By Rhett A. Butler [Last update June 29, 2020]
Facts on Borneo
Land Areas: 743,330 square kilometers (287,000 square miles, 74.33 million hectares, or 183.68 million acres)
Human Population: 17.7 million, of which 17% or 2.2 million is indigenous Dayak
- Malaysia (states of Sabah and Sarawak) (26.7%)
- Brunei (Sultanate) (0.6%)
- Indonesia (Kalimantan - West, Central, South, and East) (72.6%)
An overview on Borneo
Borneo, the third largest island in the world, was once covered with dense 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 unparalleled 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. Today the forests of Borneo are but a shadow of those of legend and those that remain are rapidly being converted to industrial oil palm and timber plantations.
Oil palm is the most productive oil seed in the world. 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. 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 8.6 million hectares by 2015, according to U.N. FAOSTAT.
Borneo, especially Kalimantan, has also been heavily affect by peat fires set for land-clearing purposes. Millions of hectares of peat, scrub, degraded forest, and rainforest have gone up in flames over the past 30 years.
Borneo is the third largest island in the world, covering an area of 743,330 square kilometers (287,000 square miles), or a little more than the twice the size of Germany. Politically, the island is divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Indonesian Borneo is known as Kalimantan, while Malaysian Borneo is known as East Malaysia. The name Borneo itself is a Western reference first used by the Dutch during their colonial rule of the island.
Geographically the island is divided by central highlands that run diagonally from Sabah state (Malaysia) in northeastern Borneo to southwestern Borneo, roughly forming the border between West and Central Kalimantan (Indonesia). The range is not volcanic — the whole of Borneo has only a single extinct volcano — but does feature the highest mountain in Southeast Asia: Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, which reaches 4,095 meters (13,435 feet).
Borneo's forests are some of the most biodiverse on the planet, home to more than 230 species of mammals (44 of which are endemic), 420 resident birds (37 endemic), 100 amphibians, 394 fish (19 endemic), and 15,000 plants (6,000 endemic). Surveys have found more than 700 species of trees in a 10 hectare plot — a number equal to the total number of trees in Canada and the United States combined.
Several distinct ecosystems are found across Borneo. These are reviewed in WWF's "Borneo: Treasure Island at Risk" report (2005).
Mangroves are found in estuaries and coastal regions. These are estimated to cover around 1 million hectares in Borneo, a small fraction of their original extent due to conversion for agriculture.
Peat Swamp Forests
Peat swamp forests are the dominant form of remaining lowland forest in Borneo today. These swamp forests appear in places where dead vegetation becomes waterlogged and, too wet to decompose, accumulates as peat.
Tropical peatlands, which form over hundreds of years, are giant stores of carbon. Draining and/or burning these areas releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Drained peatlands are also highly susceptible to combustion. Under dry el Niño conditions, which affect Southeast Asia periodically, thousands of fires can burn across Kalimantan, causing large-scale air pollution known regionally as "haze".
Fires in peat swamps are difficult to extinguish because they can burn below ground virtually undetected.
Montane forests are generally found at an elevation from 900 meters to 3300 meters in Borneo. Trees in these forests are typically shorter than those of lowland forest, resulting in a less-developed forest canopy. Langner and Siegert (2005) estimate that in 2002 about 70 percent (1.6 million ha) of Borneo's original montane forests (2.27 million hectares) remained.
Cloud forests are a type of montane forests.
Heath or kerangas forest are found on well-drained, sandy soils that are extremely nutrient-poor ("kerangas" is the indigenous Iban word for "land that will not grow rice"). These forests are characterized by certain tree species tolerant of the poor, acidic soil conditions and are considerably "stunted" in comparison with typical rainforests. Heath forests are also less biodiverse the other tropical plant communities. MacKinnon et al. (1997) estimate that Borneo was once covered with by 6,688,200 hectares of heath forests. Today this area is so diminished the World Bank estimates that almost no heath forests will remain in Borneo by 2010.
Lowland Dipterocarp forests are the most biodiverse and most threatened forests in Borneo. These giant trees, often exceeding 45 meters in height, are the most valuable source of timber in Borneo and have been heavily logged since the 1970s. Langner and Siegert (2005) estimated that just under 30 million hectares of lowland Dipterocarp forest remained in Borneo in 2002.
The prevalence of Dipterocarps gives Borneo's forests an unusual dynamic that is tightly linked with the ocean-atmosphere phenomenon called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (also known as ENSO or "El Niño"). According to biologist Lisa Curran, Dipterocarp reproduction is inextricably tied to the arrival of El Niño, with 80-93% of species synchronizing their flowering to the onset of the dry weather conditions, which traditionally occur on a roughly 4 year basis. During a "Dipterocarp year" in Kalimantan, the canopy bursts into color as countless emergent Dipterocarp trees — each of which may have 4 million flowers — bloom during a six-week period, a strategy that intermittently starves and swamps seed predators so that at least some seeds survive to germination.
The mass blooming and subsequent fruiting — which has been known to synchronize over an area of 150 million hectares (370 million acres) and involve 1870 species — is a boon to seed predators, including wild boar, the keystone seed predator in the ecosystem. Seeds and wild boar are so prevalent during these intervals that local populations have long viewed el Niño events as times of plenty, collecting Illipe nuts for export and gorging on pork. The relationship has lasted for as long as humans have inhabited Borneo and is ingrained in the cultures of people ranging from the tribes of the forested interior to coastal traders.
In recent years however, the system has been breaking down due to land-use change. Curran says that intensive logging has taken a heavy toll on this reproductive cycle. Curran found that seed production fell from 175 pounds per acre in 1991 to 16.5 pounds per acre in 1998, even though it was a one of the strongest El Niño years on record. It appears that logging has reduced the local density and biomass of mature trees below some critical threshold that limits masting.
Fire is also a factor. A sharp increase in the incidence of fires in an ecosystem that is accustomed to fire has exacerbated drought stress and forest die-off. Instead of el Niño years being times of plenty, they are now plagued by raging infernos and severe air pollution.
"El Niño has become the great destroyer instead of the great provider," said Curran. Land use change has broken the once tightly linked cycle of the ecosystem.
The impact extends well beyond Borneo with annual fires driving widespread pollution that can spread as far as Australia, China, and India. The fires release massive amounts of carbon dioxide, especially when Borneo's peat forests burn. With over 500 tons of carbon per hectare — one of the highest levels of biomass on the planet — these ecosystems can contribute up to 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in bad fire years, making Indonesia the third largest greenhouse gas polluter, far larger than its emissions from fossil fuels. Some scientists fear that fires and climate change could be a positive feedback loop that only worsens conditions, producing ever drier climate, more frequent fires, and higher carbon emissions.
Deforestation in Borneo
Deforestation in Borneo was historically low due to infertile soils (relative to surrounding islands), unfavorable climate, and the presence of disease. Deforestation began in earnest during the mid-twentieth century with the establishment of rubber plantations, though these had a limited impact. Industrial logging rose in the 1970s as Malaysia depleted its peninsular forests, and former Indonesian strongman Suharto distributed large tracts of forest to cement political relationships with army generals. Logging expanded significantly in the 1980s, with logging roads providing access to remote lands for settlers and developers. At the same time, the Indonesian government's transmigration program was in full swing, sending more than 18,000 people per year during the decade to settle in Kalimantan. These transmigrants, mostly young landless poor from the crowded central islands of Java and Bali, were resettled at government expense on lands that were often inadequate for traditional farming. Unable to support themselves with subsistence agriculture, many of these people went to work for logging companies.
|Primary forest||Tree cover|
|Country||2001||2020||2002-2019 loss (% loss)||2001||2020||2002-2019 loss (% loss)|
|Brunei||431,455||417,722||13,733 (3.2%)||528,094||512,980||26,198 ( 5.0%)|
|Indonesia||28,903,320||24,937,554||3,965,766 (13.7%)||49,001,198||40,860,099||10,744,758 ( 21.9%)|
|Malaysia||10,611,815||8,708,737||1,903,078 (17.9%)||18,164,118||15,243,971||4,403,860 ( 24.2%)|
LOGGING & TRANSMIGRATION
Logging in Borneo in the 1980s and 1990s was some of the most intensive the world has ever seen, with 60-240 cubic meters of wood being harvested per hectare versus 23 cubic meters per hectare in the Amazon. According to Curran, more timber exported was from Borneo during that time than from Latin America and Africa combined. In Kalimantan, some 80% of lowlands went to timber concessions, including most of its mangrove forests. More on logging.OIL PALM
At the same time that valuable timber became increasingly scarce, interest in oil palm plantations began to spread in Borneo. Though it was first planted in Indonesia in 1848, it wasn't until the mid-1990s that oil palm cultivation really started to accelerate. In Malaysia, today the world's largest producer of palm oil, oil palm plantations grew from 60,000 hectares in 1960 to more than 3 million hectares in 2001. In 2004, 30% of these of these were located in Sabah, which has ideal growing conditions for the plant, and 13% were in Sarawak. However, because virtually all suitable land is used in Peninsular Malaysia, expansion is expected mostly to occur in Malaysian Borneo and, to a greater extent, Kalimantan. Oil palm cultivation has increased from 186,744 hectares in Sabah and Sarawak in 1984 to 1,673,721 hectares at the close of 2003.
In Kalimantan, oil palm has expanded even faster: from 13,140 hectares in 1984 to nearly one million hectares at the end of 2003. While much of this new land brought under cultivation is less than ideal for oil palm, the crop's low maintenance, combined with growing demand and lack of other viable economic options in the region, make it a low-risk investment for large estate owners. Large plantations owners are aided by subsidies that include crude processing facilities and roads.
Palm oil is derived from the plant's fruit, which grow in clusters that may weigh 40-50 kilograms. A hundred kilograms of oil seeds typically produce 20 kilograms of oil, while a single hectare of oil palm may yield 5,000 kilograms of crude oil, or nearly 6,000 liters of crude oil that can be used in biodiesel production.
Why oil palm is replacing tropical rainforests | Social impact of oil palm in Borneo | Greening the world with palm oil
Dense tropical forests in Borneo have historically not been prone to fires. But that has changed since the early 1980s with increased degradation of forests and peatlands, which has created conditions that exacerbate fire risk. When fires are set for land-clearing purposes, they can quickly spread out-of-control into adjacent areas, including healthy forests. Research has indicated that industrial plantation development on peatlands is one of the most important drivers of fire in Borneo.
Fires during the el Niño on 1997-1998 captured the world's attention. These burned some 9.7 million hectares and caused estimated economic damage of more than 9 billion dollars. Up to 2.5 gigatons of CO2 was released into the atmosphere. Fires have continued to burn on an increasingly frequent basis since then, usually set to clear land for oil palm plantations.
A 2005 report from WWF explained why fires are so damaging in Borneo:
While fires play an important role in forest ecosystems in many areas of the world, tropical rainforests have by and large been spared, prior the rise of widespread unsustainable management practices. Normally, tropical rainforests will not burn, due to dampness. The dense canopy usually keeps everything underneath it humid, even in times of drought. In addition, biological material decomposes very quickly in the damp climate. As a result, that very little flammable material covers the ground. The trees in wet tropical climate zones are not adapted to forest fires. They have a thin bark, compared to the much thicker, fire resistant, bark of trees in monsoon or more temperate climates.
Poaching is a significant issue for wildlife in Borneo. A wide range of species are targeted songbirds for pet markets, game species and orangutans for bushmeat, elephants as crop pests, pangolins and sunbar for traditional Chinese medicine.
Conservation areas have had mixed success in Borneo. For example, protected areas in Sabah, a state in Malaysian Borneo, have generally fared better than reserves in Indonesia, where illegal logging, encroachment, and poaching can be frequent.
A few other examples:
- Between 1985 and 2001, Kalimantan's protected lowland forests declined by about 56%
- Indonesia's Kutai National Park was established in 1936 as a 306,000 hectare preserve, but suffered from reductions in extent, large-scale illegal logging, and encroachment. Fires in 1997-1998 burned 92% of the park's area.
- 70% of Gunung Palung National Park's lowland buffer zone was deforested in just four years, 1998-2002. During that period, nearly 40% of the park's lowland forest was cleared.
Of Sabah's 7.37 million hectares of land, 60 percent is zoned for forest to the State Environmental Conservation Department. 3.6 million hectares of this forested area (known as the Permanent Forest Estate) can be broken down as follows:
|Area (ha)||Classification||What it means|
|342,000||Class I: Protection||Watershed and other "functional" forests. Cannot be logged|
|2,685,000||Class II: Commercial||Forests that can be exploited|
|7,000||Class III Domestic||Forests that can be logged for local consumption|
|21,000||Class IV: Amenity||Recreational forests, often degraded|
|316,000||Class V: Mangrove||Can be harvested|
|90,000||Class VI: Virgin Jungle||Conserved for scientific purposes|
|133,000||Class VII: Wildlife||Conserved as wildlife habitat|
According to these figures, 16 percent of Sabah's total forest area is under some form of protection.
According to the state government, about two-thirds of Sarawak's 8.22 million hectares are covered with natural forest. The government says it seeks to protect about 8 percent of the state's natural forests with the rest of the land, in equal parts, devoted to commercial forest and agriculture.
Almost all forests in Kalimantan are owned by the state. In recent years centralization means that forests once controlled by the national government are now controlled at the district level. On paper, forests have been mapped and allocated for various uses, but reality bears little resemblance to the actual situation, according to WWF, which notes "the actual size and state of Indonesia's remaining forests are difficult to establish from official statistics."
Officially, Kalimantan is broken down into the following divisions (WWF):
Thus on paper about 11 million hectares of forest are under some form of protection in Kalimantan.
In areas that have been set aside as "production forest" there are three types of industrial timber plantations: Hutan Tanaman Industri (HTI) pertukangan for hardwoods, HTI kayu energy for fuelwood and charcoal, and HTI kayu serat for pulp and paper. The system was reformed in 1999 under the Indonesian decentralization policy and licenses are now issued at the district level.
In a 2005 report, WWF argued there are four big direct threats to Borneo's forests: land conversion, illegal logging, poor forest management, and forest fires. Secondary threats include large-scale industrial projects (roads and hydroelectric projects), hunting, and the climate of corruption which permeates virtually all levels of government in Kalimantan.
A fundamental problem is that "development" in Borneo is driven by extractive industries.
The causes of deforestation in Borneo are not complex; but the solutions are. The combination of large-scale deforestation in the lowlands and the importation of millions of people through poorly-executed transmigration programs have made it challenging to a imagine a future where many of Borneo's most biologically diverse forests survive into the next century.
If Borneo's lowland forests are to be saved, it will require broad recognition of the value of forests as healthy and productive ecosystems. This recognition needs to be followed by the political will to make tough decisions, including challenging business-as-usual interests that work to destroy forests, accounting for the true costs of environmental degradation, and creating financial incentives for local people to shift behavior.
Among provinces and states on Borneo, Sabah is arguably the furthest along in integrating conservation goals into high-level policy planning. Sabah has the highest proportion of forest under some form of protection and the government is starting to work to encourage a knowledge-based services economy over an extractive one.
BORNEO RAINFOREST PHOTOS
BORNEO RAINFOREST NEWS
Study: Most biodiversity hotspots lack formal protection in Borneo and Sumatra (12 Apr 2022 11:22:24 +0000)
- A new study published in Animal Conservation finds that most predicted biodiversity hotspots in Borneo and Sumatra fall outside formally protected areas, with only 9.2% and 18.2% of the modeled species richness located within protection zones on the respective islands.
- The researcher team conducted the largest camera-trap survey ever undertaken in Borneo and Sumatra, and used multiple criteria to determine the relationship of 70 species to the surrounding habitat and how animal communities are assembled.
- The study concluded that carnivorous mammals can be used as an umbrella species to assist in the development of holistic management plans in areas where multiple species coexist.
How many orangutans does $1 billion save? Depends how you spend it, study finds (01 Apr 2022 08:28:43 +0000)
- A recent study evaluating spending on orangutan conservation, calculated to amount to more than $1 billion over the past 20 years, found wide variations in the cost-effectiveness of various conservation activities.
- The study found habitat protection to be by far the most effective measure, followed by patrolling.
- By contrast, habitat restoration; orangutan rescue, rehabilitation, and translocation; and public outreach were found to be less cost-effective.
- The study relied on building a model that correctly accommodated numerous factors, something both the researchers and outside experts highlight as a challenge.
NGOs alert U.N. to furtive 2-million-hectare carbon deal in Malaysian Borneo (17 Mar 2022 04:28:21 +0000)
- Civil society organizations have complained to the United Nations about an opaque “natural capital” agreement in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.
- The agreement, signed behind closed doors in October 2021, involved representatives from the state government and Hoch Standard Pte. Ltd., a Singaporean firm. But it did not involve substantive input from the state’s numerous Indigenous communities, many of whom live in or near forests.
- The terms ostensibly give Hoch Standard the right to monetize carbon and other natural capital from Sabah’s forests for 100 years.
- Along with the recent letter to the U.N., the state’s attorney general has questioned whether the agreement is enforceable without changes to key provisions. An Indigenous leader is also suing the state over the agreement, and Hoch Standard may be investigated by the Singaporean government after rival political party leaders in Sabah reported the company to Singapore’s ambassador in Malaysia.
Malaysian officials dampen prospects for giant, secret carbon deal in Sabah (10 Feb 2022 20:33:18 +0000)
- The attorney general of the Malaysian state of Sabah has said that a contentious deal for the right to sell credits for carbon and other natural capital will not come into force unless certain provisions are met.
- Mongabay first reported that the 100-year agreement, which involves the protection of some 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) from activities such as logging, was signed in October 2021 between the state and a Singapore-based firm called Hoch Standard.
- Several leaders in the state, including the attorney general, have called for more due diligence on the companies involved in the transaction.
- Civil society representatives say that a technical review of the agreement is necessary to vet claims about its financial value to the state and its feasibility.
As Malaysian state resumes log exports, Indigenous advocates warn of fallout (19 Jan 2022 11:34:36 +0000)
- Effective Jan. 3, the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo has ended a ban on exporting unprocessed logs.
- The ban was put in place in 2018 in a bid to bolster the state’s timber processing industry; critics warn that overturning it will lead to an increase in both legal and illegal logging in the state’s remaining forests.
- Any increase in logging will especially affect the state’s forest-dependent Indigenous communities, including groups that are trying to assert legal rights to their ancestral land.
- The decision to end the export ban comes as the Sabah Forestry Department makes a push to convert 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of degraded forest into timber plantations.
Indonesia’s three most consequential forestry stories of 2021 (24 Dec 2021 13:55:46 +0000)
- 2021 marked an inflection point for the fate of Indonesia’s rainforests, the largest expanse outside the Amazon and the Congo Basin.
- The year started out with news of a record drop in the deforestation rate in 2020, which the government attributed to its policies but which some observers say was due more to outside factors such as the pandemic.
- This was also the year that a moratorium on issuing licenses for new oil palm plantations came to an end, with experts warning of an impending wave of forest clearing now that the policy has expired.
- Land conflicts pitting local and Indigenous communities against agribusiness companies and developers saw an increase despite the pandemic-driven economic slowdown, with observers pointing to a lack of effective conflict-resolution mechanisms.
Indigenous leader sues over Borneo natural capital deal (17 Dec 2021 10:06:53 +0000)
- An Indigenous leader in Sabah is suing the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo over an agreement signing away the rights to monetize the natural capital coming from the state’s forests to a foreign company.
- Civil society and Indigenous organizations say local communities were not consulted or asked to provide input prior to the agreement’s signing on Oct. 28.
- Further questions have arisen about whether the company, Hoch Standard, that secured the rights under the agreement has the required experience or expertise necessary to implement the terms of the agreement.
Details emerge around closed-door carbon deal in Malaysian Borneo (24 Nov 2021 11:23:40 +0000)
- Leaders in Sabah have begun to reveal information about a nature conservation agreement signed in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo for the rights to carbon and other natural capital.
- The deal allegedly covers rights to more than 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) of the state’s tropical forests for the next 100-200 years.
- Indigenous and civil society groups have called for more transparency.
- In response to the public reaction to news of the agreement, its primary proponent, Deputy Chief Minister Jeffrey Kitingan, held a public meeting but has declined to make the agreement public yet.
Report: Orangutans and their habitat in Indonesia need full protection now (19 Nov 2021 11:32:15 +0000)
- A new report underscores the urgency of protecting Indonesia’s orangutans and conserving their remaining habitat, warning that Asia’s only great ape is in crisis.
- The report from the Environmental Investigation Agency says the Indonesian government has systematically failed to protect orangutan habitat, enforce existing wildlife laws, or reverse the decline of the three orangutan species.
- “For decades, Indonesia has prioritized industry and profit over environmental health and biodiversity protection, and orangutans have paid the price,” said EIA policy analyst Taylor Tench.
- The report calls for protecting all orangutan habitat (much of which occurs in oil palm and logging concessions), halting a dam project in the only habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, and recognizing Indigenous claims to forests adjacent to orangutan habitat.
Stretch of Borneo’s Mahakam River eyed for protection to save Irrawaddy dolphins (05 Nov 2021 14:49:20 +0000)
- Conservationists in Indonesian Borneo are working to establish a protected area along the Mahakam River to save the remaining population of the nearly extinct Irrawaddy dolphin.
- The proposed conservation area is expected to alleviate the threats to the population of the freshwater dolphins, including river degradation and ship traffic.
- The latest population estimates suggest only around 80 of the endangered dolphins remain in the Mahakam.