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
Indigenous activists in Borneo claim win as logging firm removes equipment from disputed area (02 Aug 2022 21:22:40 +0000)
- After NGOs captured satellite and drone imagery they said showed timber firm Samling operating in deep forest and culturally sensitive sites in the Malaysian Bornean state of Sarawak, Indigenous activists filed a police report and planned to mount a blockade July 16.
- According to Penan Indigenous organization Keruan, the firm removed its equipment by July 15, a move the organization counts as a win for forest conservation.
- The area is slated for inclusion in the Upper Baram Forest Area (UBFA), a new conservation project led by the government and approved by the International Tropical Timber Organization.
- Samling denies encroaching on recognized Indigenous land, and said the UBFA has not been approved by the government or discussed with the company, which holds the timber concession for the most of the forest included in the project area.
Indigenous knowledge settles question of a Bornean tree species: Study (17 Jun 2022 05:04:42 +0000)
- Awareness that much of the world’s biodiversity exists in lands and seas stewarded by Indigenous people and local communities has led scientists to reconsider the value of the knowledge systems that have achieved such successful results.
- But when it comes to species taxonomy, scientists often overlook the deep understanding of species relationships held within Indigenous knowledge systems.
- A new study from Malaysian Borneo found that two trees long recognized as distinct types by Indigenous Iban and Dusun communities, but classified as one species by Western taxonomists, are in fact genetically distinct species.
- The researchers recommend that scientists engage more often with IPLCs, especially in tropical biodiversity hotspots, and that Indigenous and local knowledge be recognized as complementary to modern science.
In Indonesian Borneo, a succession of extractive industries multiplies impacts, social fractures (13 Jun 2022 08:34:30 +0000)
- Much of the landscape of Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province has been transformed, its formerly vast forests razed for logging, monocrop agriculture and open-cast coal mining.
- A recently published study analyzes how waves of extractive industries have affected the inhabitants of one village in the province
- The cumulative impacts of these industries were found to be severe, but also to vary depending on multiple factors including ethnicity, gender, wealth and age. Women, young people and recently arrived migrants were found to be disproportionately affected.
Indonesia teams up with Germany on Sumatran rhino breeding efforts (03 Jun 2022 12:07:14 +0000)
- Indonesia and Germany will team up on advancing the science and technology for captive-breeding of critically endangered species in Indonesia, starting with the Sumatran rhino, to save them from extinction.
- The agreement, signed in May between Indonesia’s Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) and Germany’s Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW), will see a newcenter for assisted reproductive technologies and a bio bank established at IPB.
- The initiative between the two research institutes also welcomes government officials, scientists, NGOs and private sector experts from around the world to get involved.
- Indonesia is the last refuge for the Sumatran rhino, whose total population may be as little as 30 individuals.
Fossil evidence confirms persistence of prehistoric forests in Brunei (31 May 2022 05:32:34 +0000)
- A recent study published in the journal PeerJ reports the excavation of fossilized leaves from ancient forests at least 4 million years old in Brunei on the island of Borneo.
- More than 80% of the leaves the team found were from the Dipterocarpaceae family, trees that remain dominant today, confirming their long-standing role in anchoring Borneo’s species-rich ecosystems.
- The discovery adds to the urgency to protect these forests from logging or development for agriculture because once they’re gone, they will be difficult to get back, the authors say.
Study warns of risk from feline viruses to wild cats on the palm oil frontier (26 May 2022 21:35:56 +0000)
- A recently published study has found that wild felines are exposed to viruses common to domestic cats, such as feline coronavirus.
- Certain species that frequent oil palm plantations in Malaysian Borneo, such as the leopard cat and Malay civet, may act as carriers of viruses back into forest areas.
- These findings are of concern, conservationists say, due to the potential impact on threatened small cat species, such as the endangered flat-headed cat and the vulnerable Sunda clouded leopard.
- Integration of animal welfare into conservation action and oil palm management plans are potential solutions to mitigate the risks of transmission, the study authors say.
Ecotours aimed at saving monkeys are likely stressing them out, study finds (23 May 2022 05:15:02 +0000)
- A recent study reveals that tourist boats approaching troops of proboscis monkeys in Malaysian Borneo cause the animals stress, even when the boats travel at slow speeds.
- The research reveals something of a universal response, closely tracking similar findings from ecotourism operations focused on other animals such as birds and whales.
- Wildlife tourism is increasingly seen as a way to raise awareness around conservation issues and provide local communities with a source of income that’s contingent on the protection of ecosystems.
- Scientists say this type of research can form the basis for guidelines aimed at minimizing the effects of ecotourism on animals, especially as its role in conservation grows.
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.