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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 folderReview and conclusions
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentEnvironmental changes and impacts
View the documentThe human driving forces
View the documentVulnerability
View the documentSocietal response
View the documentTrajectories and regional dynamics change

Environmental changes and impacts


The period of war, decolonization, nation-building, rebellion, and ethnic strife between 1941 and the mid/late-1960s represents such a divide in the history of this region that we draw a clear separation between what went before and what has since evolved. Much of the story recounted in this book has taken place in only some 30 years, not 50-70 as in other case-studies. However, we have also described change over the preceding century, devoting one whole chapter to this topic and making several other references to earlier events. Not only did a large part of the regional transformation take place during that previous century, but discussion of this quite recent past helps to put rapid changes of the post-1960 period into context. Historical evidence led to the methodological conclusion that trajectories can be reversed when driving forces and conditions undergo major change. One example is the strong suggestion of widespread cultivation, before the twentieth century, on land now heavily forested. A second is modern stabilization of land that has been eroded, first under annual cash crops, then under early estate rubber.

The most threatening environmental changes

The high rate of timber-cutting threatens both the environment and the life support of people dependent for employment on a fastwasting resource. In terms of effect on the environment, the greatest single threat is to biodiversity. In relation to the lowland forests, only quite limited but important reserve and national park areas still retain anything comparable with the biological diversity that once characterized the whole region. Within the former lowland forests some entire forest habitats have been eliminated. The actual loss of species, however, is quite unknown.

A greater threat, arising both from logging and from changes in shiftingcultivation practice, is, however, that due to fire, discussed in depth in chapter 8. As shown in chapter 9, it is even argued in some quarters that all Kalimantan (and, by inference, all Borneo) is on a trajectory that will turn the island into a fire-climax grassland. The fact that there are quite large grassland tracts even in those parts of the great island least affected by drought indicates that this is not wholly fanciful. Against this, however, is the evidence of substantial recovery from fires in the past, even those of 1982/83 (Wirawan, 1993). Kartawinata (1993) has suggested that fire might be an element in the formation and persistence of certain forest types in the region, as well as of grassland. It might thus contribute to diversity. We saw also in chapter 9 that maintenance of grassland for grazing purposes has been more significant than is sometimes supposed.

The real problem concerns the nature of fire. Fire burns the forest edge when used to clear swiddens or when it arises as wildfire in grassland, and thus may contribute to a slow erosion of the forest. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that it is the substantial litter created by timber-cutting that has been primarily responsible for the development of destructive crown-fires in close forest, and that normally these are rare. If forest management is improved, or if timber-cutting ceases to be economic, this hazard might diminish. Our judgement is that there is a very real probability that larger areas of grassland will be created, but that the prospect of a "green desert" replacing the rain forest over great tracts of Borneo and the Peninsula is unlikely in the extreme. Some areas are critical, more are endangered, but impoverishment (albeit serious) is the condition of most of the remaining forest. Moreover, there are big areas in which agro-forestry systems of varying degrees of intensity have taken the place both of forest and of swidden, and in these areas - largely without merchantable timber - there is now enhancement rather than degradation.

On the question of impoverishment of the soil by cultivation, evidence is even more equivocal. The most "impoverished" areas are on land of very low initial quality, principally but not only kerangas. We saw in chapter 1 that there is considerable variety in the soils of the region, and some of these have certainly proved to be very robust under use. Erosion has been heavy in the initial stages of new land clearance almost everywhere, but subsequent treecrop performance has often been good even though some annual cropping may have failed. Mining and its related practices have wreaked total devastation on some areas in the past, and small-scale mining continues to do a great deal of damage. Modern large-scale mining, because it is very recent, is more environmentally conscious. The worst erosion is nowadays almost everywhere along the roads, in modern times probably contributing far more than erosion from agricultural activities.

Events that have served as signals

All the really big damaging events in the recent history of this region have taken place during either drought or flood. It is during drought that the major fire outbreaks have occurred, and the major erosion episodes have been during periods of exceptionally heavy rainfall; in the Peninsula, where they are best documented, the major floods of 1926 and 1971 both had important impacts on agricultural and development practices. All these major events have occurred during extreme phases of the Southern Oscillation, either the droughtproducing El Niño or the flood-generating La Niña.

The extent to which such "natural disasters" have been treated as signals in this region is perhaps unusual. The Borneo fires were at once attributed to human cause, first to shifting cultivators and only later also to loggers. The heavy silt loads in the Peninsular flood events were readily seen as symptomatic of erosion due to mining or forest clearance and, by the 1970s, also to the urban construction boom that had already begun. However, we need to go beyond our immediate region to see the extent to which officials and scholars alike have been ready to look for underlying human causes of disaster, rather than focus attention on the immediate natural trigger. Between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were a number of locally severe famine events in Java, all or almost all of which occurred in relation to adverse weather conditions (Brookfield, 1993). However, both officials and politicians at the time, and subsequent academic interpreters, have focused on economic transformation, insensitive and rapacious policy measures, and impoverishment as the true causes of these events. The most widespread event, in 1902, led to both local and island-wide inquiries into the reasons for "declining welfare" (Commissie, 1903; Onderzoek, 1904-1914). Some changes in policy, and investment in irrigation, resulted from this concern.

More recently, torrential rain from a tropical storm crossing southern Thailand in 1988, to become a cyclone in the Andaman Sea, caused catastrophic flooding, landslides, and heavy mortality. Even though subsequent study has shown that most of the damage took place on land longcleared and cultivated, the popular and official reaction was to blame the timber industry. This led to an immediate ban on logging throughout Thailand. Moreover, though evasions continue to be tolerated, this ban has not been lifted. Regionally, this is perhaps the clearest example of a "signal" in modern experience.