Habitat Destruction in Borneo- Evan Sloan
Hello. My name is Evan Sloan, a DANTA: Association for Conservation of the Tropics alumni currently working on orangutan research in West Kalimantan, Borneo. The above first photo is from my very first walk into the jungle. The buffer zone between the national park and the village (fondly known to us as hell) had been effectively razed to the ground. Hearing about the destruction of the rainforest is one thing, but seeing it burning around you is a different experience entirely.
Now that the smog has cleared, you can actually quite clearly see a thickly forested mountain looming above the surrounding lands from this exact spot. We regularly follow orangutans up on that mountain which is only approximately 10 or 12 kilometers away from the town of Tanjung Gunung, the gateway to which I stand in this photo.
Of course the elephant in the room (though I doubt Bornean ones will be around for much longer… Bad joke?) is the question of what can be done? No doubt, it’s a very difficult one. The fact of the matter is that Indonesia is one of the fastest developing countries on the planet and they are more than willing to annihilate their natural heritage to continue on that path. Whether the culprits are those in power in collusion with corporations or those without it who must pursue such livelihoods to feed and shelter their loved ones, people from all socioeconomic strata participate in the environmental destruction. The nail in the coffin is the ineptitude of governmental environmental management policies and, more accurately, those responsible for upholding them. Deeds on all levels go unpunished, which is unsurprising given Indonesia’s rampant corruption from police officers to high ranking politicians. According to Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index (countries are scored out of 100 where higher is better), Indonesia scored a 36 placing it one point above Mexico and one point below Columbia, both notorious for their corruption. For reference, the United States scored 76 and Denmark received the highest score out of 167 countries with 91.
The dismal reality of the situation leaves me more pessimistic than optimistic for the future of both this forest and Indonesia as a whole. As with many global issues, I believe the real (read: only) long term solution, though highly improbable, is the end of income inequality through major reforms, which essentially entails the hopefully peaceful overthrow of the existing political and economic establishment. Only when people no longer have to struggle to provide for their families will they have the time and energy to care for environmental issues. In the words of Jane Goodall, “The biggest problem we have as environmental activists is to fight the power of money… When you’re poor, never mind the individual suffering, you’re destroying the environment because you have to.”
In the short term, and perhaps more realistically, hope lies in educating people, and particularly the youth who will bear impending environmental disasters. They are the policymakers and politicians, the reformers and protesters of the near future; the continuum of struggle goes on and we need its inheritors well equipped. And what can ordinary people do without making it their life’s work? I suppose the only things I can think of are donate to conservation organizations operating in Indonesia or come see for yourself so these places begin to have monetary value in the form of ecotourism. There are places in the world where I do believe there is light in the darkness for conservation, but this is unfortunately contingent on nature having economic importance. For example, in Tanzania, where I studied for a semester, tourism, typically wildlife related, represents the country’s largest economic sector and ~15% of their GDP, while employing ~12% of the labor force. While most animal populations continued to fall throughout the country, the few successes would not be possible without sufficient financial justification. For the curious, Indonesia’s numbers for tourism are about 25% lower and the activity is focused around Bali (0.3% of Indonesia’s land mass) and Java where tourism is largely unrelated to wildlife. None of the top ten regions for tourism in Indonesia are located in Borneo. The rate of deforestation in Borneo remains amongst the highest in the world and the profit gained from its jungles stems from their destruction.
Below I’ve written some short descriptions of NGOs that operate in my area if anyone wishes to make a contribution or is searching for a volunteer opportunity:
Yayasan Palung is the organization most closely associated with the research project I work in, both under Dr. Cheryl Knott at Boston University. Whereas I and others do orangutan research here at Cabang Panti, they do the human dude of things including education initiatives in surrounding schools and communities to promote environmental education and sustainable livelihoods.
Dr. Andy Marshall at University of Michigan also has a research project here and runs an annual field school for Indonesian professionals that work in conservation and research.
The Borneo division of British nonprofit IAR (International Animal Rescue) operates nearby and does mostly rescue and rehabilitation, but some research and education as well. The Ketapang site deals mostly with orangutans, but with the worsening illegal pet trade they have expanded to other species as well. With this year’s devastating fires breaking the forest into smaller and smaller fragments they also translocate orangutans stranded in these shrinking fragments to larger tracts of forest.
Lastly, Clinic Asri is an environmentally geared medical clinic where villages can get discounts based on their environmental rating or pay in unique ways like planting seedlings. They also have education initiatives in their own community and those close by. Their core mission is that healthy human communities will have less of a need or desire to destroy their surrounding environmental communities.
As you can see in these last two photos, taken six months apart, and to end on a slightly brighter note, nature reclaims and rejuvenates in relatively short order if given the opportunity. For this reason, it is important to keep some amount of hope alive despite a reasonable cynicism and pessimism. In some ways it is a tautology; without hope there is no fight and without a willingness to fight there can be no hope.
If anyone would like to contact me for information about research or conservation in West Kalimantan, backpacking in Indonesia, or any other questions feel free at the listed email below. I’ve also included a link to my blog.