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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