Issues and efforts in protecting Bornean rainforest: insights from a trip to Indonesia

Visiting the rainforest in Borneo had always been very high on my wish-list since I was young. When I was little we learned about the beauty, the high biodiversity and the importance of rainforest in providing ecosystem services. However, we were also aware of the huge deforestation rates threatening the forests, and I remember wearing a Greenpeace sweater promoting the protection of the rainforest.

Now about 20 years later, I finally got to visit the Bornean rainforest during a trip in Indonesia. And indeed, the forest was magnificent — well besides the leeches that seemed to attack at every possible occasion. The number of different plants, insects, and birds was amazing and being able to observe wild orangutans was an incredible experience.

However, besides the beautiful forests, we also witnessed the destruction of the forest. Large oil-palm plantations surround the forests, and many primary forest blocks are under concession of logging companies and their persistence is not guaranteed. In addition, coal mining has taken off on the island and open-mine pits are scattered across the island with huge coal-carrying vessels cruising the rivers. Deforestation rates on Borneo are shocking: the island lost over 50% of its forest cover between 1950 and 2012 and deforestation still continues.

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This makes me wonder what happened in all those years between a small me wearing my “protect the rainforest” sweater and the current situation with such a high forest loss. Why is still so little of Borneo’s forest under official protection by law and turned into national parks? When we would ask the locals, they often answered that the government is simply not interested. They are not interested in protecting the forest and for example develop eco-tourism. There is too much money involved in mining, oil palm plantations and logging, that eco-tourism just cannot compete with the other activities. This is quite a depressing perspective; nevertheless, good things are happening as well, and we came across two very nice projects that inspire people to protect their forests.

The first project, Wehea Forest (really a must-see if you plan a visit to Borneo!), is a community initiated project to protect the forest on their traditional lands led by the tribal leader of the community. Deforestation of their land caused poverty, loss of agricultural land, increase in severity and frequency of floods, and social tension. The fear of losing their culture and their forest made them take faith into their own hands and they declared 38000 ha of Wehea Forest as protected land. This project highlights that a good understanding by the local community of the importance of natural resources and their motivation to protect them is important to successful conservation. Wehea Forest is one of the few community-led conservation projects in Indonesia, and I hope it will inspire other communities as well. Nevertheless, even though the government now supports the initiative, legally the land is still not fully recognized as a protected area and the Wehea Dayak are working hard to get there. They could use all the support possible to keep this project running, and if you are interested for more information you can go to the website of Integrated Conservation, who cooperate with the Wehea people to achieve the long-term survival of Wehea Forest: http://www.integratedconservation.org/

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The second project focused on environmental education as a tool to raise awareness for conservation issues. In general, the efforts to increase the knowledge of local people on environmental issues still seem sparse throughout Borneo. One encouraging initiative is the KWPLH (which translates to Environmental Education and Recreation facility) that aims to increase the awareness on forest conservation in East Kalimantan through the use of sun bears as a flagship species. The center is located just outside the largest city of Indonesian Borneo, Balikpapan. On-site, there is a very informative and attractively designed exhibition on Bornean forests and sun bears. A naturalistically constructed sun bear enclosure harbors the highlight of the center, six sun bears that were confiscated from people who illegally kept them as pets. Inhabitants from the modern city of Balikpapan that usually have little contact with the surrounding nature can thus readily encounter and learn about wildlife, hopefully taking some pride and a feeling of ownership for local biodiversity. Activities for children and other visitors help to communicate conservation in a playful manner. Off-site, the project plans to advocate conservation through programs for schools and community groups. If you would like to learn more about this project check their website: http://kwplh.beruangmadu.org/

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