View from Canopy - HoB Newsletter April 2013 issue
This is not to say it is any less fun, nor that significant progress is not being made. March in particular was an important month, with the annual shareholder meeting helping shape the foundations of the next strategic plan. The final plan is not due to be ready until July, but a skeleton structure is already starting to take shape, with social issues set to take a more prominent role in the future. These were seen by many to be an essential complement to the continued focus on government and private sector.
As I see it, the Heart of Borneo vision is the equivalent to a commitment to build a futuristic ‘eco-house’. WWF wants to see this happen in the best way possible, and to do so we need to work with the architects that design it (government policies) and the contractors that interpret the plans to build it (the private sector). But these activities could be pointless if we do not also engage with the people that will ultimately live in it and own it (the HoB communities).
The future strategy will not only feature changes in conservation emphasis, it will also need to recognize a shift in the role WWF plays. The Heart of Borneo is now a clearly government-led initiative. WWF helped get the ball rolling, it now needs to find the best way it can facilitate the process into the future. With this in mind I have spent much of my recent time with the government agencies that lead the Heart of Borneo. In particular I have spent a significant amount of time in Brunei, partly in response to their request for WWF assistance in preparing for the trilateral meeting they will be hosting later this year. During this time I have learned what an important part of the HoB vision Brunei might represent.
Geographically speaking, Brunei plays a relatively minor role, with less than 2% of the Heart of Borneo within Brunei territory. However, Brunei has a potential value to the Heart of Borneo disproportionate to its size. To begin with, the forests that Brunei does have are some of the most important in Borneo. Thanks to rich oil reserves, which account for 98% of national revenue, Brunei's forests have remained largely untouched by the economic forces that have dominated elsewhere. Brunei is now one of the only places in the world where you can drive on a tarmac road right into the middle of primary rainforest within a couple of hours from the capital city and recent expedition data suggest that some of these forests are among the most bio-diverse in the world. The importance of these forests has been quickly recognised by the Sultan and his government who play an active role in the trilateral agreement and have designated over half the country as 'Heart of Borneo' - a brand now known across the nation.
But Brunei's potential contribution to the Heart of Borneo vision could be even more significant. Some may argue Brunei’s near-unique economic status means what happens in Brunei has little relevance for how to conserve the rest of Borneo’s forests. I would argue the opposite. One of the underlying problems for conservation is the difficulty of capturing the value of the environment in decision making. An Indonesian bupati faces a very difficult decision when forced to choose between forest and oil palm. A plantation can offer clear and immediate benefits through employment, tax revenue and infrastructure. A forest might have a higher value in theory, through the ecosystem services it generates, but in practice it is hard to realize these values in immediate, tangible forms. The bupati is under pressure to make quick decisions and to provide clear benefits to his electorate – often the plantation is the only rational choice he can make in the circumstances. Brunei does not have such pressures. Brunei has the freedom to ‘experiment’ with its forests, to work out how to capture the value of the water that flows from them, the carbon they sequester, the genetic resources they contain. Some ideas will fail. But the ones that succeed could represent the models for the rest of the Heart of Borneo to follow. If Brunei can demonstrate how a forest can generate benefits on a sustainable basis, future bupatis on the other side of the Heart of Borneo might finally have a genuine alternative to consider.
I cannot write about Brunei without also writing about Dato’ Dr Mike Kavanagh, who this month ended his role as WWF’s primary representative in Brunei. Mike has not only been instrumental in helping Brunei develop its impressive Heart of Borneo programme, from helping write the Bruneian action plan to helping establish their first ever Wildlife Division, but he was also one of the original visionaries who got the trilateral Heart of Borneo concept off the ground in the first place. During our handover I witnessed the huge affection and esteem in which he was held in Brunei as dignitary after dignitary, thanked him for his work and expressed their hopes he would return soon. The hole he will leave behind will certainly be a challenge for me to fill and I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to him for all the work he has done.