minimalist’s dream: mattresses with mosquito nets draped across them on the floor of a basic longhouse, surrounded by little but the chirping of bugs and raw, untouched wilderness.
They were soon to witness the stupefying horror of the outside world breaking in: bulldozers, diggers, fires and smoke, illegal deforestation and fossicking in the rivers, fallen trees, orphaned orang-utans and other wildlife, dismayed communities that had coexisted peacefully within this ecosystem for many years – and, of course, oil palms.
As the young activists saw their surrounding environment shredded and burned, a parallel shift was taking place within the group, following the sudden, temporary departure of Dr. Willie Smits.
“We thought there’d be a lot more support. People reacted differently; some are leaders in different ways, and thrive with varying parameters in place. It seemed for a long while we were flailing, treading water and not getting anywhere. There was this sense of failure, pressure and isolation; there were budget issues.
“We all had this thought of, ‘What did we sign up for? We just came to save the trees!’” Kodi says.
Her strategy for coping, then and now, is to start small.
“There are a lot of clichés about how long journeys start with small steps,” she says. “I like to picture a fish taking a little nibble off what could be a huge meal. Sometimes you’ll think, ‘Oh my god, how am I ever going to get through this thing?’ But no matter how big the meal, you need to start by taking a little nibble. Even if you’ve fallen behind, take a little bit off. Always return to little bits, little bits, little bits, often.”
The results are tangible. As part of the education team in the documentary, Kodi and her teammate Mark combined their musical talents and created an interactive travelling arts show, “on the smallest budget you can imagine, sung in a different language.
“We had to hitch rides on the back of students’ scooters into schools to do pop-up performances. It was so hot, and we were cartwheeling on stage while trying to sing in broken Bahasa Indonesian. The kids were staring at us like, what the hell are these people doing?” she explains, laughing heartily.
“But they were really receptive to the message. Many of these kids are affected by the palm oil industry, and were refreshingly uncensored in their thoughts and speech when we discussed the issue with them. It’s a complex issue; but for them, it’s their villages and loved ones, their livelihood and history.
“Dayak families are being uprooted because the capitalist West wants to produce oil for shitty chocolate bars. Is a Tim-Tam really worth the destruction of an ancient culture? Because that’s literally what we’re talking about, here.”
There’s always a kinder alternative
Tembak village – where Kodi and the other Eco Warriors stayed during their 100-day stint – is thriving. Since filming, its people have built a longhouse where guests can stay, and developed a sustainable soap and oil factory as means of generating income. Dr. Willie Smits, who has worked in Indonesia and orang-utan conservation for over 35 years, recently designed a zero-waste, closed-loop power system for said factory.
Tembak’s renewed prosperity is largely attributed to the production of Tengkawang nuts, a native species that produces high-quality oil (better than that of palm oil) and flourishes in biodiverse ecosystems, thus utilising the natural land and eliminating the threat of monoculture plantations. The nuts can be pressed to extract oil that is similar to coconut oil, but with a higher melting point – ideal for use in soap and cosmetics – and also dried to make biochar, a soil conditioner, which villagers are now adding to their veggie gardens.
Tengkawang oil has been exported from Borneo in the past, before the invasion of oil palms – but the current market is ideally for empowering local people and tempting them away from dealing with palm oil companies: a pre-emptive, preventative, and proactive solution to an intensifying dilemma.
“The production of Tengkawang oil is experimental and a raw start-up; but the fact it’s there and five years ago it wasn’t means local people now have employment, and means to create sustainable income by preserving their existing forests. They have over nine tonnes of oil ready to go,” Kodi says.
Moreover, at the time of filming, the Orang-utan Centre in Sintang (about 30km from Tembak) was little more than an empty cage. Two orphaned babies, Jojo and Juvi, were soon inducted, and are now both in forest training school: a two-hectare enclosure where orang-utans can relearn wild skills. The expansion of the centre to accommodate multiplying numbers of rescued orang-utans, as well as medicine for its clinic and ongoing pay for staff, are all attributed to diligent fundraising outside of Borneo.
“It’s a pretty expensive endeavour to protect orang-utans; it’s easier to just keep the forest standing,” Kodi explains, with a bittersweet smirk. “Why don’t we just do that instead?”
Even though she’s since lopped her vivid, trinket-laden dreadlocks from the film in favour of a rockin’ blonde crop, Kodi is still the same Eco Warrior. Her close proximity to both Indonesia and Rise of the Eco Warriors’ producer has enabled her to stay involved with the project.
She led her first eco-tour of Tembak in mid-2015, and her second at the beginning of this year. All guests were supporters of the film and from Kodi’s own local and social media networks. A key condition of signing up was to fundraise a total set by the group, with all profits going towards deforestation efforts.
So far, Kodi’s tours have generated $34,000.
“I wanted to give people a chance to challenge themselves, experience a new environment, and contribute to the cause,” she explains. “A concern I have with travel and globalisation in general is that it can develop a white saviour complex; I wanted to avoid that by working in solidarity with Indonesian people who already know what they’re doing, and simply need monetary support.
“My mission is not to save orang-utans: it’s to save forests – to treat the cause instead of its symptoms – and you do that by empowering people who already live in harmony with their environment.
“Some guests had never been to Asia before, so were taking a big step from regional Queensland to remote, indigenous Borneo. It’s a huge process of planning their itinerary and bookings, and making sure they feel supported and don’t come home with skewed perspective of how life works over there. I’m acting as their companion, mentor, and friend for five months leading up to each tour, and the climax that is two weeks on the ground and seeing the results of their hard efforts.
“It’s interesting to see the power and shamelessness and courage of people taking on a cause – not for their own agenda – because they believe in its authenticity: they saw the movie and had raised zero dollars, and now they’ve raised enough to build another orang-utan forest training school…and travelled to Borneo!” she exclaims.
Growing up in Gladstone, regional Queensland (a port town that boasts coal, liquid natural gas, and alumina as some of its biggest exports), it’s no wonder Kodi fostered an interest in environmental conservation from a young age. Aside from the polluting effects of numerous mining and processing plants situated about the region, Gladstone’s beaches frequently regurgitate a jaw-droppingly large amount of rubbish, and its recent dredging in the harbour for shipping channels has been linked to poisoning of marine life.
“I wrote a letter to the mayor when I was in grade three, asking about the smoke coming out of the towers of QAL [an alumina refinery]. He wrote back and told me the smoke was merely steam. And I thought, ‘Oh yeah – so that’s why the paint on the cars is peeling off,’” she says.
As a teenager, Kodi had been on mailing lists for companies like Greenpeace, and travelled to Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand – a sanctuary for elephants exploited for tourism and illegal logging – after graduating high school: her first environmental project abroad.
“I think we are all somewhat interested in the environment; we are not separate from it. If we’re interested in ourselves, we’re interested in the environment. It either dooms us or helps us,” she explains.
“Honestly, I’m a bit in shock if I ever meet someone who hasn’t had anything at all to do with the environment. Like, you’re telling me you don’t want to take an active part in making sure we all survive? You don’t care? You don’t love animals?”
An issue that hits close to home
Kodi correlates the situation in Indonesia to that in Australia, in relation to the nation’s marginalised native people, and pressure from vast corporations to hand over natural resource value. As an example, the Leard State Forest (located in northwest New South Wales) contains scarred trees and indigenous burial sites, not to mention critically endangered flora and fauna – much of which is now being destroyed to create open-cut coalmines.
The obliteration of centuries-old woodlands, combined with the cultural devastation it entails, is nothing short of tragic.
“I’ve seen that forest standing, and now it’s gone,” Kodi explains, with a look of stone-eyed resignation. “There are exaggerated statistics on the jobs mining provides. Rural people with a poverty mindset are talked into sacrificing their land, and then the soil and water gets poisoned; so, a community gets monetary value, but loses its natural resource value, and therefore its sustainability.
“Our government immobilises communities through shitty policies that prevent change, to the extent where people have to break the law in order to draw attention to these issues and stop them happening. It’s inevitable we should acknowledge this, and work together to create harmony.”
At this point, the opening question of this article pops back into my head; the one curved around Kodi’s finger like a tendril of wattle.
“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
On one hand, there is arguably a lot in today’s world to be feared. We are no longer easily sheltered from unsettling information, and the rush of truth can be crippling. Volatile geography attributed to climate change is scary. Big corporations are scary, and so is their language of money. Acceptance of throwaway culture is scary. The stubborn grip of ignorance and casual release of justice is scary. Fear, in its myriad forms, will trip and drag you to cushy safety when you’re most in need of courage.
On the other hand, there is solace in courage, if you know where to find it.
“You might not read about the people doing good on the front page of a newspaper. You might not see it on primetime news. But it’s happening, and you can meet those people through looking in places you wouldn’t normally look,” Kodi says.
What can you do?
For those who are sympathetic, but unsure of where to start, Kodi suggests a few key places.
“There needs to be incentive for people wanting to do good within business, and also a name-and-shame for people who aren’t. How are consumers meant to make the right choices if corporations aren’t forced to label what’s in their products? Right now, there’s no immediate consequence for people’s laziness, nor reward for taking an active role. It’s easier to chill,” she says.
“Empower yourself; find out what sits truthfully for you. It has to be something you like; you can’t just suddenly drop everything and pursue a single-minded view of saviour-ness. You still have to have a life, and be a well-rounded human and find your passion…and hopefully, ideally, that can merge with a good cause. I think you have to be a little bit creative to find where that collision occurs, and make it golden.
“I always encourage people to research stuff. We have so much information at our fingertips. Think back throughout history, how people wanted information, and what they only could have done if they had their missing piece of the puzzle. We have the ability to interact with people from every country; we have the whole library, and we’re still sitting back and thinking, when this changes, when this happens, then I’ll make a difference.
“No. Do it now. Take a small nibble, and tomorrow take another one.”
Having recently been awarded a prestigious New Colombo Plan scholarship by the Australian government – an incentive to encourage scholastic interaction in the Indo-Pacific region – Kodi will return to Indonesia for up to 17 months to undertake her Honours in music studies; an intimidating stretch of time, and the longest she has spent in the country.
“Rewards come in different forms when you’re a volunteer. The scholarship is going to be challenging, and I’m still shocked that I got it. But my last five years of volunteering and experiences in Indonesia set me up to receive it,” she says. “Australians and Indonesians have great potential to work together for good. Indonesian culture is so rich, and I think a lot of Australian artists are searching for new flavours or sounds or partnerships – that’s an untapped potential between our two societies.”
In the meantime, she is eagerly anticipating the prospect of a career split between both countries.
“The tours [of Borneo] are going to continue; I’m currently working on branding and a website, and that’s exciting because I’ve never been my own boss in the form of a recognisable business. It’s overwhelming – no, it’s not overwhelming; it’s fine. I feel capable and confident, and I know I can do it.”
2018 Update: Kodi recently performed her ecofeminist music project Naga Buah (the product of her time studying in Indonesia) with her band Ladyslug at Falls Festival in Byron Bay. She is continuing to lead eco-tours of Borneo — go to Solid Trails to find out how you can get involved.