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
California-sized area of forest lost in just 14 years (13 Jan 2021 00:14:01 +0000)
- An area of forest roughly the size of California was cleared across the tropics and subtropics between 2004 and 2017 largely for commercial agriculture, finds a new assessment published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
- The report looks at the state of forests and causes of deforestation in 24 “active deforestation fronts”, which account for over half of all tropical and subtropical deforestation that occurred over the 14-year period. These include nine forest areas in Latin America, eight in Africa, and seven in Asia and Oceania.
- Using five satellite-based datasets, the report finds 43 million hectares (166,000 square miles) of deforestation during the period. Nearly two-thirds of that loss occurred in Latin America.
- The report lays out a series of actions to address deforestation, include policy measures by governments and companies. These range from commodity sourcing policies to recognizing Indigenous and local communities’ land rights.
How the pandemic impacted rainforests in 2020: a year in review (28 Dec 2020 19:25:42 +0000)
- 2020 was supposed to be a make-or-break year for tropical forests. It was the year when global leaders were scheduled to come together to assess the past decade’s progress and set the climate and biodiversity agendas for the next decade. These included emissions reductions targets, government procurement policies and corporate zero-deforestation commitments, and goals to set aside protected areas and restore degraded lands.
- COVID-19 upended everything: Nowhere — not even tropical rainforests — escaped the effects of the global pandemic. Conservation was particularly hard in tropical countries.
- 2019’s worst trends for forests mostly continued through the pandemic including widespread forest fires, rising commodity prices, increasing repression and violence against environmental defenders, and new laws and policies in Brazil and Indonesia that undermine forest conservation.
- We don’t yet have numbers on the degree to which the pandemic affected deforestation, because it generally takes several months to process that data. That being said, there are reasons to suspect that 2020’s forest loss will again be substantial.
Being realistic about coal mine rehabilitation in Indonesia: An ecological perspective (23 Dec 2020 07:36:27 +0000)
- Once covered in vast tropical forests, East Kalimantan, in the Indonesian half of Borneo Island, is today the most intensively mined province in Indonesia.
- Surface mining for coal has left behind vast expanses of barren land across the province.
- Under Indonesian law, mining companies are responsible for rehabilitating their mining concessions.
- In this analysis, based on field work in mining sites in East Kalimantan, restoration ecologists David Woodbury (School of the Environment, The Forest School, Yale University ) and Arbainsyah (Environmental Leadership & Training Initiative, Tropenbos Indonesia) argue the rehabilitation of coal mines is far more difficult, and likely far less effective, than environmentalists, mining companies and policy makers might hope.
Dolphins face growing pressure as development eats into Borneo’s interior (02 Dec 2020 08:59:18 +0000)
- The ecosystems of East Kalimantan province in Indonesian Borneo face increasing pressure due to mining, logging, industrial agriculture, infrastructure projects, and a plan to establish a new administrative capital city.
- One of the species imperiled by this rapid transformation is the Irrawaddy dolphin.
- Estuarine populations of the species already face severely negative impacts from increasing shipping traffic and coastal development in Balikpapan Bay.
- A critically endangered population of freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins living in the middle reaches of the Mahakam River are also under increasing pressure due to climate change, oil palm cultivation, coal mining and transport.
‘Certified’ palm oil linked to worse social, ecological outcomes for Indonesian villagers (30 Nov 2020 18:59:37 +0000)
- The development of oil palm plantations across Indonesia, including those certified as sustainable, has had mixed outcomes for the social and ecological well-being of nearby communities, a new study shows.
- In Sumatra, where oil palm has been cultivated for longer than on other islands and where rural residents have largely switched to a market-based economy, there’s a marginal net positive impact from the presence of plantations.
- In Indonesian Borneo, however, where villagers tend to rely on subsistence-based livelihoods, socioecological conditions have worsened in the wake of plantation certification.
- The study authors say their findings flag the risk of “unintended indirect impacts of pushing large-scale industrial oil palm into frontier forest areas where local communities still rely heavily on environmental services.”
Activists in Malaysia call on road planners to learn the lessons of history (13 Nov 2020 05:43:27 +0000)
- To its proponents, the 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) Pan Borneo Highway holds the promise of economic development for the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
- But activists in Sabah say that poor planning and an emphasis on extracting resources mean that the highway could harm communities and ecosystems in Sabah’s forests and along its coastlines.
- A new film captures the perspectives of people living closest to the highway’s proposed path and reveals the struggles that some have faced as the road closed in on their homes.
- Meanwhile, an environmental historian argues that Pan Borneo Highway planners are repeating the same mistakes British colonists made in focusing on extraction, rather than trying to find ways to benefit Sabah’s communities.
Conservationists replant legal palm oil plantation with forest in Borneo (09 Nov 2020 12:45:50 +0000)
- A small project in Malaysian Borneo aims to create a forest corridor between two large protected areas.
- The reforested land comprises an old, legal oil palm plantation, which the Rhino and Forest Fund (RFF) is working to replant with native tree species.
- The corridor is expected to help threatened species move between the Tabin and Kulamba wildlife reserves, including Bornean elephants and banteng, a type of wild cattle.
- RFF says it hopes the project will serve as a blueprint for large-scale oil palm restoration and encourage the “urgently needed restoration of many crucial areas for biodiversity conservation and climate protection.”
Video: The Sumatran rhino is sliding into extinction. It doesn’t have to (19 Oct 2020 04:33:12 +0000)
- A new animated short film from Mongabay, illustrated by artist Roger Peet, depicts the Sumatran rhino’s slide toward extinction.
- No more than 80 Sumatran rhinos are believed to survive today, scattered across isolated and fragmented habitats in Indonesia.
- Driven to the brink of extinction by habitat loss and hunting, Sumatran rhinos today face an even more fundamental threat: experts fear that too few calves are being born to offset even natural deaths in the remaining populations.
‘We are losing’: Q&A with The Orangutan Project’s Leif Cocks on saving the great ape (19 Aug 2020 06:01:19 +0000)
- For International Orangutan Day, Mongabay spoke with Leif Cocks, founder and president of The Orangutan Project, which seeks to protect the endangered orange-haired primates and their rapidly disappearing habitats in Southeast Asia.
- All three species of orangutans — Sumatran (Pongo abelii), Bornean (P. pygmaeus) and Tapanuli (P. tapanuliensis) are one step away from extinction.
- Deforestation is the biggest threat the primates face, and at the moment most conservation efforts have only been able to slow forest loss, not turn the tide around, Leif told Mongabay.
- Oil palm plantations replacing primary rainforests is a major problem in Malaysia and Indonesia, but Cocks says simply banning these plantations is not the answer; instead, he advocates for replacing exploitative production systems with those that recognize the services that these forests provide to the local communities and building on that.
Is a Sunda clouded leopard a leopard? Candid Animal Cam heads to Southeast Asia (04 Aug 2020 06:37:32 +0000)
- Every Tuesday, Mongabay brings you a new episode of Candid Animal Cam, our show featuring animals caught on camera traps around the world and hosted by Romi Castagnino, our writer and conservation scientist.