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.
|2002-2019 loss (% loss)
|2002-2019 loss (% loss)
|26,198 ( 5.0%)
|10,744,758 ( 21.9%)
|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:
|What it means
|Class I: Protection
|Watershed and other "functional" forests. Cannot be logged
|Class II: Commercial
|Forests that can be exploited
|Class III Domestic
|Forests that can be logged for local consumption
|Class IV: Amenity
|Recreational forests, often degraded
|Class V: Mangrove
|Can be harvested
|Class VI: Virgin Jungle
|Conserved for scientific purposes
|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: Indonesia’s new capital city threatens stable proboscis monkey population (08 Feb 2024 15:25:16 +0000)
- A recent study warns that the ongoing construction of Indonesia’s new capital city on the island of Borneo could destabilize the population of endangered proboscis monkeys currently thriving in the area.
- President Joko Widodo has characterized the development as green and with a minimal environmental impact, but concerns have arisen over the potential threat to the nearby Balikpapan Bay mangrove ecosystem that’s home to proboscis monkeys and other threatened wildlife.
- Scientists have advocated for sustainable development practices and emphasized the importance of respecting local biodiversity while constructing the new city, Nusantara.
- Their recommendations include legal protection for affected areas, habitat restoration, and collaboration with local stakeholders to mitigate the environmental impact.
Sarawak government’s hydropower plans worry Indigenous communities (02 Feb 2024 17:42:42 +0000)
- Indigenous residents begin submitting petitions as Sarawak officials announce three new cascading hydropower dams throughout the state.
- While Sarawak’s chief minister appears all-in for the dam in comments, other officials say plans hang on the results of upcoming feasibility studies.
- After some villages were devastated by older dams, Indigenous residents ask officials to consult them fully or simply drop the plans.
Video: For farmer imprisoned over wildfires, fear and poverty linger (18 Dec 2023 08:31:19 +0000)
- Sarijan, a farmer in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province, spent seven months in jail for setting a controlled fire on his land in 2019.
- Throughout the ordeal, he says he experienced violence in jail and extortion by the authorities.
- Sarijan is one of at least 200 farmers in Indonesian Borneo prosecuted for this offense since 2016, amid a crackdown by the government on land burning.
- To this day, Sarijan hasn’t resumed farming his land; as a result, he now has to buy food instead of growing it, driving an increase in his living costs.
Traditional small farmers burned by Indonesia’s war on wildfires (14 Dec 2023 00:00:39 +0000)
- An investigation by Mongabay based on court records and interviews shows police in Indonesia are increasingly charging small farmers for slash-and-burn practices.
- Prosecutions surged following a particularly catastrophic fire season in 2015, in response to which Indonesia’s president threatened to fire local law enforcement chiefs for not preventing burning in their jurisdictions.
- Most of those prosecuted were small farmers cultivating less than 2 hectares, and many were of old age and/or illiterate; several alleged they suffered extortion and abuse during their legal ordeal.
- Experts say law enforcers should be more judicious about the charges they bring, noting that a “targeted fire policy” should differentiate between various kinds of actors, such as traditional farmers, land speculators, and people hired to clear land by plantation firms.
Red flags but no repercussions for ‘certified’ Malaysian logger Samling: Report (01 Dec 2023 19:47:23 +0000)
- A report by NGOs focused on forests and Indigenous rights in Borneo alleges that Malaysian timber firm Samling has appeared to log beyond the terms of the national forest certification scheme with minimal repercussions.
- An auditor raised several issues with Samling’s FPIC process at certified timber concessions, including one concession that lost its certification and one that has so far retained it.
- One of the report’s authors told Mongabay that they focused the report on auditor SIRIM QAS and Malaysia’s homegrown certification system, in the hope the government can reform the system.
- The report, whose findings Samling and SIRIM QAS have both disputed, highlights ongoing debate about Malaysia’s timber certification process.
Killings of Bornean orangutans could lead to their extinction (24 Nov 2023 16:24:57 +0000)
- Human actions have led to the deaths of more than 100,000 Bornean orangutans since 1999, mainly for crop protection, bushmeat or the illegal wildlife trade.
- For the first time in 15 years, researchers surveyed residents of Kalimantan, the Indonesian section of Borneo, to find out why people kill the great apes and whether conservation projects help protect them.
- Researchers found that killings seriously threaten orangutan numbers, and that conservation projects have not yet helped.
How scientists and a community are bringing a Bornean river corridor back to life (22 Nov 2023 04:03:24 +0000)
- Decades of deforestation to make way for oil palm monoculture have transformed the Kinabatangan River floodplain in east Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, dividing wildlife populations and confining many of the region’s most iconic species to small fragments of forest that cling on along the river.
- Local communities and conservation initiatives are working together to restore and reconnect pockets of remaining habitat along the river to preserve the vital wildlife corridor, but restoration in the unpredictable and often-waterlogged floodplain is notoriously difficult.
- One such initiative, Regrow Borneo, is facing the challenge by leveraging the expertise of scientists and local knowledge of community members who have been planting forests along the Kinabatangan for decades.
- They say that by focusing their approach on a model that benefits both people and wildlife, they hope their program inspires others to shift away from simply planting numbers of trees toward restoring forests where they’re most needed, including in areas that present challenging conditions.
In Borneo, the ‘Power of Mama’ fight Indonesia’s wildfires with all-woman crew (10 Nov 2023 16:11:22 +0000)
- Wildfire poses significant health risks to Indonesians, particularly children under 5, who especially suffered the effects of the 2019 haze.
- Farmers have long used fire in cultivation, and the risks to health and environment have grown significantly as deforestation and drainage have made peatlands particularly susceptible to fire.
- In 2022, women from the Indonesian part of Borneo formed “the Power of Mama,” a unit to fight hazardous wildfires and their causes.
Boost for Sumatran rhino IVF plan as eggs extracted from Bornean specimen (08 Nov 2023 07:50:56 +0000)
- Conservationists in Indonesia say they’ve successfully extracted eggs from a Sumatran rhino to be used in an IVF program meant to boost the population of the near-extinct species.
- The donor rhino, known as Pahu, is a Bornean specimen of the Sumatran rhino, and her egg would greatly expand the genetic pool of a species believed to number as few as 40.
- Since 2012, three Sumatran rhinos have been born under Indonesia’s captive-breeding program, but all are closely related: a single captive male is the father to two of them and grandfather to the third.
- Conservationists say they hope to eventually fertilize Pahu’s eggs with sperm from captive Sumatran males, with one of the Sumatran females then serving as a surrogate to hopefully bring a baby to term.
Conservationists look to defy gloomy outlook for Borneo’s sun bears (31 Oct 2023 13:08:51 +0000)
- Sun bears are keystone species, helping sustain healthy tropical forests. Yet they’re facing relentless challenges to their survival from deforestation, habitat degradation, poaching and indiscriminate snaring; fewer than 10,000 are thought to remain across the species’ entire global range.
- A bear rehabilitation program in Malaysian Borneo cares for 44 sun bears rescued from captivity and the pet trade and has been releasing bears back into the wild since 2015. But with threats in the wild continuing unabated, success has been mixed.
- A recent study indicates that as few as half of the released bears are still alive, demonstrating that rehabilitation alone will never be enough to tackle the enormous threats and conservation issues facing the bears in the wild.
- Preventing bears from being poached from the wild in the first place should be the top priority, experts say, calling for a holistic approach centered on livelihood support for local communities through ecotourism to encourage lifestyles that don’t involve setting snares that can kill bears.