I’m back at home in Sukadana, West Kalimantan (Borneo). I had to leave Seram a few days before Acun and Endro, but I trusted them fully to tidy up the last of the morphotyping and collections. Pak Zul, the head of the Manusela National Park, was again wonderfully supportive, and all the specimen transport permits were processed in a couple days in Masohi. Now Acun and Endro too are back in Kalimantan (Acun lives in Pontianak, Endro in Ketapang), having deposited the wet collections at the herbarium in Bogor, and are both enjoying a well-earned rest. Next Monday we will all reconvene in Bogor to look at what we found and process the ecological samples (i.e., wood density and specific leaf area measurements).
Being back home, I am struck yet again by the difference in remaining forest area and apparent current threat to the forest between Seram and Kalimantan. Sukadana is in many ways a frontier town: during the six years we have lived here, we have witnessed a relentless pushing back of the forest around this town as major local “development” has replaced trees with roads and buildings. During the 23 years I have been working in West Kalimantan, I have seen a wild, sparsely populated, forested region turn into a ragged matrix of agricultural monoculture, secondary forest, and new towns by logging, oil palm operations, small-scale slash-and-burn, and immigration. There is an ever-present feeling of a “war on the forest” in West Kalimantan. But I did not feel this in Seram. Most of the logging concessions there are now inactive, and their remaining forest (that I saw) not too badly degraded. The island’s major highway, cutting through national park and inactive logging concessions, shows no evidence of the ubiquitous small-scale timber operations that constantly push back Kalimantan’s forest boundaries.
In trying to understand this difference, and what it might teach us about conservation of the remaining forest, I am always reminded that deforestation results from a complex mixture of economic, political, geographical, biological, and cultural causes. But some reasons are more important than others, and perhaps the number one reason why deforestation in Kalimantan is far more advanced is biogeographical: the forests of Western Indonesia, and particularly Borneo, used to have very high densities of giant trees belong to the family Dipterocarpaceae, the meranti, luan, and keruing of timber trade. Up to ten trees per hectare could be harvested, with some trees containing ten cubic meters of usable timber in their trunks. The wood of many dipterocarps is almost grain-free and very easy to turn on giant industrial lathes into plywood sheets. Beginning in earnest in the sixties, the forests of Borneo were converted to cheap plywood, much of which was used for forming concrete and then discarded. The forests of Eastern Indonesia, while still containing a few dipterocarp species and other valuable timbers (especially merbau), have nowhere near the value for logging as the forests of Borneo had, and subsequently have been less impacted.
Borneo now is in a post-timber, oil palm phase, with the insufficiently regenerated logging concessions being re-classified as conversion forest for agriculture. International demand for palm oil is exploding, as an increasingly wealthy global population fries more of its food, and Indonesia is the world’s number one palm oil exporter. Oil palm is thus an important generator of foreign income and a lucrative business, although compared to liquidating thousand-year old trees, the investment needed is much higher and the initial returns much lower. Oil palm operations are spreading eastward throughout Indonesia, and much of the lowland forest on the giant island of Papua is now being converted (monitored by the important NGO “Sawit Watch“). I heard of several new palm oil operations in Seram, but it is possible that the seasonal climate of Seram results in relatively low palm oil productivity.
To the extent that the actions of local residents (as opposed to corporations) also impact forests, the lower population in Seram, compared to our coastal strip of West Kalimantan, must surely be associated with lower pressure on the forest. Throughout Indonesia, indigenous populations have been augmented significantly by the process of transmigration, where Javanese and Balinese volunteer immigrants are offered land on the “outer islands” to develop and own. There are transmigrant sites in Seram (e.g., Unit ‘O’), but far fewer than in our area of West Kalimantan, and Seram feels like a sparsely populated place. One other likely reason for the Seram vs. Kalimantan deforestation difference is an ethno-biological one: the predominant starch of eastern Indonesia is sago palm (Metroxylon sagu), while in the west it is rice. Sago is a plant of forests, rice needs cleared land, and thus the search for basic sustenance itself leads to different impacts on the forest, and no doubt leads to different cultural relationships with the forest. In turn, different cultural and spiritual outlooks on forest could influence deforestation processes via choices communities must make (e.g., the decision by Masihulan not to accept offers of logging and oil palm on their land).
What can we take home from this cursory analysis of the trajectories of two forests? Perhaps the reminder that so much of the environmental change that has happened in the world is deterministic: geography, biology, and economics inexorably lead humans along certain paths. While individuals do have choices, the ones they can reasonably take are usually constrained by these larger deterministic realities. For me, being constantly aware of this provides a vital damper on my own emotional response to the steady loss of forest in Kalimantan.