Indonesia: Secret forest plays key role in Balikpapan’s future
Source: The Jakarta Post, 24 April 2001
by Lisa Rogers
BALIKPAPAN, East Kalimantan (JP): Just up the main road from the bustle of Balikpapan is a hidden treasure. The Sungai Wain Protection Forest is several thousand hectares of untouched tropical forest, complete with sun bears, hornbills and four-meter-long pythons. It is the last remnant of primary rainforest left in the Balikpapan-Samarinda area, where nearly half the people of East Kalimantan live. For the moment, Sungai Wain is protected by an unlikely assortment of people, some wielding government regulations, some industrial influence, others simply the love of nature.
Sungai Wain is a treasure unique to Balikpapan. What other municipality can boast a pristine jungle right on its doorstep? At Sungai Wain, people can learn about the complex forest ecosystem by seeing it for themselves. Like a giant natural filter, it transforms the wind and rain into clean air and water. As it is, Sungai Wain attracts scientists from around the world to study its secrets, and it could similarly attract tourists to enjoy its beauty. As a kind of trust fund for the future, it is really a forest that protects the people. The reserve lies entirely within the borders of Balikpapan on Kalimantan’s east coast, but it seldom appears on maps of the area. Even city residents know little about it. Its history as a reserve reaches back to 1934, when the Sultan of Kutai declared it a closed forest. Over the years it escaped the fate of most of Kalimantan’s coastal forest, which was converted to farmland or parceled up into logging concessions.
Today Sungai Wain still boasts a vast array of native plants and animals that is better known among international researchers than local residents. But continued anonymity for Sungai Wain doesn’t look likely. Along with almost every other aspect of life in Indonesia, it too is affected by government decentralization. Protected forests across the country are now in the hands of district and municipal governments. The mayor of Balikpapan and the city councillors now face the challenge of managing the Sungai Wain Protected Forest and its biological treasures. However, at a meeting hosted by the mayor last month, many of the main stakeholders in the forest pledged their support, with a new management authority to be established this year. Perhaps the most valuable treasure hidden among the trees is water. Both the Wain and the Bugis rivers lie almost entirely within the protected forest. Every day those two watersheds produce millions of liters of clean, fresh water. In an area chronically short of fresh water and where seawater often contaminates wells, such a resource is very valuable indeed. Since 1947 much of the water from Sungai Wain has been used by Balikpapan’s largest industry: oil. Today Indonesia’s national oil company, Pertamina, controls the water from Sungai Wain and pumps it from the reservoir at the edge of the forest to its refinery and the homes of its employees. At peak flows, the volume is equivalent to 40 percent of what the city itself uses every day. Balikpapan residents depend on a different watershed across the highway from Sungai Wain.
The Manggar watershed has also been designated a protected forest, but the protection came long after the loggers and farmers arrived. The area has few trees left, apart from a replanted greenbelt around the reservoir. It produces a substantial amount of water, but its quality is impacted by the conflicting uses that surround it. If Balikpapan is looking for more clean water to supply its growing population, it has few options apart from Sungai Wain. In addition to being a source of water, Sungai Wain is a source of wisdom. From it people can learn not only about the interconnected lives of the forest creatures, but also the many threads that link those lives to ours. International researchers are already studying the plants and animals. For example, Sungai Wain is the site of one of the first major studies of Asia’s sun bears. Scientists appreciate both its stunning biodiversity and its easy access to Balikpapan.
That short distance is a bonus for local people, too. A Samarinda-based NGO is planning an environmental education center in the village just outside the reserve. “People are hungry for information,” says Nunuk, who with his wife founded LORIES in 1995. “Information is the missing link between the environment and people.” The education center at Sungai Wain village would be one of only a handful of such centers across the country. With classroom space, an area for exhibitions, an auditorium and access to forest walks, the center would help bridge the gap between the forest and the people. “There are other kinds of lives besides human lives,” explains Nunuk. “It is important for us to understand these other lives and to understand the consequences if they disappear.”
There is a real possibility that those lives might disappear. Despite its status as protected forest, Sungai Wain faces many threats. After the terrible drought of 1997/98, fire swept in from the logging concession on the north side of the reserve. Weeks of round-the-clock fire fighting by local villagers, coordinated by an international researcher, saved the central core of about 4,500 hectares. With the edge of the forest so badly damaged, another severe drought could spark even more devastating fires. It is important that the village fire fighters remain vigilant. In the meantime, the burned forest must be protected and monitored to give it a chance to regenerate. Human interactions with Sungai Wain are not all beneficial. For a distance of about four kilometers the boundary of the reserve follows the main Balikpapan-Samarinda road. Settlers have moved into the reserve here, clearing the forest and cultivating gardens. This encroachment became much worse after the fires, spreading into an area of about 1,000 hectares. The newcomers kill the wildlife, cut the trees and pollute the water.
The Balikpapan city government also has its eyes on the land around Sungai Wain. To carry traffic from south of the city to the Samarinda road, the city is considering a major bypass. The current plan takes the road across the Balikpapan Bay well to the north of the city and then brings it south again through a narrow strip of mangrove between the Bay and the western boundary of the Sungai Wain forest. Such a route would inevitably provide easy access to the reserve for encroachment, similar to that along the Samarinda road. It would also lead to the destruction of the mangrove, now home to many rare plants and animals, including proboscis monkeys and dugongs. Several groups are lobbying government officials to consider less destructive routes for the new road. The loss of other special places around the world has proved nature’s inviolable rule: once gone, they are gone forever. No amount of tree replanting or species reintroduction can ever recreate the delicate balance of a primary rainforest ecosystem. All that is left is a damaged landscape as in so much of the country, where the forests have gone and the people left burdened by regrets and nostalgia. With a strong commitment from the new guardians of the forest — the government and residents of Balikpapan — there is still time to protect the treasures of Sungai Wain. “Sungai Wain is a valuable asset for Balikpapan,” says Nunuk. “People should be proud that they have this resource so near the city.”