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15 August 2006 

A glimmer of hope for Borneo's forests?

Israr Ardiansyah, London
The Jakarta Post, Opinion, 10 August 2006

The escalating Middle East conflict is obviously one of U.S. Secretary Condoleezza Rice's main concerns. However, one result of her visit to Southeast Asia recently -- amid her tight diplomatic travel schedule -- may offer a glimmer of hope for Borneo's forests.

Rice's joint statement with Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid in Kuala Lumpur on 28 July confirmed the U.S support for the governments of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia's shared vision to conserve the Heart of Borneo (HOB). She announced a U.S. commitment of US$100,000 to help the conservation project expected to be declared officially later this year.

The pledge is a good step, following the results of the 11th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur last December, and the commitment in the Conference of Parties (COP) 8 to Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in Curitiba, Brazil, in March.

In the ASEAN Summit, the heads of government, through the statement read by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, highlighted the importance of providing sanctuaries in the Heart of Borneo to conserve the 220,000 square kilometers of biodiversity-rich rain forest and to protect the island's water catchments. Furthermore, the HOB launch in Curitiba by the governments of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia has helped spread the Borneo forest conservation messages to the international community.

However, the ASEAN Summit chairman's statement, commitment in Curitiba and Rice's pledge remain far from addressing Borneo's environmental problems. There are so many crucial issues within the island, where some 422 new species have been found in the last 25 years and which is home to potential resources for medicine. Solutions to the lingering problems will guarantee the success of the HOB plan and implementation.

It was only in July last year that the Indonesian Agriculture Minister and other high-ranking officials said the government was considering the development of the world's largest oil palm plantation (1.8 million hectares) along the Malaysia-Indonesia border. It was heralded as one solution to unemployment and the prolonged economic problems in Indonesia (The Jakarta Post, 18 July 2005).

The concept got a positive response from private and state-owned companies as well as foreign investors. Interested parties submitted proposals for the new border-area plantations to the government shortly afterward. On the other hand, the idea was heavily criticized by other lobby groups.

There has been no progress regarding the "world's largest oil palm plantation". The government has neither officially declared the area a new conservation area nor totally halted the plantation plan. Speaking at a meeting of local governments in Palembang last June, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced the plan to prepare two million hectares of oil palm plantation in South Sumatra and West Kalimantan for advancing the biodiesel industry in the country. If we do not have a clear land use map and strategy, the biodiesel issue may attract other provinces in Kalimantan to follow, which subsequently will put more pressure on community land and threaten the prospect of the protected areas/HOB initiative.

However, we have not managed to deal with conservation issues in the decentralization era. Discussing conservation without a thorough understanding of local people's needs and aspirations may lead us to a false sense of reality. The government should show that HOB is one of the best options for the future of Borneo. Hence, a reliable economic evaluation of the Heart of Borneo is needed to ensure that it is a better option than other attractive issues, such as biodiesel source plantations and logging activities.

The government should be able to explain the so-called intangible benefits of the forests, for example water resources, in a more measurable calculation which is easily understood by other stakeholders. When we talk about the pledge of $100,000 for HOB conservation, we should not forget that -- based on FAO statistics -- palm oil generated more than $2.1 billion in export revenues for Indonesia and more than $3.8 billion for Malaysia in 2002, for instance.

Meanwhile, some studies supported by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) -- as well as some investigations conducted by organizations such as West Kalimantan's anti-illegal logging consortium (KAIL) and Telapak -- between 2001 and 2004 revealed that illegal logging activities are backed by cukong (financiers) to the tune of millions of US dollars. Hence, we have to be able to guarantee that HOB is economically viable and able to absorb the local people's aspirations, better than the cukongs did. It is not about the amount of money pledged for the conservation project but the dissemination of the strong argument for the conservation itself.

Moreover, the three governments should make full use of the Heart of Borneo conservation to combat land and forest fires, by implementing the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution as soon as possible. The number of hotspots in Sumatra and Kalimantan is increasing at the moment and we have been used to the "annual fire season".

The big forest fires from 1982 to 1983 and land fires from 1997 to 1998 should remind us that any conservation efforts will fail if we cannot identify and tackle the potential threats. Indonesia needs to ratify the agreement urgently. Otherwise, the glimmer of hope for Borneo's forest will just go up in smoke.

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