Thursday, 20 March 2008

Imagine this land without forest—modelling Borneo’s future

“Why should Indonesia not be allowed to use up all its forest resources just like countries in Europe and north America have done?” This is a question that I have not infrequently been asked in discussions here in Indonesia. Fellow conservationists as well as government people have over the years confronted me with this apparently fair suggestion. The point they were making is that in many industrialized countries, the loss of original forest cover has not led to general poverty, environmental collapse, and human suffering. Maybe they have a point.

Let’s have a closer look. When I was attending university in the Netherlands, a lecturer once pointed out that the country’s biodiversity was likely at its highest ever in the 16th century. After several thousand years of tampering with our swampy lowlands, regulating water levels, (over)-grazing certain areas, and enriching others with manure, the Dutch had created a rich and highly variable environment with many micro-habitats for ecological specialists. At the same time, our increasingly international trade links would soon see the country emerge as one of the richest in the world. By that time, few natural forest areas remained in the Netherlands. Only when the micro-management of landscapes was taken over by larger scale processes and an increase in mono-cultural use of agricultural lands, did our species diversity really start to decline.

I know a lot less about the USA, or other industrialized countries, but a similar pattern of deforestation and economic development seems to have taken place in many other parts of the world. A fair working hypothesis would therefore be that deforestation leads to economic growth and to increased species diversity. But after economic development leads to homogenization of developed landscapes, I guess, in most places species diversity subsequently declines.

So, how does this work in Borneo. This vast island, was until recently covered from coast to coast in tropical forests. We know that this wasn’t always the case, and that more open, savanna-like landscapes also occurred on this island. But that aside, can we really say that for Borneo to have maximum biodiversity, all of it should be covered in forest. And more, importantly for those Indonesians asking me questions, what percentage should remain forested for maximum economic productivity on the island.

Interestingly, we don’t really know much about this. As conservationists, we are trying to push the point that forests provide crucial (yet unquantified) environmental services. We are suggesting that the many known and unknown (e.g. future medicinal use of plant chemicals) values justify retaining these forests, rather than converting them to highly profitable monocultures like oil palm or fast-growing trees for paper production. But how much of that is true?

Why do we actually know so little about the economic potential and biological as well as cultural diversity that an island like Borneo could have in various stages of deforestation? Is the situation so complex that we cannot even start modeling impacts of deforestation? Surely there is a lot of detailed information from case studies.

I am playing devil’s advocate here (at least from the point of view of those that support forest conservation), but it would be a very useful exercise if we could model the economic potential of Borneo with or without trees. And how much species diversity would be retained under different scenarios? And what would the value be of its remaining environmental services?

For a group of people that are trying to push the idea that nature is worth a lot of money, we actually have very little to say about what those values would actually be. Isn’t it time that we come up with some hard answers?

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Saturday, 15 March 2008

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and the magic of conservation

Okay, I admit it, I do watch a lot of children’s movies. Apart from giving me a good excuse to spend a few precious hours with my daughter Emily, I do like their simplicity, the simple lines drawn between good and bad. I also like the magic in these movies. In these films a nice, straightforward world is created, without many of the complexities in films for grown-ups that keep me thinking a long time after the final trailers have rolled off my screen, and give me bad sleeps.

The other day, I watched Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. This film with Dustin Hoffmann as Mr. Magorium, the 243 year old owner of a magical toy shop in New York, works with the nice idea that you can create any sort of magical world as long as you truly believe it to be possible. After the film, it struck me that conservation has much in common with that theme (that was a pleasant thought that didn’t keep me awake).

Working in the depressing world of Indonesian forest conservation you often find yourself wondering why we even bother. There are a few small successes in Indonesian conservation. But a lot of programs that I and many others have tried to develop over the last few decades have resulted in failure. We haven’t saved many significant areas of forest. We have not really reduced the population declines of any species. We probably made a difference here or there, even by just being there. But, man, it’s been an effort, and the tangible results are few and far between.

So, why do I still bother. One of the reasons is that, against all odds, I still believe that we can actually do something positive in this country, for its wildlife, for its people, even for its economy. I believe that something magical can happen. That people start making sense of their lives and how these relate to their surroundings. That humanity lives up to its potential and starts to develop lifestyles and behaviour that balance people’s needs with those of the environment.

This may all sound a bit too 1960s, but having that belief actually keeps me here. The day that I wake up and convince myself that I will not be able to do anything useful in Indonesian conservation, is the day that I will pack my bags and go home. I fear that day, because without belief it is easy to turn into a depressed cynic. And what use would that be to anyone?

But for the time being, I am not ready yet. I want to stay a little longer in the children’s movie called conservation, where I and my NGO colleagues collaborate in a shared sense of believe that things will get better. That doesn’t make us na├»ve. But it does differentiate us from the political and business sectors where such idealism is, although not absent, certainly much rarer. Someone from the private sector told me some time ago to “get a real job”. I thought about that a lot and realized that such “a real job” is exactly what I didn’t want.

Let me play a little longer, like a few weeks ago, when I conducted a brief survey in a large plantation for pulp and paper production. We know that up until 25 years ago, the area contained virtually undisturbed rainforests, where orangutans were common and even a few Sumatran rhinos still roamed. Now they are mostly monocultural plantings of Acacia and Eucalyptus feeding the world’s hunger for paper. In the area, there is also Kutai National Park, where much of 200,000 ha of forest has been logged-over, burnt, and its species hunted or collected to near extinction levels. Recent proposals seem to suggest that a significant part of the park will be degazetted because of other economic interests of local communities and businesses that conflict with the conservation status of the park.

I don’t know what we can achieve in this area. I don’t know whether Kutai National Park can be saved. I don’t know whether companies and government in the area are truly committed to engaging in forest and wildlife conservation. So, I don’t know whether we are just wasting our time.

But in the end, I still think that we should work there. Because not all hope is lost and we do have a vision on how some key habitats and species can be maintained.

So, yes, we do believe in miracles. And we know that without our belief there will not be a miracle. So, “Hiho Hiho”, and back to work we go. For another day in Indonesian conservation.

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