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Commentary: International Collaboration Can Save Borneo — And Money

APRIL 14, 2015

Political collaboration between Indonesia and Malaysia has not always been smooth and easy. Since the Confrontation era between 1962 and 1969, relationships between these nations have generally been rather awkward. Still, a recent study suggests that there is much to gain from increased and improved collaboration between Indonesia, Malaysia and also Brunei Darussalam.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, analyzed the costs and benefits of coordinated forest use planning between the three countries on Borneo island.

The study reveals the potential for Borneo to simultaneously retain about 50 percent of its land as forests, protect adequate habitat for the threatened species, and achieve an opportunity cost saving of over $43 billion.

The governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam have all made policy commitments towards the use and development of Borneo’s forest resources. All three governments are committed to maintaining between 45 percent and 75 percent of their part of Borneo in a forested condition, and manage this through protection or sustainable forestry. They also commit to protecting viable populations of species such as elephants and orangutans, and minimize carbon emissions deforestation.

At the same time, however, the national governments on Borneo have goals for expanding their plantation and timber industries. When juxtaposing these goals, it becomes clear that fully achieving all policy goals is not possible, and that trade-offs are needed.

The present study assessed the optimal land allocation for achieving as many of the different goals as possible. For this it looked at several scenarios: 1. The present business-as-usual way; 2. Improved country-based planning; 3. Coordination between countries in what is called the “Heart of Borneo”; and 4. Integrated planning that ignores state boundaries and modifies existing land-use allocation where possible.

The present way of planning and implementing land use (“business-as-usual”) performs very poorly, and would significantly fall short of national commitments to maintain half the island under forest cover. Losing that much forest comes at a price, as was shown in a range of other studies on, for example, climate impacts and flooding.

Surprisingly, the much-celebrated Heart of Borneo solution is rather expensive. It does well in the mountainous center of Borneo, but poorly in the coastal lowlands where governments are free to develop plantations wherever they want.

The study indicates that it would be best if Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam worked together on the management of their forest and land resources. Not only could this collaboration reach many of the policy targets, it could also save the three countries $43 billion through increased efficiency. That is not a small amount of money for any of the states on Borneo!

Not only can major cost savings be achieved. The international coordination approach could lead to much increased carbon emission savings, for example, between 40 percent and 53 percent more than what could be achieved through the Heart of Borneo scenario.

Changing land use is not easy. The international collaboration scenario requires the protection of 8.6 million hectares of land currently allocated to timber production, 4.3 million hectares of allocated oil palm land, and 1.3 million of un-planted industrial timber concession land. Companies, however, have paid for licenses on those lands and won’t easily give them up, even if new opportunities are identified in other places that are better suited to plantation development.

Also, local communities also increasingly claim land rights and rights to certain land uses, and aligning community rights and responsibilities through national and supranational planning and policies would require much negotiation.

Finally, governments may on paper assign as much importance to their goals for protecting species and habitats as for developing plantations, but the reality is that political support for lucrative plantation opportunities is much greater than for conservation. This situation is reinforced by the close and well-protected ties between industry (e.g. oil-palm, forestry, mining etc.) and politicians.

It is therefore obvious that major political will would be needed to push through new legislation that benefits the individual countries more than the vested interests that run them.

The findings regarding the Heart of Borneo are surprising. While this initiative reflects the sentiment of coordinated planning between the three countries that signed the Heart of Borneo agreement, the resulting land use is far from optimal for Borneo. Stronger and more geographically distributed efforts are needed to avoid irreversible biodiversity loss, achieve equitable benefits among diverse stakeholders, and maximize efficiency across multiple sectors.

It may be possible to build on the Heart of Borneo agreement and expand it to all of Borneo. A binding agreement on land-use could be developed to ensure that jointly developed plans are implemented in each national jurisdiction. Such an agreement could be facilitated by a regional intergovernmental platform (such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and should serve to give each jurisdiction the confidence that their interests are being treated equitably.

Borneo-wide collaboration is a not a new idea. A famous peace conference in Tumbang Anoi (Central Kalimantan) in 1894 was a good example of Dayak representatives from across the island coming together to address a common problem (warfare, slavery and head-taking).  The meetings took four months to complete but resulted in a significant decrease in inter-tribal wars and raids. Borneo has been a much safer place ever since.

Let’s hope that leaders of Borneo once again recognize the benefit of working together to develop the island’s resources, while maintaining the many local and international benefits provided by its forests.

Erik Meijaard is a conservation scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures initiative. 

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