The dream of a rainforest transfrontier reserve in the Heart of Borneo: cross-border expedition Betung Kerihun-Batang Ai/Lanjak Entimau

Posted on 24 May 2013    
A glimpse of Betung Kerihun interior
© WWF-Indonesia / Sugeng Hendratno
(by Albertus Tjiu, M. Hermayani Putera and Syahirsyah)

In 1994, a transboundary conservation area of almost one million hectares was established on the island of Borneo. Covering important tropical forest habitat, this area is the last remaining natural forest in an area that has been greatly altered; much of it has been converted into timber concessions and oil palm plantations. Vital for the future of biodiversity on the island, the area includes two conservation areas in Sarawak, Malaysia; Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary (LEWS) and Batang Ai National Park (BANP), and Betung Kerihun National Park (BKNP) in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

WWF-Indonesia’s new book, Communities and Conservation: 50 Inspiring Stories from WWF to Indonesia, is a celebration of WWF-Indonesia’s 50-year journey as a conservation organisation. Eighteen of the fifty stories featured in the book are from the Heart of Borneo and all the stories show the effectiveness of conservation when indigenous peoples, their knowledge and practices, are involved in decision-making processes. This is also reflected by the following story on the cross-border expedition organised in collaboration between Indonesia and Malaysia, long before Heart of Borneo Initiative was born in mid 2000.

Indonesia and Malaysia cooperating on a transboundary reserve

In 1973, the Indonesia and Malaysia governments jointly recognised the conservation values of the Betung Kerihun and Lanjak Entimau reserves. Integral to Borneo’s central ecological corridor, these areas cover parts of West Kalimantan (Betung Kerihun) and Sarawak (Batang Ai/Lanjak Entimau). They share many traits including the beauty of the landscape, important watersheds, cultural traditions, and endemic flora and fauna.

Following this, in 1993, the Committee on Forestry between the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to pursue “Joint Cooperation in Developing a Transfrontier Reserve”. Supported by The International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), this cooperation further reflected the importance of transboundary biodiversity conservation as well as joint protected area management between Indonesia and Malaysia.

A year later, the Indonesian government designated Betung Kerihun Nature Reserve as a National Park. With a management plan the next step required to achieve the vision and mission of Betung Kerihun National Park (BKNP), the Indonesia Ministry of Forestry (Agency of Forest Protection and Environmental Conservation/PHKA), together with the Indonesia Institute of Science (LIPI) and WWF-Indonesia, collaborated to develop a 25-year management plan. To develop the plan, valuable information on the social, natural and cultural conditions of the area was necessary leading to many research activities undertaken during 1996-1999 including a “Cross-border expedition Indonesia-Malaysia” field trip. The trip involved researchers, international and local experts, National Park staff, NGOs and local communities.

Cross-border expedition Indonesia-Malaysia

The first stage of the expedition took place over September 1997 and focused on the Embaloh watershed in Kapuas Hulu District, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. In November 1997, a second stage of the expedition was in Sarawak, specifically Miri, Nanga Bloh.

The expedition delivered valuable data on forest types, botany, medicinal plants, primates, fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and socio-economic aspects on forest communities. A number of commonalities between the two conservation areas were discovered including landscape, plants and animals, ways of living and cultural backgrounds and beliefs, specifically those relating to nature. These findings made it even more important to manage the area as one transboundary conservation area.

An example; in the Betung Kerihun area, the team identified 900 samples of palms and orchids, around 29 families and 157 species of birds, and at least 86 species of fish. Researchers identified five forest types: lowland dipterocarp forest, hill dipterocarp forest, sub-montane forest, montane and summit ridge habitats. Primates found included Presbytis frontata, P. rubicunda and Hylobates muelleri, orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), and macaques species (Macaca nemestrina and M. fascicularis). The expedition also revealed around 200 varieties or species of plants useful to the local Iban and Tamambaloh people.

The expedition discovered an appalling amount of data on ecology and botany and collected many specimens including new records, rare and new species. In Betung Kerihun, at least three new species found, wild banana (Musa lawitiensis),palm (Pinanga bifidovariegata) and a fish named after one river in the park, Embaloh River, species of ray-finned fish Gastromyzon embalohensis. The whole findings are recorded in "Scientific Report - ITTO Borneo Biodiversity Expedition (1997)", published in 1999.

However, due to the limitation and field constraints, the expedition in the Betung Kerihun NP was not fully covered the whole area of the park. The expedition recommended further biodiversity surveys to reveal more of the undiscovered treasure of Betung Kerihun’s natural richness. 

Community involvement in the expedition

One of the toughest challenges for participants during the expedition was the weather conditions.  In 1997, the El Nino phenomenon had caused very dry weather in Borneo with burning and deforestation activities in many parts of the island bringing thick, poisoned air and smoke that covered the whole of Kalimantan.

Such conditions meant that the expedition was very nearly postponed; the team in charge of logistics had a difficult time ensuring they could support and provide transportation to the researchers in the field. The original plan to use helicopters to distribute supplies via the hill of Bukit Condong (997 metres) failed as visibility had dropped to a mere 3 metres which was too dangerous. Strong determination and unflagging support from the local communities made it possible to carry all equipment and supplies by hand to Bukit Condong so that the expedition could be completed.

Anthropologists and socio-economists formed part of the expedition, studying income-earning strategies and social structures of local communities. For example, for local people in Danau Sentarum, a nearby conservation area where much of the community earns a living from fishing, the conservation of forests in Betung Kerihun, which is within the same watershed, is an important way to sustain their fishing activities.

The study also revealed that perception of local people towards forest conservation is reflected in the conservation of the natural forests surrounding their settlement areas, areas they call kampung galao (in Iban) or toan palalo (in Tamambaloh).

Community involvement in conservation area management

Securing the support and participation of local communities in park management is important because local people use these areas and are highly dependent on them for their livelihoods. Additionally, conservation budgets are limited and park ranger resources are spread thinly. The local wisdom of these communities helps to create a sense of belonging, promoting friendly relationships and enhancing cooperation. To ensure effective participation, governments conduct education and awareness programs to enhance local communities’ knowledge about joint protected area management and biodiversity conservation.

Developing joint social and economic activities between local communities in BKNP, LEWS and BANP is feasible as they share many common values in terms of culture, traditions and ways of life. Shared benefits can be delivered through combined ecotourism activities and by joint community-related projects which can provide options for alternative income.

This program is also having an impact beyond the immediate conservation area. Some members of surrounding communities have requested that forests under their customary rights be maintained under the new conservation status and included in future extensions of the protected areas.

In 1998, a provincial workshop held in Pontianak recommended the change of previous name of the conservation area, from Bentuang Karimun to Betung Kerihun. This proposal was based on information from community that the park lies in between two mountains, that were wrongly spelled previously, Mt. Betung on the west side and Mt. Kerihun on the east side.

Lasting impacts of the cross-border expedition

The expedition was a new milestone in cross border cooperation between Sarawak and West Kalimantan, it was also a stepping stone in international forestry cooperation between Indonesia and Malaysia. Many publications, reports and popular media, including the International Borneo Biodiversity Expedition (IBBE) ITTO, covered the expedition and its findings with the results having an impact on the worldview and understanding of many stakeholders in the culturally and naturally rich Heart of Borneo.

After the expedition and management plan were produced in 2001, the Indonesia Ministry of Forestry, ITTO and WWF signed a MoU to begin the second phase of the project "The Implementation of Community-based Transboundary Management Plan for the BKNP Phase II". This phase focused on the integration of community-based conservation as well as a longer term plan for the BKNP, including the development of an effective management system in the cross border conservation area.

These cross-border activities will continue to be an important part of biodiversity conservation on the island of Borneo.

Indonesia-Malaysia joint conservation action timeline

1973    the Indonesia and Malaysia governments jointly recognised the conservation values of the Betung Kerihun and Lanjak Entimau reserves
1994    a transboundary conservation area of almost one million hectares was established on the island of Borneo
    the Committee on Forestry between the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to pursue “Joint Cooperation in Developing a Transfrontier Reserve”
1997    September - first stage of “Cross-border expedition Indonesia-Malaysia” focusing on the Embaloh watershed river basin in Indonesia
1997    November - second stage of “Cross-border expedition Indonesia-Malaysia” in Sarawak, specifically Miri, Nanga Bloh
2001    Indonesia Ministry of Forestry, ITTO and WWF signed a MoU to begin the second phase of "The Implementation of Community-based Transboundary Management Plan for the BKNP Phase II"
2003    Head of the district declared Kapuas Hulu the first Conservation District in Indonesia
2004    Indonesia and Malaysia formally submitted a proposal to UNESCO to designate the 3 conservation areas as the first ever transboundary World Heritage Site
2007    Heart of Borneo Three Countries Declaration, signed on 12th February 2007

A glimpse of Betung Kerihun interior
© WWF-Indonesia / Sugeng Hendratno Enlarge
The expedition team
© Doc. WWF Enlarge
Team welcomed by local villagers
© Doc. WWF Enlarge
Dayak people welcoming guests
© Doc. WWF Enlarge
Interaction with the people
© Doc. WWF Enlarge
The hardship through the mighty Borneo river
© Doc. WWF Enlarge

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