Saving the Heart of Borneo

Saving the Heart of Borneo

19 February 2007

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Southeast Aisa — Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia have signed apact to preserve what’s left of Borneo’s tropical rainforest. Do they meanit?

On Feb. 12, in an elaborate ceremony in Bali,representatives of the three governments with jurisdiction over the ecologicaljewel that is the island of Borneo signed the “Heart of Borneo” Declaration,promising to conserve one of the most important centers of biological diversityin the world.

Designed to conserve and provide sustainable management foralmost a third of the island ‑ approximately 220,000 square kilometers ofequatorial rainforest – the historic pact represents an unusual although notunprecedented approach. The central African states of Congo, Equatorial Guinea,Cameroon and Gabon in 1999 committed themselves to international administrationof the Congo Basin forests in Africa and there are signs that a joint policy canwork. 

“The goal is to keep the Borneo natural heritage for thebenefit of present and future generations and to fully respect sovereignty overeach other`s territorial borders without prejudice,” Indonesian ForestryMinister MS Kaban said at the ceremony.

But there are questions whether the governments involvedreally are committed to saving the rainforest. The officials who signed the pact‑ Natural Resources and Environment Minister Azmi Khalid of Malaysia,Indonesia’s  Kaban, and Brunei’s Industry and PrimaryResources Minister Awang Ahmad Jumat – represent countries with vastlydifferent needs and agendas despite their common geography.

Only the Sultanate of Brunei, which covers just 7.3 percentof the island’s 743,107 sq km, has shown a full commitment to the preservationof its rainforest. Some 75 percent of Brunei is covered by primary rainforest, apristine environment of whitewater rivers, waterfalls, deep jungle, longhousesand uncounted species of flora and fauna. Of course, It has the luxury to remainthat way because the sultanate is almost exclusively dependent on the sale of200,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

By contrast in Malaysia’s part of Borneo, just five daysbefore the signing of the agreement, police assisted the Malaysian logging giantSamling Group to remove a three-year blockade set up by local indigenous Penantribes in Upper Baram in the state of Sarawak in an attempt to halt logging inone of the country’s last primary forests.

Samling has received certification and logging licensesfrom the Sarawak State Authorities as well as from the Malaysian Timber Council(MTCC). Although the Penan have strongly contested the certification andlicenses at the High Court in Sarawak since 1998, they are no match for thecorporate giants.

“This is an historic occasion which marks new collaboration between our three countries. This will put the Heart of Borneo on the world stage as one of the last great blocks of forest in the world” ‑  MS Kaban, Indonesian Minister of Forestry

Across Malaysia and Indonesia, it is a cruel fact that the lure of profit from aburgeoning bio-diesel industry in the United States and Europe is also drivingthe leveling of increasing amounts of Borneo’s rainforest. In other words, thedrive to ease dependence on fossil fuels in one region is helping to destroyvital forest cover in another region.

Palm oil-related products are driving the creation ofmassive palm oil plantations acquired through large-scale slash and burnpractices. The result is a deep annual haze that blankets parts of Indonesia,Malaysia and Singapore. The open burning of huge swaths of forest is a cheapmeans of clearing land and has been going on for years with especially adverseeffects in the last 10 years.

Since 1996, deforestation across Indonesia alone hasincreased to an average of 2 million hectares per year, devastating an areaabout half the size of the Netherlands. Today only half of Borneo’s storiedoriginal forest cover remains.

ImageThe island is home to 13 species of primates, 150 species of reptiles andamphibians, over 350 species of birds. Borneo also has a cat species unique tothe island, the bay cat, which is considered one of the rarest cats in the worldas well as 15,000 species of plants with 6,000 found nowhere else in the world.It continues to be the source of many new discoveries, with more than 50 newspecies were discovered last year alone.

Dionysius Sharma, the World Wildlife Fund-Malaysia’schief executive officer, is hopeful that the new agreement can help. The threecountries “have come together with a shared vision that will promotesustainable development, protect vital natural resources and reduce poverty andshould be an inspiration to everyone,” he said.

Can the three governments maintain an effective commitmentto the enforcement of security of the Heart of Borneo declaration? According toa United Nations Environment Program report released on Feb. 6 ‑ the daybefore the Penan were ousted from their barricades ‑ the naturalrainforests in Sumatra and Borneo are being cleared so rapidly that up to 98percent may be gone by 2022 unless urgent action begins immediately Illegallogging driven by global demand accounts for an estimated 73 percent-plus of alllogging in Indonesia.

Another report, by the environmental group Mongabay, basedin the United States, points out that consumption of tropical timber by the USand other industrial countries plays a significant role in deforestation. The US, according to Mongabay’s report, consumes 17 percent of theworld’s timber output and is the third largest importer of tropical timberalthough it has less than five percent of the world’s population.

The UNEP’s report concludes that loss of orangutanhabitat is happening at a rate of up to 30 percent higher than previouslythought. Indonesia, the report says, is active in fighting illegal logging andis working with a number of international programs but the assistance of theinternational community is crucial.

H. E. Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia’s environment ministerand the outgoing president of UNEP’s Governing Council, said; “We arecurrently in an unequal struggle over illegal logging, which in the medium tolong-term could be won through certification processes. Such processes can helpglobal consumers choose between sustainably produced wood and palm-oil productsand those produced illegally and unsustainably”.

In 2006 smoke from forest fires in Malaysia and Indonesiaclouded the region during the usual dry season during the month of July toOctober. It was however milder in comparison to the haze that engulfed theregion in 1997 and 1998 when approximately six and a half million hectares ofland were burned in Kalimantan alone, nearly half of which was forest covered.

If the Heart of Borneo agreement works, it may be a reliefto the local population as it seeks to end plans to create the world’s largestpalm oil plantation in Kalimantan, along the border with Malaysia. This plan,which was to be funded and supported by Chinese investment, would have includedapproximately 1.8 million hectares. The environmental degradation from this planhad it come to fruition would have been disastrous for the Heart of Borneo.  Theplan was widely regarded by environmentalists as a ploy to cut millions of cubicmetres of tropical hardwood

The Malaysian state of Sabah and the forests of Borneostill hold huge tracts of natural forests. This is one of only two places –the other being Indonesia’s Sumatra island – where orangutan, elephants andrhinos still co-exist and where forests are large enough to maintain viablepopulations. Yet in 2001 a World Bank report predicted that all of Sumatra’sforest would soon be destroyed outside protected areas.

Borneo could loose most of its lowlands by 2010. Among thefirst casualties of this predicament are the Orangutans who once lived all theway from southern China to the foothills of the Himalayas and south to theisland of Java. Today, they are confined to the rapidly dwindling forests ofSumatra and Borneo.

Just 100 years ago there were probably more than 230,000orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra. In the last 10 years alone their numbers havedeclined by 30-50 percent, and now just over 60,000 survive.

In Indonesia’s Kalimantan province, 10,000 squarekilometers of lowland peat swamp forest were partially cleared in the 1990s forconversion to rice fields. In Sumatra, illegal logging is still rampant.Satellite studies show that some 56 percent (more than 29000 square kilometers)of protected lowland forests in Kalimantan were cut down between 1985 and 2001.Another species moving perilously close to extinction is the rhino of Borneo.There are fewer than 13 left in the interior forests of Sabah, where the mainthreats are poaching – its horn and virtually all of its body parts arevaluable on the black market for Chinese medicine – and loss of its forestedhabitat.

Without the maintenance of very large blocks ofinterconnected forest, there is a clear risk that hundreds of species couldbecome extinct. Large mammals such as orangutans, elephants, Borneo rhinos andothers are particularly at risk because of the vast areas they require tosurvive. Other smaller species, especially small mammals may not be able tore-colonize isolated patches of suitable habitat and thus will become locallyextinct. Road construction through Protected Areas leads to further separationof habitat ranges and provides easy access for poachers to some of the moreremote and diverse tracts of remaining virgin forest.

The problem is further exacerbated because the majority ofBorneo’s rivers are also threatened by deforestation and destruction of theenvironment. The rivers originate in the island’s the uplands and are crucialto maintaining water supply and mitigating the effect of fires and droughts.They function as an ecological support system for the lowlands. These watershedsface being lost forever to the world.

Can we trust Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei to preservewhat’s left of Borneo’s beauty and its ecological importance to our very ownsurvival? That remains to be seen.  

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