Last Bastion Of Unscathed Rainforest – OpEd


Unknown to many people, the country of Brunei Darussalam in the island of Borneo, is Asia’s last bastion resisting rainforest destruction, thanks to a government policy and a strong political will that pursues a no-nonsense and pro-environment stand unmatched by many countries.

At 743,330 km the third largest island in the world and home of the oldest tropical remaining rainforests on earth, Borneo is predicted by environmental experts of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to lose all its forests by 2010.

This is because millions of hectares of Borneo forests at the Malaysian and Indonesian territories are being raped and plundered by loggers, oil palm and rubber tree growers, illegal coffee growers and recently by highly controversial biofuel plantations at a rate of 1.3 million hectares per year.

Only in the Brunei part of Borneo are the rainforests still intact. The rainforests of Australia, Tasmania, Philippines and Papua New Guinea as well as those in Myanmar and other parts of Indochina are suffering from widespread logging, mining, dam construction and land clearing for cattle ranching and farming.

Under Brunei’s Five-Year National Development Plan, no timber from its 235,520 hectares of forests is to be exported but, instead, it is to be developed for self-sufficiency.

More importantly, the forests are managed for their inherent protection and conservation values. These include the protection of the natural life-support systems, maintenance of environmental amenities, promotion of scientific endeavours and nature education, and perpetuation of the national patrimony.

The Brunei Forestry Department, following a National Forestry Policy, strictly maintains 55 per cent of Brunei’s total land area as forest reserve. Serving notice that it values biodiversity conservation, the government has also started the development of the Brunei Tropical Biodiversity Centre and the Royal Brunei Botanic Gardens while pursuing completion of the Brunei National Herbarium.

Brunei’s Forestry Preamble did not mince words in addressing the importance of the forests in developing the state. It said: “In pursuance of national development objectives and consistent with global strategies on biogeocology in which the forests play a vital role, the government commits itself to conserve, develop, and manage its forest resources for the preservation and improvement of the quality of life; the promotion of social, political, and economic well-being of the people, and technological progress of the country; and for bringing about environmental amenity and ecological equilibrium over a time continuum.”

Brunei’s forestry sector aims to implement a proactive role especially in concretising the road map that Brunei aims to undertake in the “Heart of Borneo” Plan with Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Plan comes at a time when dramatic forest and biodiversity loss in the island of Borneo has become unprecedented — turning from bad to worse in the last two decades.

Many important living resources have been squandered, and numerous plant and animal species have been destroyed. The losses are enormous, more complete in the Peninsula and in Sabah. Rubber and oil plantations and forest fires (made intense due to the peats, especially in Indonesia) are believed to have badly affected 32 percent of terrestrial mammals, 70 per cent of insects and birdlife, and 50 percent of flowering plants out from the 15,000 plant species and thousands of animal species found there.

In the past 10 years, scientists have discovered 361 new species in Borneo. Only last year, 52 more new species were discovered, including 30 unique fish species, two tree frog species and 16 ginger species, a World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) study noted. In Sumatra, 218 plant species can be found in just one 2,100 square foot area. In the dipterocarp forests, 1,000 insect species may be found in just one tree, WWF found out. Such is the diversity of plant life in the island. But it is not exactly known what species were lost.

Records from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature show that a significant number of biotic and faunal species continue to be endangered owing to loss of habitat, especially in the case of the larger mammals.

The tiger and the elephant are now reduced to very small numbers. The Sumatran rhinoceros, locally common in eastern Sabah during the early years of the twentieth century, is now close to extinction in the more heavily affected parts of eastern Borneo though there were sightings along the northern edge of the Kutai Nature Reserve.

The remaining orangutans are now said to be only in the Kalimantan areas, while Monitor lizards are already rarely seen and the tree species gaharu (Aquilaria malaccensis and other species), ramin (Gonystylus bancanus) and medang (Litsea amara), all expensive medicial sources of medicine, are few.

According to the National Committee on Plant Genetic Resources of Malaysia and the Department of Agriculture in Sabah, besides the loss of animals and plant life, gene pools which serve to ensure biological continuity for food and medicine are threatened in Borneo.

Sugar cane and bananas are perhaps the most important of these, together with rice and wild fruit trees such as mangoes, durian, lanzones, rambutan and related varieties.

While efforts are being made in the collection, documentation, and preservation of wild species, many have already been lost, especially those that have shown high potential as sources of genes for resistance or tolerance to a number of pests and diseases.

To prevent forest and biodiversity loss on its part of the island, Brunei’s government is implementing a sustainable multiple-use forest management aimed at executing a forest development program for industrial forest involving silvicultural management of natural and man-made forests.

It is also formulating and implementing a conservation program for environmental forests, involving preservation of ecosystems, establishment of resource conservation, and documentation centres.

In order to implement the forestry strategic plan, the forestry sector is encouraging participation of local citizens and private companies. To give teeth to biodiversity conservation, the Natural History Department of the Brunei Museum established a new research project in Tutong, located at Tasek Merimbun Heritage Park (TMHP) which was declared an Asean National Heritage site in 1984.

The park is home to several several threatened species like the clouded leopard, wild boar, deer, mouse deer, langurs, tarsiers, sun bears, banded palm civet cat, bats, shrews and squirrels as well as several bird and reptile species.

Rainforests in the world cover only six per cent of the earth’s surface. They are most important in cooling the earth because they serve as carbon sinks. The Amazon, especially in Brazil, is the biggest rainforest and Central Africa is the second largest. The other rainforest areas are the Asia Stretch from India and Burma to Malaysia and the islands of Java and Borneo and Australasia.

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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