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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.

Oct blog Type of Coverage

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. The image below depicts the new roads constructed in a forested region known as the ‘Heart of Borneo’ in purple.

Oct Blog Roads

Needless to say, a great deal of the forests in Malaysian Borneo was classified as severely degraded. Researchers found that rainforests covered only 22% of land area in Malaysian Borneo in 2009, and of that 22%, only 38% remained intact. What then is the future for these degraded rainforests?

The researchers of a second PLOS ONE study evaluated the role logged forests play in maintaining natural rainforests in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, by conducting statistical analyses on areas designated as protected areas, areas designated for logging, and industrial plantations. Researchers concluded that, when logged responsibly, areas designated for logging, called timber concessions, maintained forest cover just as well as protected areas during 2000-2010. Protecting timber concessions would increase the amount of land dedicated to sustaining larger forest landscapes.

Oct blog 2 Transition

The alternative to returning these logged areas, often considered beyond the point of regeneration, to a state of natural regrowth is reclassification as industrial plantation. Palm oil plantations are economically viable options for Indonesia. However, to make the land viable for industrial planation use, workers must first strip larger trees, burn smaller trees and shrubs, and finally clear the remaining land. These researchers view responsible logging as a compromise in which forests continue to provide economic output to communities, but also are allowed to maintain the veracity of their biodiversity. Rather than being seen as wastelands and turned into industrial plantations, researchers consider timber concessions as valuable areas of tree coverage and biodiversity, which merit classification as IUCN Protected Areas.

However, as researchers from a third PLOS ONE paper state, “Striking a balance between economic development and maintenance of biodiversity is increasingly challenging in the face of climate change, rapid human production growth, and concomitant demand for natural resources.” To address the range of ways the forest is valuable, researchers assessed Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo’s peoples’ perceptions of the values and uses of forests, as well as the factors influencing these perceptions.

Of 1,837 people surveyed from 185 villages in Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo, 67% considered the forest to be important for maintaining their good health. The authors state that the forest was generally perceived as a provider of good health. Moreover, natural forest resources, even in those forests degraded by repeated logging, are important for local people. In their responses, participants frequently mentioned using forests for timber, rattan, fire wood, bushmeat and fish, traditional medicine, and forest gardens. Most people reported using forest resources even in areas severely degraded by logging, or where no canopy cover exists. Researchers therefore concluded that considering these areas “wastelands” or degraded beyond the point of use, with the result that these areas are converted into industrial plantations, is not warranted due to the value placed on resources obtained from forests, regardless of level of degradation.

Researchers also found that many believed small-scale deforestation benefitted welfare. 48% of respondents reported small scale clearing for purposes of farming as positive. Respondents were much less supportive of large-scale deforestation.

Initiatives to strike a balance between economic need and maintenance of these diverse rainforests in Borneo are ongoing. Researchers are divided about the most effective ways to conserve Borneo’s important natural forests; whereas the construction of palm oil plantations in place of forests is unquestionably destructive to conservation efforts, the place of logging in Borneo remains less defined. Conserving biodiversity, responsibly maintaining the economy, and valuing the input of local people must all be taken into account when devising compromises for the difficult issue of deforestation. In the meantime, research in Borneo continues to enable a better understanding of Borneo’s complex balancing act.


Bryan JE, Shearman PL, Asner GP, Knapp DE, Aoro G, et al. (2013) Extreme Differences in Forest Degradation in Borneo: Comparing Practices in Sarawak, Sabah, and Brunei. PLoS ONE 8(7): e69679. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069679

Gaveau DLA, Kshatriya M, Sheil D, Sloan S, Molidena E, et al. (2013) Reconciling Forest Conservation and Logging in Indonesian Borneo. PLoS ONE 8(8): e69887. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069887

Meijaard E, Abram NK, Wells JA, Pellier A-S, Ancrenaz M, et al. (2013) People’s Perceptions about the Importance of Forests on Borneo. PLoS ONE 8(9): e73008. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073008

Image 1: Flora and Fauna of the Borneo Rainforest by Rainforest Action Network

Image 2: Figure 2 journal.pone.0069679

Image 3: Figure 1 journal.pone.0069679

Image 4: Figure 2 journal.pone.0069887