Photograph by Mattias Klum National Geographic November 2008
Borneo is the third largest island in the world, bordered by the South China, Sulu, Celebes, and Java Seas. Nearly three-quarters of the island is taken up by the Indonesian provinces of East, West, Central, and South Kalimantan. The vast majority of the remainder of Borneo is occupied by the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, with Brunei making up less than one percent.
The island features spectacular rain forests that are home to more than 15,000 known species of plants and animals, such as orangutans, flying squirrels, pygmy elephants, and hornbills. But Borneo's biodiversity faces an increasingly uncertain future as the natural resources that have long brought people to the island—timber, oil, natural gas, coal, gold, spices, and rubber—are harvested and exported to satisfy growing global demand.
Only half of Borneo remains forested, due to extensive logging that accelerated in the 1970s and the more recent spread of commercial crops such as oil palm. Fires have also contributed substantially to forest loss. Set to clear land for agriculture, they have often spiraled out of control and burned neighboring forests. Tropical rain forests usually can resist fire because of their high moisture content. However, in recent decades Southeast Asia has frequently had El Niño years, which have brought droughts to the region. Soils in logged forests are also drier because they're more exposed to sun and wind, and logging often leaves behind highly flammable tree litter. All of which has led to major fires that have claimed millions of acres of forest and other land cover during drought years (1982-83, 1991, 1994, 1997-98, 2002, 2006). The largest of these fires occurred in 1997-98, when 16 million acres burned in Indonesian Borneo alone, roughly half of which was forested area.
Removing forests not only puts flora and fauna at risk by reducing their habitat, but also contributes to long-term environmental problems such as climate change. Indonesia is the third largest carbon emitter in the world,. behind China and the United States, but its emissions, unlike those of these industrial giants, are mainly the result of land-use change and deforestation.
The future of Borneo's forests will depend on how the concerns of a wide array of stakeholders with often competing interests are addressed. Consumers in importing countries who seek exotic hardwood furniture, plywood, and palm oil (used in cosmetics, food, detergents, et cetera) put pressure on the forests. Timber and oil palm companies clear forests to supply these products. Small farmers compete with large companies for access to land. Conservationists push to leave large swaths of land untouched or to limit how they're used, hoping to protect Borneo's flora and fauna as well as its water and air quality. Since prime land is valuable and finite, access is restricted, and government at all levels, including the police and the military, is involved in providing that access (by issuing permits, enforcing permit boundaries and regulations on resource extraction, granting tax breaks and other financial incentives). Corruption and illegal logging happen because demand outweighs the legally available supply of timber products. Any program that seeks to remedy the devastating forest loss in Borneo needs to look for ways to sustain the environment while still allowing people, companies, and governments to make money and provide the world with resources.
Local, national, and international parties working to preserve Borneo's natural resources understand and are aware of the urgency and complexity of the situation. Good governance is a necessary first step, though it doesn't come easily, requiring commitments to transparency, public accountability, participatory processes, and dealing in good faith, along with an ongoing fight against corruption.. One program that may help change deforestation rates and carbon emissions as well as lead to better governance is known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). It's a program of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the parent treaty of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to stabilize global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Under REDD, countries that reduce their GHG emissions through improved forest protection, and sustainable-production plans would be eligible to receive benefits: Essentially, countries could earn money for preserving their forests instead of cutting them down.
Other programs focus on the unique problems faced by an island owned by three countries. Forestry and land-use law and practices vary from country to country. Logging and mining restrictions can often be sidestepped by crossing a border. Many conservationists have called for transnational management of the island's natural resources, especially since forests and creatures like monkeys and elephants don't adhere to human-delineated borders. One such project is the WWF's Heart of Borneo conservation plan, which has persuaded the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei to help preserve 85,000 square miles of connected forested areas on Borneo.
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There are 40,000 to 50,000 endangered Bornean orangutans,_Pongo pygmaeus_, on the island today. The population has declined more than 50 percent over the past 50 years due to habitat loss, hunting, and forest fires. In recent decades fires set to clear land for plantations and small farms have often raged out of control and swept into neighboring areas, killing hundreds of the great apes and destroying habitat of those who survive. Rescue and rehabilitation centers have been inundated with refugees from these fires and from the illegal animal trade. Agricultural plantations, such as oil palm, are one of the greatest threats to orangutans, because they completely remove forest habitat. On the other hand, orangutans are often found in degraded lowland forests and peat forests, and scientists are trying to determine if selectively logged areas could sustain orangutan populations in the long term.
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