Page: Save the Rain Forest

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OCTOBER 17, 2010

Save the Rain Forest…Voluntarily

In Borneo, environmentalists hope local officials will promote sustainable-development projects, and end the fruitless antagonism between developers and activists


BARIO, Malaysia—Until recently, this town was one of the most isolated places in Asia. Then developers cut the first muddy road to Bario last year.

What happens next here and in other communities like it in Borneo will help determine whether the island's dwindling rain forest can be saved—and whether a new approach to managing forests world-wide can succeed.

Bario is in an area officially designated the Heart of Borneo, a new kind of conservation zone launched in 2007 to help protect the island's forest, one of the largest after the Amazon jungle.

Unlike other national parks and conservation areas, where logging and other activities are restricted by law, the Heart of Borneo is essentially a voluntary protection zone, in which environmentalists and government officials have formally pledged to work together to better manage an area roughly the size of Utah. Its borders were drawn in consultation with the World Wildlife Fund, and its management doesn't yet involve major new legal protections for the forest.

Instead, it relies on the goodwill of local officials—and their desire to avoid public censure—to give priority to sustainable-development projects within the area's borders and reject more-harmful development. Supporters hope the program will replace the often fruitless antagonism between activists, politicians and companies with cooperation to limit forest clearing—a result they hope can be exported elsewhere.

The governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, which each govern portions of the island and of the Heart of Borneo, have embraced the plan. It also has caught on with many residents, who have invoked the Heart of Borneo agreement in successfully lobbying government officials to rework two major development projects.

Limitations Emerge

But the limitations of the Heart of Borneo agreement are also becoming clearer as the project matures. Bario and other towns are in a part of the zone where the local government hasn't completed its plans to protect the forest. Skeptics call the program a public-relations exercise and question whether any agreement to limit development can survive without tougher legal protections. And many people in the area prefer development, which brings jobs.

The Heart of Borneo "hasn't fulfilled everything that I had hoped for," says Adam Tomasek, a project leader for the Heart of Borneo at the WWF in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. "But I think the reality check is that this is not an easy thing to do. It's difficult for one country, much less three countries, to do something they've never done before at this scale. And we've seen progress."

Logging for timber, palm oil and paper products wiped out much of Borneo's jungle in the 1980s and 1990s. By 2005, only about half of the island's original forest remained.

For years, the WWF focused on surveying wildlife and on other projects on the island. But as time wore on and more trees fell, the WWF and other advocates decided such efforts were too fragmented, protecting pockets of forest rather than the whole ecosystem.

So the WWF helped the governments draw up borders for a protected area that it thought would provide enough land to sustain Borneo's wildlife—nearly a third of the island, or about 90,000 square miles. WWF officials lobbied the three governments to sign on by explaining that the economic viability of their countries—which rely heavily on logging and tourism—would be at risk if forest continued disappearing.

In 2007, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei signed a declaration pledging to ensure the "effective management of forest resources and conservation of a network of protected areas" in the zone.

Early Success

Results were soon evident. A plan to slash up to 4.4 million acres of Borneo forest in Indonesia to make the world's largest palm-oil plantation was largely abandoned after the WWF and others complained it would undermine the Heart of Borneo plan. A network of new roads that was to cut through two national parks in Indonesia was rerouted after lobbying from the WWF and others.

The main problem with the Heart of Borneo, though, is that it doesn't compel governments to do much if they don't want to. This has proved particularly problematic in the Malaysian state of Sarawak in northern Borneo, where development pressures are intense.

The part of Sarawak that lies within the Heart of Borneo is the only area in the zone for which no government action plan has been approved to protect the forest as part of the program, WWF staff say. Massive palm-oil plantations are being built in the area, and a half-dozen major timber companies are expanding their operations there.

Sarawak government officials didn't respond to questions about their forestry management. In the past, the government has said it is committed to preserving forest for future generations.

Development Is Coming

Sarawak communities like Bario are where the battle is playing out. The town is little more than a collection of dirt roads and homes with metal roofs surrounded by rice paddies, with about 1,000 residents, a pool hall and a few karaoke shacks. Until recently, supplies had to be airlifted in by propeller planes.

In a bid to ease the town's isolation, the local leaders encouraged a Sarawak timber company to cut a dirt road connecting Bario with the coast. Although it takes as many as 20 hours to make the roughly 100-mile trip, local prices for sugar, fuel and other goods have tumbled as more traffic arrives.

"We have been asking for development ever since we joined Malaysia" in the 1960s, says Philip Lakai, Bario's paramount chief. "Now it's coming."

What shape that development will take, though, is a matter of concern to some Bario residents. The possibilities include greater agricultural trade and tourism, both of which now exist on a very small scale, and the arrival of timber or other forest-cutting companies.

Mr. Lakai says he's seen no downside to the town opening itself up to the outside world and doubts logging companies will be a problem in the area, which some residents argue has the wrong kinds of trees and climate for either timber or palm oil. More development will make it possible for younger people to find work, Mr. Lakai says.

Better Than Nothing?

But environmental activists and some residents fear that with the road now open, it is only a matter of time before forest-cutting companies arrive. That's especially worrisome for those who live in the forest and the townspeople who hunt there.

"It's good that they built a road," says Alau Adi, a tribal woman who lives with her family in a hut in the forest near Bario. "But we don't want any logging. They destroy the forest, and that destroys our life."

The WWF is working with locals to improve tourism infrastructure and train more guides—a strategy the organization hopes will generate enough tourism revenue to convince locals they're better off without larger-scale development.

Activists are also scrambling to map cultural sites in the forest, including stone megaliths scattered by ancestral tribal peoples. The government has promised to prohibit forest-clearing around the megaliths, the activists say. They hope to identify enough of the sites that timber companies will find it impossible to work because of all the off-limits areas.

The WWF is also working with Sarawak's largest timber companies to get them to change their practices so they can qualify for potentially valuable certifications from international organizations that promote sustainable forestry. That would help minimize any damage if loggers do come to places like Bario. One of the half-dozen major companies in the area, Ta Ann Holdings Bhd., has agreed.

Some residents in Bario remain skeptical. Florance Apu, a local guide who has followed the work of the WWF, says it is "good at meetings, but nothing much is happening" to stem the tide of development, though she says there has at least been progress in promoting tourism.

Officials at the WWF say they understand the skepticism—but add that limited oversight is better than no oversight at all. The Heart of Borneo "is a grand experiment," says Mr. Tomasek at the WWF. The environmental community is still learning how to make it work, he says.

Mr. Barta, based in Bangkok, is The Wall Street Journal's bureau chief for Southeast Asia. He can be reached at Celine Fernandez, based in Kuala Lumpur, contributed to this article. 

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