An Overdue Return to Gunung Palung

Guest blog by Daniel Gavin

Just a month after receiving my undergraduate degree I took a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to the Borneo rain forest as a research assistant in Gunung Palung National Park. For over a year I helped run Cabang Panti field station, traveled its many kilometers of trails, and helped the core data collection that streamed in from our dedicated staff, about fruiting patterns, animal censuses, and the dynamics of the trees and seedlings. The astounding biodiversity spread across seven distinct landforms and forest types meant “discoveries”, at least to this neophyte, every day.

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Professor Gavin at the summit of Gunung Palung.

That was in 1992. In October 1993 I returned to the US, pursued graduate school around the topics of forests, fires, and climate change, but not in or about Indonesia. However it remained close to my heart. Kinari Webb was my replacement at Cabang Panti and, naturally, I closely followed the growth and successes of Health in Harmony. I also followed fascinating research on rain forest ecology that has been emerging from the Park, which enters my teaching on fire ecology and biodiversity.

Thus, when Cheryl Knott, a Cabang Panti researcher who runs the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project, organized a reunion for 30 years of Gunung Palung researchers, I jumped at the chance. There was 22 years of catching up to do. The two weeks started with a conference at a hotel in Sukadana. I was struck by the balance of Indonesian and western researchers collaborating on long-term projects. A side trip to the ASRI Clinic was as impressive as I had imagined it: A bustling operation crammed into a small place. And just down the road, the construction of the hospital was underway.

Land use had increased dramatically. A paved road to Ketapang, expanses of palm oil, and walet (swiftlet) houses for bird’s nest soup were nearly absent two decades ago, but dominate certain areas now. The timing of my trip coincided with the start of a significant negative interaction with these land uses. A major El Niño was underway; it hadn’t rained in weeks. Fires were underway in cleared land around the Park. While El Niño-related drought is actually an important ecological event in Southeast Asia, spurring the flowering and fruiting of many tree species, it also eats away at the forest via human-set fires. The 2015 fire crisis, in which the entire southern tier of Borneo and large areas of Sumatra burned, has been called the largest human-caused environmental crisis of the 21st century1. El Niño events in 1982 and 1997 also produced some of the most extensive and long-lived fire events in history2. And climate models project more frequent or intense El Nino events.

Forest fire is an important transformative force in tropical rain forests and presents a major challenge in Borneo. While historically fire was likely very rare, today it is normally restricted to locations where logging opens the canopy and surface fuels become dry. When it recurs within periods of a few years, areas of former forest often become invaded by grass or other low shrubby plants and thus ‘savanna-ized.’ In these areas a positive feedback between flammable vegetation and fire results in a condition that is extremely difficult to restore to forest. In contrast, forests with multi-layered canopies are mostly resistant to fire, even during the most severe El Niño droughts. This is a common pattern throughout the tropics in areas that experience a short dry season, but has little to no similarity with the wildland fire situation in the western United States.

Traveling in and around the Park, I could see some important patterns in how fire was burning. While hiking through burning logged areas on my way out of the Park, as the weather changed from cloudy to sunny, I could see fire jump up from a smoldering burn to several-meter flame lengths. Similarly, up on the mountain with a view over the lowlands, when the afternoon sun came out behind clouds, within a few minutes I could smell acrid smoke pulled up the slopes by a valley breeze. The line between fire-prone and fire-resistant vegetation is clearly marked by the loss of canopy trees. Woody fuels need to have a low moisture content to burn, and they only reach that low moisture content when direct sunlight drives down relative humidity. This is not to say that fire could not enter undisturbed ‘primary’ forest during a severe drought; it is something many people worry about.

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Satellite photos taken of the Gunung Palung area just prior to the fire season in July 2015 and part way through the fire season in September 2015. Dark red areas are recently burned ground. Smoke is seen pushed into the northwest flanks of Mount Palung. Palm oil development is extensive north of the Park.

A particularly sensitive forest type is the peat swamp forest. Large areas of coastal and central Kalimantan support peatlands: groundwater in these forests comes directly from the sky, resulting in low nutrients and low decay rates. Forests literally grow on six or more meters of spongy “peat” consisting of wood and partially decayed organic matter that have accumulated over about 6,000 years. Such peat forests support a unique set of species that orangutans prefer; the fruiting patterns in peat forests also complements the El Niño driven fruiting pattern on uplands and thus helps sustain animal populations during generally low fruit availability. Logging and ditching this forest type results in peat drying to a powdery consistency, and burns underground with a smoldering fire that produces a toxic smoke, making Indonesia’s carbon emissions on par with that of the US.

My hike into Gunung Palung National Park went directly through such a peatland. I jumped over flames and watched for smoldering hotspots and could literally see how the elevation of the peatland had been lowered by combustion. In East Kalimantan, near the Mahakam River, such fires have lowered peatlands to the point that they are now large shallow lakes. It is conceivable fires burning in unditched peatlands would burn to below the water table and become open floodplains that are unable to support forest.

While I had known some of this before my trip, seeing it directly drove home a few things. First, the number of ignitions caused by people can and should be decreased, but this is only a first step. Ignitions from cigarette butts are egregious. But land clearance around homes and in farming plots require firebreaks prior to burning. Second, the only way to dramatically reduce fire will be to restore the forest canopy. However, restoration is a big job in degraded peatlands and burned uplands. It can’t be done in a single effort. Damming the ditches can restore the water table, but creates problems for people living downstream that depend on water flowing through the ditches. Tree planting requires monitoring especially during a fire season, as the restoration project managers at ASRI are too well aware. Third, despite the dire situation portrayed in maps of deforestation and reports of haze disasters, large protected areas like Gunung Palung are functioning. The forest was largely intact and my favorite haunts from 22 years ago were still there. The river still provides cool potable water even during the severe dry season. A new generation of enthusiastic researchers are regularly making discoveries in the Park and the staff and volunteers of ASRI (and other groups too!) are working collaboratively in the Park buffer zone. In summary, my all-too-brief visit was an inspirational and eye-opening view of the successes and remaining challenges facing this region. I just might return again.

  1. Meijard, E. 2015. The Biggest Environmental Crime of the 21st Century. Jakarta Post. http://jakartaglobe.beritasatu.com/opinion/erik-meijaard-indonesias-fire-crisis-biggest-environmental-crime-21st-century/
  2. Leighton, M., and N. Wirawan. 1986. Catastrophic drought and fire in Borneo tropical rain forest associated with the 1982-1983 El Niño southern oscillation event. Pages 75–101 in G. T. Prance, editor. Tropical Rain Forests and the World Atmosphere. Westview Press, Boulder, Colo. And Harrison, M. E., S. E. Page, and S. H. Limin. 2009. The global impact of Indonesian forest fires. Biologist 56:156–163.

About Daniel Gavin

Dan is an Associate Professor in Geography at the University of Oregon in Eugene, OR. He spent several years as a researcher at the Cabang Panti research station in Gunung Palung National Park and is a dedicated Health In Harmony supporter.

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