Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Balancing Act in Borneo: Managing Deforestation, Sustainability, Biodiversity, Health, and the Value of Rainforests

Borneo: the third largest island in the world, one-third of which is home to 220,000 km2 of diverse and beautiful rainforest. Borneo is divided among three countries—Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia—and at approximately 130 million years old, the Borneo rainforests are some of the oldest in the world.

The landscape of Borneo, however, is rapidly changing. Natural forest resources provide significant income for both Malaysia and Indonesia, and oil palm plantations, which require the clearing of natural land cover, produced an annual revenue of US $40 billion for Indonesia and Malaysia in 2012. In contrast, Borneo rainforests present the only opportunity for large-scale conservation in Southeast Asia and are one of the few places still called home by large, endangered animals like orang-utans, elephants, bears and rhinos.

This summer, three different PLOS ONE studies addressed the complex issues surrounding deforestation. Separate groups of researchers mapped forest cover and logging roads, conducted statistical analyses on different uses of land, and investigated how Indonesian and Malaysian villagers of Borneo value and use these forests.

To better understand the troubling state of forests in Malaysian Borneo, researchers in one PLOS ONE study mapped forest coverage and conditions. Tracking the condition of big areas of land is no easy task. To accomplish the feat, scientists imaged forests areas using high-definition satellite imagery, charted logging roads, and did some serious number crunching.

Key to this assessment was the actual condition of the rainforests.  Are they intact, or have they been degraded—maybe severely so—by the effects of repeated logging? Critical damage is done to soil, waterways, and forest structure when forests are repeatedly logged without enough time to regenerate properly.

To assess the condition of the residual forest, researchers distinguished between different types of coverage—bare, mangrove, plantation, and various levels of degradation, for example—and charted the number of logging roads created between 1990 and 2009. The image below depicts the forest cover and condition of Malaysian Borneo and Brunei in 2009.

If one road was built in an area since 1990, the area was classified as degraded. If more than one road had been built in an area since 1990, that area was classified as severely degraded. Researchers charted enough roads built between 1990 and 2009 to circle Earth nine times if placed end-to-end.