Lush, impenetrable tropical forests once defined much of the Southeast Asian islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Cloaked in almost unbroken forest canopy, the islands were teeming with endemic species, from the Sumatran tiger to the Bornean pygmy elephant - Sumatra, in fact, one of the only places in the world playing host to tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, and orangutans simultaneously.Thicketed hills blended seamlessly into lowland forests and mangroves, with indigenous communities practicing small-scale farming and harvesting forest products as they had been for centuries. Holding massive expanses of peatlands, the islands were also a vast carbon sink, trapping carbon dioxide in their waterlogged soil.
However, over the last century, this reality has crumbled.
Swathes of natural forest have been flattened, with over 50% of Sumatra’s primary forests being lost - the forests have been replaced by vast monocultures of palm oil and acacia to feed the global agribusiness and paper and pulp industry. Mass consumer demand and globalisation led to the explosion of palm oil in Southeast Asia - used in an overwhelming majority of processed consumer products today, from soaps and cosmetics to food products, the massive rise in its use led to an unprecedented decline in Sumatran and Bornean forests. Scenes of orphaned infant orangutans roaming amongst roaring bulldozers became common, along with lone forest trees looming, giant-like, over ordered rows of oil palm. One province in Sumatra, Riau, lost over four million hectares of its primary forest between 1992 and 2010 - a staggering 42% of its total forest cover. Peatlands, deprived of their moisture-bringing vegetation, began to burn uncontrollably, and unstable, deforested soils started to collapse into clear-water streams, reducing them to muddy drainage canals.
This destruction is an ongoing process, proceeding unforgivingly even as you read this article. While in many areas, degraded forests continue to regenerate into secondary forests, it is critical to protect remaining primary forests - restoring the original levels of biodiversity is a process that occurs over hundreds of years. This relentless pace of destruction has led to the endangerment of the orangutan and elephant on both islands. The fate of the Sumatran rhinoceros is in even greater jeopardy - thought to be extirpated from Borneo and critically endangered, and with the Sumatran Tiger also critically endangered, the fate of these species hangs in the balance. Fragmented forests mean that populations cannot breed freely, lowering genetic diversity and further weakening the future survival of these species. As indigenous communities come into conflict with large corporations, they are often evicted or displaces, with over 5,000 human rights abuses emerging in such conflicts. The Penan, an indigenous tribe practicing a hunter-gathering lifestyle in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, began to blockade roads to prevent logging trucks from accessing their land. Most recently, they protested the flooding of their lands by a massive project of hydroelectric dams that flooded thousands of hectares of forest - those who dissented the destruction of their traditional way of life were killed, arrested, or after the seizing of their land, placed in unfinished resettlement camps. The massive lobbying power of multinational corporation often means that they able to secure concessions despite the protests of local communities, destroying tremendous amounts of biodiversity in the process.
However, some glimmers of hope continue to emerge from the darkness. In 2015, Indonesia extended a two-year moratorium on logging, which is currently in the process of being extended further. Community and NGO-based reforestation initiatives are beginning to make progress in the region, with one notable example being WWF’s Thirty Hills project in Bukit Tigapuluh, Sumatra. With a new government in Malaysia rethinking Sarawak’s policy of dam construction, it also appears that the suffering of the Penan people, and their traditional forests may be alleviated, if only temporarily. A rise in global awareness is key to changing the ground-reality in Sumatra and Borneo today - the fight against unsustainable and destructive practices is best fought with consumer power. As international pressure grows to protect these irreplaceable forests, governments will begin to do their part to enforce and legislate conservation in their countries.
The forests of Southeast Asia and their biodiversity are a treasure for the world - and it is our sincere hope that they can regenerate for the future of humanity and all the species that call them home.