As a seasoned member of WWF’s press team, I often come across heart-wrenching stories and situations. But nothing prepared me for what I saw in Borneo this year.
Borneo, in the South China Sea, is the world’s third largest island. It’s home to rare species like orang-utans, Asian elephants, Sumatran rhinos and clouded leopards – as well as hundreds of bird species and an astonishing 15,000 types of flowering plant. And that’s just the ones we know about.
Hundreds of ‘new’ species have been identified on Borneo since the 1990s. And large parts of the island’s interior are still relatively unknown, so there are bound to be lots more we haven’t discovered yet.
But Borneo is being devastated by unregulated and unsustainable logging. National and international demand for timber, and for products like palm oil, has led to the island’s forests disappearing at a terrifying rate.
In the mid-1980s about three-quarters of this vast island was still covered by forest, but by 2005 only half of Borneo had any forests left. Huge pristine rainforests have been cleared for timber or commercial palm oil or paper plantations, or for coal or gold mining sites.
It’s not just a threat to rare wildlife, it’s also affecting the lives of the large numbers of indigenous people who depend on the forests for food, building materials and water. And because of the enormous scale of the deforestation, it’s fuelling global climate change too.
Mending the heart of Borneo
WWF’s aim is to conserve a huge central area of the island known as the ‘Heart of Borneo’. We’ve achieved significant successes already, but we’ve a long way to go yet.
In 2007, with our support, the island’s three governments – Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, and Malaysia – made a groundbreaking commitment to protect, manage and restore 220,000 square kilometres of forests. That’s an area almost the size of the UK.
We’re also trying to restore a forest corridor that will connect isolated groups of animals, including orang-utans, with populations of the same species in other remaining areas of forest.
We’re working with mining companies and their investors to reduce their environmental impact. And we’re working with local communities to help them find alternative sources of income – such as growing sustainable rubber trees or farming fish – to reduce the pressure they put on the forest.
And we’ve been asking UK companies that buy timber and palm oil from Borneo (and anywhere else) to commit to only buying goods from sustainable sources. And that’s something we can all help with too – by making sure we buy wood and paper that’s from FSC-certified sources…
Borneo’s message for us all
Visiting Borneo was an extraordinary, emotional experience for me. I went to Lanjak, a town in West Kalimantan province, and met some of the people trying to improve things there with WWF’s help. It’s a big task.
In places like Lanjak, in the space of just a few years, the trees and the wildlife had pretty much gone. The people there were left without the rainforest that had provided food and shelter for generations.
It’s true some individuals may have profited, at least temporarily, from the logging frenzy. For those connected to the industry, logging meant money, which some spent on cars, houses or their children’s education. Others squandered their income in ‘wild west’-style towns.
One middle-aged man who got caught up in the logging craze and deforested much of his own land, told me: “I regret cutting down all those trees… I used to be able to get wood from the forest to build my home and buildings for my family. But that has all gone now.”
He said he’s worried about the wider ecological impact of those years too. “Rivers have become shallow, the water quality has reduced and there are a lot more floods these days because we cut down so many trees.”
Another man told me they struggle to find enough food now. One elderly lady said they couldn’t get anything from the forest any more, including medicinal plants or the rattan once used to make flooring.
Because none of the logging was being taxed, local society didn’t benefit. Farmland fell into disrepair as the workers were out in the forests using chainsaws. A burgeoning unregulated wildlife trade in species such as orang-utans and hornbills – the spectacularly beaked and feathered birds once common in Borneo – has made the devastation all the worse.
The message for us here in the UK is clear. The cycle of destruction will only end if we end the demand for those unsustainable forest products. And we can do that simply by being choosy about the kind of wood and paper we buy.
Look for the FSC symbol on wood and paper goods, and you’ll be helping make sure there’s a better future for the forests, wildlife and people in places like the heart of Borneo.