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close this bookIn Place of the Forest: Environmental and Socio-economic Transformation in Borneo and the Eastern Malay Peninsula (UNU, 1990, 310 pages)
close this folderPart 2 : Issues of endangerment and criticality
close this folderStudies in the grasslands of Borneo
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentImperata - A problem or a solution?
View the documentThe occurrence of Imperata cylindrica in Borneo
View the documentThe Riam Kiwa and the Ela Hulu: Contrasts and similarities in study sites
View the documentConclusion


One of the major elements of criticality, as addressed in this book, concerns the degradation of land cover. The conversion of oldgrowth forest to various secondary formations as a result of agriculture and logging activities has already been discussed. The opening of gaps in the canopy allows light to penetrate the forest floor and may create a suitable environment for the establishment of lightloving invasive grassy weeds, of which Imperata cylindrica is the most infamous. This grass, which has many different names in different countries, is known as alang-alang in Indonesia and as lalang in Malaysia. For convenience and easier use of the literature, these national names are used interchangeably with lmperata wherever appropriate in this chapter. Under certain conditions this grass may become dominant over wide areas, a position that it maintains through its tolerance of fire. There are parts of the region where this conversion to "sheet alang-alang" has occurred, particularly in south-east Kalimantan. From colonial times through to the present, officials have viewed such a transformation with alarm, and there is no doubt that the grassland ecosystem has much less to offer than the forest in terms of biodiversity, total biomass for the maintenance of soil fertility and carbon capture, and as a producer of useful materials for human populations. That it does provide some opportunities is less well known and less frequently mentioned in the literature. These opportunities will be discussed in this chapter.

Local people and their shifting-cultivation systems have usually been viewed as the main "culprits" in the forest-grassland trans formation, and indeed they have often created grassland, usually on a small scale and with full understanding of the results of their behaviour. The current rate of attack on the forests, through logging, land settlement, and other pressures, would appear to be creating the conditions for a rapid and irreversible increase in grassland formation. This has led to predictions of doom by some observers and statements such as: "Currently, land use throughout Kalimantan is on an unstable trajectory of net conversion of rainforest to alang-alang, without yet the development of sustainable systems of productive agriculture, of productive managed forestry and of protection of nature reserves" (Leighton and Peart, 1988). The fact that one of these authors, a biologist, has been carryi_ng out research in parks and nature reserves in Kalimantan over more than 10 years gives weight to such a pronouncement. If indeed this were the case, one might well claim an imminent state of "criticality" for Kalimantan and, by extension, the rest of Borneo. We do not believe that this scenario accurately represents the future, but it is clear that the question of the grasslands needs detailed examination, to which we now turn our attention.