A century ago, most of Borneo was covered in forest. But the region has lost over half of its forests, and a third of these have disappeared in just the last three decades. The increase in these activities is being matched by a growth in illegal wildlife trade, as cleared forests provide easy access to more remote areas.
Only half of Borneo's forest cover remains today, down from 75 per cent in the mid 1980s. With a current deforestation rate of 1.3 million hectares per year, only peat and montane forests would survive in the coming years. A 2012 study by WWF projected that if current deforestation rates continue, 21.5 million hectares will be lost between 2007 and 2020, reducing the remaining forest cover to 24 per cent. If this is the case, then Borneo – the world's third largest island – could lose most of its lowland rainforests outside of protected areas by 2020.
Palm oil plantations, pulp plantations, illegal logging and forest fires are the key drivers of deforestation in Borneo.
Palm oil plantations, the most important tropical vegetable oil in the global oils and fats industry, is the main driver of deforestation in Borneo. In Indonesia alone, palm oil production expanded from 600,000 hectares in 1985 to over 6 million hectares by 2007.
Palm oil development contributes to deforestation both directly and indirectly. About half of all presently productive plantations (over 6 million hectares) were established in secondary forest and bush areas in Malaysia and Indonesia. Habitat conversion from natural forests to palm oil plantations has been shown to have a devastating impact on tropical forests, along with plants and animals that depend on them.
The other main driver of deforestation, illegal logging, has become a way of life for some communities, with timber being taken from wherever it is accessible, sold to collectors and processed in huge sawmills. In the absence of sufficient alternative economic development, this is an irresistible lure for the local communities.
Satellite studies show that some 56% of protected lowland tropical rainforests in Kalimantan were cut down between 1985 and 2001 to supply global timber demand – that’s more than 29,000 km², almost the size of Belgium.
Protection laws are in effect throughout Borneo, but are often inadequate or are flagrantly violated, usually without any consequences.
Without the maintenance of very large blocks of inter-connected forest, there is a clear risk that hundreds of species could become extinct. Large mammals such as orang-utans and elephants are particularly affected because of the vast areas they require to survive. For example, the Borneo pygmy elephant has increasingly come into conflict with the expansion of human agriculture activities in its natural habitat.
Other smaller species, especially small mammals, may not be able to re-colonize isolated patches of suitable habitat and thus will become locally extinct. Road construction through protected areas leads to further separation of habitat ranges and provides easy access for poachers to some of the more remote and diverse tracts of remaining virgin forest.
Many of Borneo's major rivers originate in the Heart of Borneo. Maintaining the forests is critical to ensure the island's water supply, moderate the impacts of droughts and fires, and to support ecological and economic stability in the lowlands.
The current network of protected areas are too fragmented and too vulnerable to illegal logging, illegal wildlife trade and forest fires to ensure the survival of the forests and it has become clear that they will not be enough to save the rainforests of Borneo.
Forest conservation in Borneo requires the maintenance of very large blocks of inter-connected forests. New protected areas will need to be created and, most importantly, the deforestation of currently protected areas needs to cease rather than accelerate as forecast. An approach combining a network of protected areas with well-managed, productive forests will be key to ensuring that forests are protected while providing economic benefits for the communities that depend upon them. In the long term, it will save the island from the ultimate threat of deforestation and increased impacts from droughts and fires.
Through initiatives such as the Heart of Borneo
, WWF links technical expertise, stakeholder involvement, national and international policy advocacy and business and industry initiatives to conserve these pristine tropical rainforests.