To many people, Borneo is a remote and wild place, an unspoiled tropical island teeming with dense forests, wildlife, and traditional cultures. Throughout the early twentieth century, this view was partly true; the island was over 75% forested and was home to hundreds of thousands of orangutans and other wildlife, in addition to diverse communities of people speaking dozens of different languages.
But recent decades have brought rapid changes. Borneo now suffers from one of the highest deforestation rates in the world as forests are unsustainably logged for timber or cleared to make way for farms and plantations. Today, over half of Borneo’s forests have disappeared, and the remainder are under threat.
Uncontrolled development like this is not unique to Borneo but has occurred in most of Indonesia. Most of the country’s islands are now included among the world’s biodiversity hotspots, meaning they’ve lost over 70% of their vegetation but harbor thousands of unique species found nowhere else. Indonesia contains more native species than almost any other country, but this stunning biodiversity is crammed into shrinking patches of forests and savannas surrounded by farms and cities.
It’s this daunting issue that Health In Harmony and their Indonesian partner Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) confront through their planetary health initiatives. Working around Gunung Palung National Park in western Borneo, we stress the dependence of human well-being on environmental health and try to find conservation solutions that allow humans and native ecosystems to coexist.
The area where we work has been subject to the same trends as the rest of Borneo. Even within the protected national park, around 20% of the forest has been illegally cleared by loggers or farmers. To get a handle on the scale of the problem, we recently used satellite images to map landscape changes around the park over the past few decades.
In the late 1980s, our area of western Borneo was mostly covered in old-growth rainforest. Gunung Palung was just one small slice of a much larger forest that blanketed the coast and spread inland to Borneo’s interior. But through the 1990s and 2000s, the landscape outside the park was systematically logged, burned, and farmed, replacing rainforest with croplands, plantations, and barren areas. In the past few years especially, huge areas have been converted to industrial oil palm plantations. This rampant development has reduced the park to an isolated island of forest surrounded by a growing sea of cultivation.
The process continues today, and it doesn’t stop at the park borders. Nearby communities, driven by economic needs and having already cleared most of the forests elsewhere, enter Gunung Palung National Park to farm and log, chipping away at what remains of this priceless natural area.
As the forests on which people have long depended disappear, local communities suffer from the effects of deforestation. Treeless hillsides erode more quickly, silting up rivers and decreasing water quality. Downstream communities experience heavier floods during the rainy season and more extreme droughts during dry periods. Wildfires, once a rare occurrence in Borneo, now regularly sweep across the landscape, causing widespread smoke inhalation and respiratory problems, and releasing millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the planet’s atmosphere.
For the last decade, Health In Harmony and ASRI have worked to reverse these trends by finding creative ways for human communities to meet their needs without resorting to forest clearing. In this way, we fight deforestation at its source by tackling its underlying economic and social causes.
Check out Part 2 of this series to learn more about our innovative approaches to halt deforestation