Most of Borneo’s lowland forests could be lost within the next decade

Mostof Borneo’s lowland forests could be lost within the next decade

7Jun 2005

published by WWF

Gland, Switzerland – If the current rate of deforestation continues, Borneo – the world’s third largest island – could lose most of its lowland forests in less than ten years, according to a new WWF report.

 This would seriously jeopardize the long-term survival of pygmy elephants and orang-utans, as well as the island’s future economic potential.

 By 2020, the remaining populations of orang-utans may be too small to be genetically viable due to fragmentation of their habitat, WWF says.

 The report Treasure island at risk supports a 2001 World Bank report that predicted all lowland rainforests in Kalimantan – the Indonesian part of Borneo – would disappear by 2010, and predicts an uncertain future for the island’s remaining forests.

 Today, only half of Borneo’s forest cover remains, down from 75 per cent in the mid 1980s.

 With a current deforestation rate of 1.3 million hectares per year – an area equivalent to about one third of the size of Switzerland – only peat and montane forests would survive in the coming years.

 According to the report, forest fires, the conversion of forests to plantations, and rampant logging are driving the destruction of Borneo’s forests.

 “The consequences of this scale of deforestation will not only result in a major loss of species but also disrupt water supplies and reduce future economic opportunities, such as tourism, and subsistence for local communities,” said Dr Chris Elliott, Director of WWF Global Forest Programme.

 The report shows that there are about 2.5 million hectares of oil palm plantation in Borneo, and that is on the increase. It also reveals that, although banned, logging is still frequent in the national parks of Kalimantan.

 WWF aims to assist Borneo’s three nations (Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia) to conserve more than 22 million hectares of rainforest in an area known as the ‘Heart of Borneo’ – a quarter of the island’s land.

 This will help to sustain what is the last large block of forest remaining in the mountainous interior of Borneo and ensure that the forest will provide benefits to the people living in and downstream of this area.

 It is hoped that the adoption of this initiative by all stakeholders will save the island from the ultimate threat of deforestation and increased impacts from droughts and fires.

 A first positive result was achieved with the recent closure of one of the unofficial timber crossing points from Indonesia into Malaysia. This effectively cut off the illegal timber trade flow from Betung Kerihun in Indonesia.

 “It has become clear that without cooperation between Borneo’s three nations, the fate of even the remotest parts of Borneo is uncertain,” said Stuart Chapman, International Coordinator of the Heart of Borneo Initiative. “In the Heart of Borneo we can still achieve conservation on a big scale and win before we are left with small, fragmented forest patches. This opportunity has to be seized and action taken quickly.”

 More than 210 mammals, including 44 which are found nowhere else in the world, live on Borneo. Between 1994 and 2004 at least 361 new species were discovered and new ones are constantly being found.

 For further information:
Stuart Chapman, International Coordinator,
Heart of Borneo Initiative
Tel: + 62 21 576 1070, +62 813 155 00314
Soh Koon Chng, Communications Manager
WWF Global Forest Programme
Tel: +41 22 364 9018
Olivier van Bogaert, Senior Press Officer
WWF International
Tel: +41 22 364 9554 



  Borneo: Treasure Island at Risk – Status of Forest, Wildlife and related Threats on the Island of Borneo

 (published by WWF, June 2005)

 By Mario Rautner, Martin Hardiono and Raymond J. Alfred

WWF Germany, June 2005 


  Borneo, the third largest island on the planet, has until recent decades been a place that has experienced little of the environmental impact that often comes with human resource extraction. Borneo used to be covered nearly completely in forests and inhabited by species in an abundance and diversity very few places in the world could match. Even today there are up to 15,000 different flowering plants in Borneo. The island is also home to a large number of special animal species such as orang-utans, gibbons, clouded leopards, “pygmy” elephants and hornbills. Of more than 210 mammal species, 44 are endemic to Borneo. Between 1994 and 2004 at least 361 new species were discovered and new ones are constantly being found. 

 Humans may have arrived in Borneo more than 45,000 years ago and for tens of thousands of years they lived as hunter-gatherers before taking up swidden agriculture. During the vast majority of the time humans inhabited the island, they lived sustainably from what nature provided. The diverse indigenous people, known in Kalimantan as the Dayak lived in hundreds of tribes across the island. Over 140 languages are still spoken in Kalimantan alone while Sabah has over 50 languages and dialects, and Sarawak over 30. 

 Today Borneo’s nature is in crisis. Its rainforests are disappearing rapidly and illegal trade in wildlife is still a widely spread practice. The forests are used to feed the world’s hunger for timber and other non-timber products, while the land is used to feed the need for vegetable oils, and both forests and land make way for human settlement.

 Despite its ecological importance, Borneo – its territory shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei – is often overlooked when the impact deforestation on ecosystems is considered. Yet it is one of the world’s areas with the highest deforestation rates. The main factors causing this rapid destruction of the forests are: large-scale conversion to plantations, illegal logging, and forest fires. Unlike in many other poorly developed regions, the rural population with its demand for agricultural land and other resources is not the main factor. 

 But having three national and six major provincial governments involved in land management results in just as many differences as regards the assessment of environmental impacts. Rights over land and forests in Kalimantan are yet to be resolved, and in many areas these two basic resources are in practice “open-access” with no legally valid owner; in these circumstances, forest loss can be effectively monitored only by remote sensing. In Malaysia, government administration of land is done mainly by ownership (which is normally very specific and clear) rather than by land cover, and despite the promotion of digital information & communication technology by the government, Malaysia issues land cover data primarily in out-of-date numerical tables, while keeping land cover maps confidential. 

 Ecosystems do not stop at border crossings and administrative boundaries. Being part of three countries with their own regulations, Borneo’s ecosystems are regarded differently in each nation. But it has become clear that the diversity of flora and fauna cannot be sustained if forests are divided into patchwork regions. Conservation requires the maintenance of very large areas of inter-connected forests. Otherwise thousands of species become extinct. In few places has this become as obvious as on Borneo. 

 About half of its natural forests have been lost and losses continue at a worrying pace. Never before has it been so urgent to protect what remains. While deforested land can be restored, species that depend on the diversity of old-growth forests for food and as their habitat cannot be replaced. In order to protect what is remaining and to use forest products in a sustainable way, providing a livelihood for the people living in the area, a new approach needs to be developed urgently. 

 The answer could be what has been named the Heart of Borneo, a cross-boundary area encompassing more than 20 million ha, a quarter of the island’s landmass. The initiative is designed to not only protect large areas of forests but to also provide water and food security as well as to support the cultural survival for the people of central Borneo. It is hoped that the adoption of this initiative by all stakeholders will save the island from the ultimate threat of deforestation and increased impacts from droughts and fires

 In the mid 1980s the forest cover of Borneo was still at 75%. In 2005 only 50% of Borneo remained under forest  cover. Between 1985 and 2005 Borneo lost an average of 850,000 ha of forest every year. If this trend continues, forest cover will drop to less than a third by 2020. 

 The rate of deforestation in Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) is increasing. Between 2000 and 2002 deforestation rose to 1.2 million ha a year. Together with the forest loss in Sabah and Sarawak (the Malaysian part of Borneo) this would amount to a total forest loss of 1.3 million ha a year. This is the equivalent of 148 ha every hour, 2.5 ha a minute. In 2001 the World Bank predicted that all lowland rainforests in Kalimantan (except for peat swamp forests) would disappear by 2010. Current available data and satellite imagery done for this report support the prediction of the World Bank, assuming that the deforestation rate observed for 2000 – 2002 continues unabated. In this case, the disappearance of lowland rainforests can be expected in the year 2012. Calculating with a more conservative long-term average figure (1985 – 2002) for forest loss in Kalimantan, the lowland forest may exist until 2018. The lowland dipterocarp rainforests are the biologically most diverse habitat on Borneo. 

 It can be estimated that currently 55,000 orangutans remain in numerous subpopulations on Borneo. Recent monitoring in Sabah shows that orang-utans are able to adapt to significant changes in their habitat, as over 60% of the Sabah subpopulations occur in commercial forest reserves outside protected areas. A projection of forest loss combined with remaining orang-utan habitats reveals that by 2020 abundance may be limited to only a few completely separated populations. These remaining populations will be too small and fragmented to ensure the long-term survival of the species. While nearly 7% of Borneo’s land is in National and State Parks, illegal logging in these parks is still frequent in Kalimantan. In 14 out of 18 surveyed concessions, loggers illegally expanded their operations into protected areas in 2001 East Kalimantan alone is believed to lose over ¬ 75.5 million a year in business tax revenue due to illegal logging and illegal timber processing. Malaysian Borneo is frequently used as a trade route for illegal timber from  Indonesian Borneo. The conversion of forest to oil palm plantations can be considered one of the biggest threats to the remaining forests on Borneo. In Malaysian Borneo, the average annual growth rate of oil palm areas was nearly 8% between 1998 and 2003 and over 1.6 million ha of oil palms now exist in Sabah and Sarawak. In Kalimantan the area used by palm plantations grew by 11.5 % to nearly a million ha in 2003. During the forest fires of 1997/98 over 6.5 million ha – an area twice the size of Belgium – were affected in Kalimantan. The smoke covered an area of 2,000 by 4,000 kilometres. The vast majority of land destroyed was in lowland forests and agricultural areas. Hundreds if not thousands of orang-utans were killed during the disaster.

 While an unusually strong El-Nino effect in that year also played a role, the fires were mostly manmade. During this period the fires on Borneo contributed significantly to global carbon emissions. 

 Ed.: The full report is available through


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