The forests of Borneo are rapidly disappearing and degrading. A few decades ago, Borneo Island was still covered by a green carpet of lush rainforest. Today, these forests have become a patchwork and are damaged due to extensive logging or have been transformed into palm oil plantations. The previously extensive lowland rainforests (which are the most biologically diverse) can nowadays only be seen in isolated protected areas. In the mountainous centre of Borneo Island, vast stretches of forest can still be found. Here, the Heart of Borneo initiative intends to conserve the forest cover on a large scale, to maintain its ecological function and retain its value for Borneo and the world.
Although Brunei Darussalam is small, it is unique in the region in that about 75 % of its area remains under forest cover, a majority of that still in pristine condition.The situation in Brunei Darussalam is special because the wealth generated from its petroleum reserves has limited the need to exploit other forms of resources, such as palm oil plantations. As the need for land and income increases in countries around Brunei, pristine rainforests are disappearing rapidly, making Brunei Darussalam more special every day. But even in Brunei, today’s pressures of development and logging are threatening this unique situation. Only 17% of Brunei is formally Protected Area (National Park or Protection / Conservation forest). Brunei has the opportunity to extend the protected areas and save large stretches of forest from future logging. Without further protection, all but this 17% of Brunei could be logged by the year 2045.
Several experiences triggered me to investigate forest cover in Borneo and Brunei and to write this article:
1.Flying by small plane over the interior of Sabah and Sarawak, I saw only large expanses of palm oil plantations and logged forests, all the way to the central highlands bordering Kalimantan. How fast did this happen? What is the future?
2.In my recent visit to Danum Valley Research Centre, Dr. Glen Reynolds stated that “The fight for Protected Areas is over”. This was initially surprising to me but then Glen clarified it convincingly.
3. Various recent promotional articles created the impression that more than 70% of Brunei’s land area is covered by primary forests which have been reserved for conservation. However, as I travel through Brunei, I do get a very different impression.
To get to the bottom of what was happening, I started researching forest cover literature on the web.
Borneo forest cover loss
There are various definitions of forest cover. I have used definitions from the FAO Forest Resource Assessments (App. 2) in which forests cover includes both disturbed forests (degraded, exploited, or logged) and primary forests (virgin). Forest Reserves are areas designated to keep permanently under forest cover, whether for conservation (Protected Area) or timber production purposes (Production forests).
Borneo, the third largest island on the planet, used to be covered nearly completely with forests. But these forests are disappearing quickly. Never before has it been so urgent to protect what remains. Despite the difficulties in obtaining reliable data to assess the forest cover of Borneo, it is clear that deforestation has been continuing at a high rate over the last thirty years. The impact of this trend is irreversible in terms of the effects on forest ecosystems, biodiversity, and remaining value of the forests. The numbers and figures presented in this section are taken from the 2005 WWF publication “Borneo: Treasure Island at Risk” (ref. 1).
In the mid 1980s forests still covered nearly 75% of the island. Now less than 50% of Borneo is forested. 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 (fig. 2). And most of this remaining third will comprise of production forests that are commercially selectively logged once or twice, i.e., degraded forests. The worst affected are the coastal and lowland rainforests, the most biologically diverse of all. Very few areas of these remain.
Rapid deforestation started with the introduction of the chainsaw and the caterpillar in the 1950s. With these, roads were constructed very fast on almost any kind of terrain. Massive trees were felled in a matter of minutes. This was the beginning of an era where virtually no place on Borneo was off limits for logging and development. Since then, the maze of logging roads has changed the face of Borneo. Roads allow for logging, settlers, and hunters. Agriculture spreads to previously inaccessible areas. Nearly all of Sarawak and Sabah is covered by (logging) roads reaching close to the protected areas (fig. 3). Currently, five major interlinked factors pose a further threat to the remaining Borneo’s forests; infrastructural development, conversion to oil palm, logging, bad forest management, and forest fires.
The conversion of forest to oil palm plantations is clearly the biggest threat to the remaining forests on Borneo. In Sabah, the average annual growth rate of oil palm areas was around 16% between 1994 and 2004 reaching to over 1.1 million ha (17% of land area) of oil palms plantations in 2004 (ref. 1). The governments of Malaysia and Indonesia actively encourage oil palm. More than 50% of the oil palm growth occurred at the expense of forests. Conver-sion of primary or secondary (logged) forests to oil palm results in significant higher biodiversity losses than the conversion of pre-existing cropland or degraded habitats to oil palm.
Normally, a tropical rainforest will not easily burn due to its dampness. But degraded forests are much more sensitive to forest fires than primary forests. 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 reached as far as Singapore. The majority of land destroyed was lowland peat forests and agricultural areas. The fires were mostly man made. During this period, the fires on Borneo contributed significantly to global carbon emissions. Peat land degradation and dewatering continue to add large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere.
Although logging and conversion to plantations had a devastating impact, there are a number of beautiful National Parks and conservation areas which are protected (fig. 3,4). They cover nearly 10% of the total Borneo area (9% of Kalimantan, 8% of Sarawak, 14% of Sabah, and 17% of Brunei). These are official numbers (ref. 1), but on Borneo, illegal logging, agricultural encroachment, conversion to plantations, and illegal wildlife trade often do not stop at the borders of protected areas. The protected areas are widely spaced and often isolated (see fig. 3).Two UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites are found on Borneo: Kinabalu and Gunung Mulu both located within the Malaysian part of the island. In addition, Danum Valley and Maliau Basin in Sabah are currently proposed as UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites.
The Heart of Borneo Initiative
Forests need to be connected on a large enough scale to protect what is remaining in a sustainable way, to be permanently viable. In SE Asia, there is only one place where this is possible; the highlands of central Borneo which reach out through the foothills into adjacent lowlands of Brunei. The Heart of Borneo (HoB) initiative is to save this central part of the island from the ultimate threat of deforestation and increased impacts from droughts and fires. The three governments of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia are working together to develop opportunities to achieve the economic sustainability that is essential to ensure the success of their united commitment to the Heart of Borneo’s ‘Three Countries, One Conservation Vision’.
Unlike other national parks and conservation areas, where logging and other activities are restricted by law, the Heart of Borneo is essentially a voluntary protection zone, in which government and NGO’s have formally pledged to work together to better manage the area with the view to keep it as a forested landscape. Thus the HoB boundary defines a zone that can be managed as forested landscape and includes forests ranging from pristine to degraded, with production forests, plantation areas, and settlements.
The fight for Protected Areas is over, what is next?
I met Dr. Glen Reynolds when I was in Danum Valley to provide Business skills training for UNESCO Natural Heritage Sites. Glen is the director of the Royal Society's South East Asia Rainforest Research Program (SEARRP), a program supported by Shell and HSBC. His statement “The fight for Protected Areas is over” initially shocked me, but he explained "all of the big areas of primary lowland forest that can be conserved already have been”, i.e. everything outside the protected areas is already logged (see fig. 3). This looks absolutely true for Sarawak & Sabah, and to a reasonable extent for Kalimantan, but it is certainly not (yet) valid for Brunei. He continued, “The focus is now on maintaining rainforest ecosystem and biodiversity in degraded and fragmented forests. What you've got to do is convince people that what we think of as degraded forests can sustain biodiversity if we manage them well."
The problem is that conventional selective logging severely damages the surrounding forest, the primary forest assemblage, and the forest ecosystem. The damage can be tremendously reduced by adopting well-implemented Reduced-Impact Logging (RIL) practices (ref. 8). RIL has clearly defined stringent guidelines like directional tree felling and limited access roads (ref. 9). The biggest drawback to these harvesting methods is the greater management expense (planning) and reduced income (fewer trees removed). Research from SEARRP concludes that RIL logging, compared to conventional selective logging, has limited the direct impact on biodiversity: few species appear quite sensitive, some benefit, some decline. So, proper planning and logging procedures can limit the damage. But what you can't do is convert the forest to monoculture plantations, such as oil palm. Then you lose nearly all biodiversity.
Many people may think that the major conservation goal in Borneo is to set aside vast tracts of untouched forest for conservation, but for those dealing with day-to-day reality, compromise is the only realistic alternative. To protect Borneo's forests will require adopting new models of conservation. Payment for environmental services of the forests will tip the balance away from clear-cutting and palm plantations. In the end, the best hope for Borneo's future may rest not on the emotional appeal of an orangutan's face, but on the hard facts of climate change.
In a world awakened to the dangers of climate change, Borneo has gained global attention for its forests. Deforestation and forest degradation have long been known to cause large carbon emissions. New and shocking information (ref. 10) reports on the huge greenhouse gas emissions from recently degraded peat-lands. Peat swamp forests cover over 10 % of Borneo Island. Here, trees grow on organic soil built from centuries of accumulated waterlogged plant material. Reaching a depth of over 10 m, peat soil represents a massive store of the world's carbon. Stripped of its trees and drained, tropical peat decays and releases most of its carbon into the atmosphere. As it dries, it becomes extremely susceptible to burning.
In past decades, the Borneo’s forests have become a large net emitter of greenhouse gasses. This is where the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) initiative offers the possibility for rich nations to combat climate change by paying for the preservation of tropical rain forest (ref. 2). Why do people cut down trees or replace forests by palm oil plantations? For the money! Clearing forests may enrich those who are doing it, but over the long run it impoverishes the planet. The answer is to give people the opportunity to make the same amount of money by leaving the trees standing. The significance of REDD is that tropical deforestation and forest degradation together are estimated the second biggest emission source in the global carbon budget after burning fossil fuels (around 15 %, ref. 14).
The three governments acknowledge that protecting the forest ecosystems in the HoB makes economic and social sense (ref. 11). The forests provide many ecosystem services such as carbon storage (REDD), regulation of water flow (watershed services e.g. prevent natural disasters such as landslides and floods), genetic resources for medicines (bio-prospecting), and eco-tourism making the retention of forests valuable and sustainable in the long term. In addition, losing the rainforest would mean losing biodiversity.
In the end, conservation in Borneo is not only about the beauty of the rain forest, or about orangutans, or oil palm. If we want to protect the forests of Borneo, we need to implement ways that offers the inhabitants of Borneo a better future without having to turn their forests into plantations of oil palm. And we need to do it while there's still something left to protect.
Will Brunei remain an island of pristine forest in Borneo by 2045?
Brunei Darussalam stands out in this discussion. As Brunei Forestry Department (ref. 12) states; “Brunei still has 76 per cent of forest cover” and "Brunei has world-class tropical rain forests, the majority still in pristine condition and protected by legislation. Technically, all forests in Brunei are under protection condition.” Recent promotional articles (ref. 13) even state that “more than 70% of Brunei’s land area is covered by primary forests” and that “70% of Brunei has been reserved for conservation”.
However, a map (fig. 5) derived from the Brunei Development Plan (ref. 5, 6) shows large areas designated for logging (yellow= Production Forest /sustainable forestry) and only few relatively small Protected Areas (green).
Naturally the questions arise; how much of Brunei land area has still primary forest cover and how much is really Protected Area?
The authority on forest cover, the FAO Brunei Forest Resource Assessment report (FRA, ref. 3) prepared by the Forestry Department estimates for 2010 a 75 % forest cover of Brunei split in 46% primary or relatively undisturbed forest and 29% disturbed forest. These numbers are effectively estimates based on linear extrapolation of two forest resources studies with reference dates 1979 and 1996. A new survey would thus be timely as normal forestry practice would assess the forests every 10 years. Nowadays, mapping can be efficiently done with remote sensing techniques validated by ground truthing. The Brunei FRA 2010report concludes like other listed sources (ref. 4,7) that 17% of Brunei is Protected Area and 38% is Production forest bringing the Forest Reserves area to 55% of Brunei (see app. 2 for forest definitions). The above mentioned promotional articles (ref. 13) are clearly wrong.
On the way forward, Brunei forests face many challenges as the country further develops its economy and infrastructure.However, the country has pledged, via its participation in the Heart of Borneo initiative, a clear commitment to preserve substantial tracts of its forests and its biodiversity. A “Reduced Cut policy” has been implemented by the Forestry Department as early as in 1990, which limits the annual timber extraction to 100,000 m3 per year. Under this policy, it is estimated that all the remaining production forest reserves will be disturbed by logging around 2045 (ref. 5). Therefore Brunei runs the risk that within a 35 year time span, only the 17% Protected Areas will remain as relatively undisturbed forests with a biodiversity and forest assemblage representative of primary forest. The use of well-implemented Reduced- Impact Logging techniques will help limit damage to these forests.
The proposed Ulu Mendaram and Bukit Teraja Protected Area extensions (fig. 7) are key areas to get official protection status as they have high biodiversity value and great eco-tourism potential. Several new species and endemics have been described from the area. The small Teraja basin contains 11 waterfalls and has many trekking opportunities (fig. 8).These extensions would provide connectivity between the existing Protected Areas of Ulu Mendaram and Bukit Teraja resulting in one large connected virgin rainforest with habitats varying from Peat swamp to Mixed Dipterocarp forest. Brunei has the opportunity to conserve these and other proposed Protected Areas and raise the protected (virgin) forests to above 20% of Brunei area which would place Brunei well ahead of all its neighbors.
Many damages caused by building roads, dams, houses, farms, and by logging, have been reported in the Brunei HoB area. Whilst technically all forest may be protected (meaning the area will stay under forest cover), the majority of these will be sustainably logged, which will damage the forest and open it up to development pressures. Even though there are specific logging techniques that can, to a certain extent, maintain the native biodiversity, these forests have undergone some level of disturbance.While other countries have no other choice than managing their disturbed forest, Brunei has still the opportunity to preserve large stretches of undisturbed virgin forests for future generations.Extending the Protected Area system could place Brunei as a top ecotourism destiny and help ensure added value through water system protection, bio-prospecting, and carbon storage.
1.Borneo forest loss and degradation is ongoing but the HoB initiative proposes ways to protect and cash on the economic value of the remaining forests (through REDD carbon credits, bioprospecting, ecotourism).
2.While the struggle for more Protected Areas may be over in most of Borneo because everything that could be is already logged, it is not yet the case in Brunei!
3.A large amount of Brunei’s forest reserve area is designated for logging and most of Brunei could be degraded logged forest by 2045. Use of Reduced-Impact Logging techniques will help limit the damage.
4.In spite of suggestions in some media that 70% of Brunei is virgin forest set aside for conservation, the Brunei forest assessment 2010 estimates less than 50% virgin forest and concludes 17% Protected Area.
5.If Brunei takes the opportunity to preserve now its proposed Protected Area extensions, it will raise the total Protected Area to above 20%, which will place the country well ahead of its neighbors.
14.Options to maximize the benefits of REDD+ in Sabah, Kanehiro Kitayama et al, November 2010
Appendix 2.Forest definitions used in FRA 2010 as per FAO guidelines (ref. 3)
Forest cover is the summation of all land areas spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent. Forest cover includes both Primary forests and Disturbed forests.
Primary Forests: Undisturbed (virgin, pristine) forests or forests slightly disturbed by unnoticeable disturbances that do not cause change in forest ecosystem.
Disturbed Forests: Degraded, damaged, secondary, exploited, or logged-over forests with noticeable changes in terms of composition, structure, ecosystem etc..
Forest Reserves are designated areas to keep permanently under forest cover, whether for conservation (Protected Area) or timber production purposes (Production forests).
Protected Area: Forest conserved for the maintenance of essential climatic, watershed, biodiversity or other environmental factors (Forest Class; Protection, Conservation, National Park). These areas cannot be logged.
Production forests: Forest which can be logged (sustainably) to supply timber and other products.
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