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Law enforcement key to saving Borneo’s rainforests

Law enforcement key to saving Borneo’s rainforests

Law enforcement key to saving Borneo’s rainforests

An interview with Borneo scientist Rhett Harrison
Rhett A. Butler,
November 13, 2007

Borneo, the third largest island in the world, was once clothed with dense tropical rainforests. With swampy coastal areas fringed with mangrove forests and a mountainous interior, much of the terrain was virtually impassable and unexplored. Headhunters ruled the remote parts of the island until a century ago.

In the 1980s and 1990s Borneo underwent a remarkable transition. Its forests were leveled at a rate unparallel in human history. Borneo’s rainforests went to industrialized countries like Japan and the United States in the form of garden furniture, paper pulp and chopsticks. Initially most of the timber was taken from the Malaysian part of the island in the northern states of Sabah and Sarawak. Later forests in the southern part of Borneo, an area belonging to Indonesia and known as Kalimantan, became the primary source for tropical timber.

Click to enlarge
. Courtesy of WWF

Though destruction was extensive on parts of the island, Borneo still harbors large areas of primary forests–many of which are officially protected–and enormous areas of logged-over forests that, given time, could recover and even today are important habitats for many species. But a new threat is fast-rising: industrial oil palm plantations

The threat from oil palm is driven by its status as the world’s most productive oil seed. A single hectare of oil palm may yield 5,000 kilograms of crude oil, or nearly 6,000 liters of crude, making the crop remarkably profitable when grown in large plantations, with net present values exceeding $4500 per hectare in some areas. As such, vast swathes of land are being converted for oil palm plantations. Oil palm cultivation has expanded in Indonesia from 600,000 hectares in 1985 to more than 6 million hectares by early 2007, and with prices surging toward $1000 per metric ton, is expected to reach 10 million hectares by 2010.

While environmentalists have been increasingly vocal about the conversion of natural forests for oil palm plantations, the market is driving the trend. At the same time, the palm oil industry has launched an aggressive marketing campaign that attempts to portray palm oil as a “green” solution to global warming. While palm oil can be produced in ways that make it carbon-neutral and minimize its impact on the environment, in the current rush few firms live up to the claims of their media materials. A recent investigation by Greenpeace supports the argument that the industry is not as accountable as it leads the public to believe. Greenpeace specifically noted that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil appears to be failing to live of to its lofty standards of environmentally-friendly palm oil.

Palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, 1964-2006

Nevertheless, there are signs of hope for conservation in Borneo. In February 2007, the governments of Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia agreed to a WWF-led initiative to protect roughly 220,000 square kilometers (85,000 square miles) of upland tropical forest in the so-called “Heart of Borneo”, while this coming December, policymakers will meet in Bali to discuss an “avoided deforestation” framework that could see hundreds of millions of dollars in the form of carbon credits go towards forest conservation on the island. Still, despite the good news, conservation in Borneo faces some serious challenges

In May, the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) — a group of 1500 scientists in over 70 countries — praised the “Heart of Borneo” plan but warned that it alone would not protect the bulk of the Borneo’s biodiversity found in its lowland forests. Further, the lack of a legal framework on avoided deforestation means that prices for carbon offsets through forest conservation are presently too low to attract much interest from investors. As long as the offset market is voluntary, avoided deforestation projects will struggle to compete with the likes of oil palm plantations.

Any forest protection initiative in Borneo is also overshadowed by the caveat that protected areas have not faired well on the island — especially the Indonesian territory of Kalimantan — over the past decade. A 2004 study published in Conservation Biology showed that between 1997 and 2002 nearly 79 percent of forest loss took place within the boundaries of designated or proposed protected areas.

Rhett Harrison teaching an international field biology course sponsored by the Center for Tropical Forest Science in Thailand

In an interview with, Dr. Rhett Harrison, a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) associate researcher and Secretary for the Asia-Pacific Chapter of ATBC, says that law enforcement could be the key to safeguarding biodiversity contained in Borneo’s lowland parks.

“Simply investing in protecting the existing protected area system and enforcing wildlife protection laws would achieve far more [than “Heart of Borneo],” he said. “If the current protected area systems were actually protected things wouldn’t be so bad. However, throughout Borneo hunting and wildlife collecting are rampant (both inside and outside protected areas), and in parts of Kalimantan (Indonesia) you even have logging in some parks.”

Harrison, who is helping organize the 2008 ATBC-Asia-Pacific Chapter meeting in Kuching on sustainable land use, further states that there may be opportunities for conservationists to work with oil palm to developers to ensure that existing forests are not converted for plantations and that palm oil can be produced in a sustainable manner. He adds that carbon offsets may eventually offer a means to fund conservation and sustainable development efforts in areas that still have standing forest.


Mongabay: What is the focus of your research?

Harrison: Since I starting working on my masters degree in Borneo back in 1994, my research has focused on the interactions between plants and animals, especially insects, and the stability of these interactions in the face of environmental change, such as forest fragmentation and climate change. Mostly I focus on pollination systems and my pet topic has always been figs.

Mongabay: Why are figs important to tropical forest ecology?

Stranlger fig roots. By Rhett Harrison

Harrison: For many reasons really. They are important for conservation because figs produce large quantities of easily digestible fruit at all times of the year – when other more seasonal fruit are scarce figs are often the only fruits available to sustain populations of fruit eating birds and mammals. Figs are also very diverse. In fact throughout the tropics they are commonly them most species-rich group of plants in any particular forest. And finally, in tropical Asia it has been shown that they are almost essential for the recovery of natural vegetation in disturbed landscapes, because they colonise quickly and their fruits attract seed dispersers, and therefore the seeds of other plants.

But figs are also interesting and important as a model system for studying co-evolution.

Mongabay: Wasps have an interesting relationship with figs, can you elaborate on this?

Emerging fig wasps. By Rhett Harrison.

Harrison: What we normally think of as the fig fruit is in fact an inflorescence, that is a plant structure that bears many small flowers. Figs have a unique closed inflorescence, with the flowers lining the inside of this urn-like structure. The fig can therefore only be pollinated by tiny, highly specific wasps, known as fig wasps, that can push their way through the neck of the urn to reach the flowers inside. However, the wasps do not just pollinate but also lay their eggs in some of the flowers. The fig and its pollinator therefore have an obligate mutualism, as neither partner can reproduce without the other. A few weeks later when the wasp larvae have matured, they emerge from their galls and mate inside the fig. The female wasps then collect pollen from the fig’s male flowers, which ripen at this time. Simultaneously, the male wasps, which are wingless, cut a tunnel through the wall of the fig to allow the female wasps to escape. When the males emerge on to the surface of the fig, they are often attacked by ants, but by pouring over the surface of the fig and distracting the attentions of the ants, they help the female wasps to escape. As the wasps have already mated, it is easy to understand that the male wasps should be selected to sacrifice their lives in order to protect their genetic investment in the sperm that the female wasps are carrying. Female wasps only have from a few hours to one or two days to live, depending on the species, and fly off in search of a fig with receptive inflorescences to lay their eggs, and begin the cycle anew.

Mongabay: How did you get interested in this area of work?

Harrison: As an undergraduate I was involved with various volunteer conservation groups and in my second year led an expedition to a remote part of the Peruvian Amazon. After that I was hooked.

Mongabay: Do you have any advice for aspiring tropical biologists?

Harrison: Try and visit the tropics – especially if you can volunteer to work with existing projects or do as I did and organise an undergraduate expedition. Apart from the practice, it is good to get the experience of living and working in the tropics before you commit to doing a postgraduate study.

Mongabay: Recent trends in Borneo are discouraging. What are the biggest threats to the forests in coming years?

Smoke from agricultural and forest fires burning on Sumatra (left) and Borneo (right) in late September and early October 2006 blanketed a wide region with smoke that interrupted air and highway travel and pushed air quality to unhealthy levels. This image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite on October 1, 2006, shows places where MODIS detected actively burning fires marked in red. Smoke spreads in a gray-white pall to the north. NASA image created by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, using data provided courtesy of the MODIS Rapid Response team.

Harrison: The biggest threats are always, regardless of where you are, deforestation, fire, hunting, and the wildlife trade. The question should be, what is the biggest problem? The biggest problem is enforcement or rather the lack of enforcement. If the current protected area systems were actually protected things wouldn’t be so bad. However, throughout Borneo hunting and wildlife collecting are rampant (both inside and outside protected areas), and in parts of Kalimantan (Indonesia) you even have logging in some parks.

Mongabay: The Heart of Borneo initiative pushed by WWF has received a lot of attention but some question whether it will be effective. What do you think of the plan? Where does it fall short? Will it be enough to protect Borneo’s biodiversity?

Forest clearing near Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan. Courtesy of Google Earth. Click to enlarge.

Harrison: My personal opinion is that the Heart-of-Borneo project is mostly a publicity stunt by WWF. As a strategy to protect Borneo’s biodiversity it falls way short of what’s needed and is in fact diverting attention away from where it should be focused.

The problems with it are various. First, it does not address the main problem – enforcement. Simply investing in protecting the existing protected area system and enforcing wildlife protection laws would achieve far more. Second, the focus is on the upland forests in the interior of Borneo, where there already are several very large protected areas. It is the lowland forests that are most threatened and it is the lowland forests that have the highest biodiversity.

Fortunately, the definition of the project is quite vague and therefore there is a reasonable opportunity for WWF and the signatory countries to improve the scope of the project by, for example, including more lowland areas and focusing on enforcement. WWF should be congratulated for getting the Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei to commit to such a large scale conservation project, but a better thought out strategy for conservation in Borneo is required.

Mongabay: The Heart of Borneo conservation area is limited to the central part of Borneo. What about other protected areas on the island? What is the best way to safeguard these as well as maintaining biodiversity in human-altered landscapes?

Harrison: Enforcement, enforcement, enforcement.

Mongabay: A lot of Borneo today is covered with degraded lands. What are the prospects for large-scale reforestation or establishment of plantations on heavily damaged lands?

Harrison: They could be good. There is a great opportunity to use, for example, carbon offsets to pay for re-forestation. I would be especially interested in tying it to creating buffer zones and corridors connecting protected areas.

Unfortunately, most of the investment in plantations is in fast growing exotic species or Oil Palm, both of which are a disaster for biodiversity.

Mongabay: If oil palm isn’t the answer, what are better alternatives for rural populations in Borneo?

Oil palm plantations in Sarawak. Courtesy of Google Earth. Click to enlarge.

Harrison: There are some partnerships starting between Oil Palm companies and conservation NGOs, where land is set aside both inside the plantations and as protected areas, and local population is employed. These are a promising development. Again using carbon offsets, community forests could be an attractive option for achieving both rural development and conservation.

Mongabay: What can the general public do at home to help?

Harrison: Well obviously stay informed of the issues, and use your consumer power to effect change. For example, avoid products with palm oil until the Oil Palm industry decides on an acceptable certification scheme for eco-friendly palm oil.

If you are a member of WWF, then please demand that WWF conduct a proper eco-regional conservation assessment before proceeding further with the Heart-of-Borneo project.

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