The green heart of Borneo

Kieran Cooke

A unique agreement between the three nations occupying the island of Borneo – Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand – seeks to preserve and protect the pristine forest and its diverse ecosystem. Brunei’s participation in the initiative is just one of the measures it is taking in order to create a green economy.

There is a something of a paradox in Bru­nei’s approach to environmental issues. By pumping out large volumes of fossil fuels, the country can be seen to be adding to the ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the world’s atmosphere. Yet the central role played by the oil and gas sector in generating the nation’s wealth has meant that Brunei’s natural habitat – in particular its tropical rainforests – has been largely spared much of the destruction and many of the environmental problems seen elsewhere in the region. “The oil industry sustains the economy of Brunei and has prevented the need for wide-scale logging,” says a gov­ernment official. Furthermore, Brunei’s forests are sequestrating CO2, thus helping in the fight against climate change and in­creased global warming.

Brunei, on the island of Borneo, forms part of one of the richest and most biodiverse regions in the world. Its waters make up part of what is known as the ‘Coral Triangle’ – a vital part of the earth’s marine ecosystem. The country’s forests are home to some 6,000 species of plants, more than 450 types of birds, 150 different mammals and over 70 reptiles. As with other regions of high biodi­versity, many species – especially in the in­sect world – have either yet to be discovered or have not been categorised.

There’s no doubt that Brunei’s forests are considerably better preserved than those in neighbouring countries on the island of Borneo. Satellite images show dense green forest in much of Brunei’s territory, while large parts of the forest elsewhere on Borneo are pockmarked by bare patches of cleared jungle, with logging roads creating vein-like patterns as they criss-cross the terrain.

Exactly how much forest Brunei has is a matter of considerable debate. The govern­ment says Brunei is the world’s fifth most forested nation, with 76 percent of its territory covered. Yet the UN and other bodies cite a considerably lower figure – only about 50 percent, with nearly 12 percent of the forest cover lost over the past 20 years. The govern­ment disputes this, however, saying that less than 5 percent has been lost since 1990, and that it’s all a matter of how forest cover is defined. “Brunei’s definition of forest cover includes the total amount of virgin forests and logged-over forests,” says Mahmud Yussof, the Forestry Department deputy director.

The Heart of Borneo (HoB) initiative, which links Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia under the slogan of ‘Three Countries, One Conservation Vision’, is designed to try to save a central part of the island – including a substantial slice of Brunei territory – from any further deforestation and preserve the area’s vital biodiversity.

The HoB, which was set up in 2007, has been described as essentially a voluntary protection zone. The area, covering 220,000 km2 – almost a third of Borneo’s total area – is not all pristine rainforest: within it are forests used for logging and other timber activities, plantation areas and settlements. The idea is to manage and preserve the area and protect its biodiversity. Enlarging pro­tected zones, such as the conservation area known as ‘Bukit Teraja’ in Brunei, forms a central part of the HoB. The initiative is also designed to encourage more coopera­tion between Brunei and its neighbours and work towards settling trans-border issues. With national boundaries running through dense and often highly inaccessible areas, such cooperation is essential.

But Brunei’s rainforests are coming un­der environmental threats: illegal logging nibbles away at the forest on the country’s borders, and poachers are endangering wildlife. While Brunei has recently sub­stantially increased fines for poaching, it has a limited supply of rangers and inad­equate equipment to oversee and monitor developments over such a large area.

There is no doubt that Brunei is making great strides to ‘green’ its economy. As well as its conservation efforts, the government is investigating various renewable energy projects and there are proposals for a pho­tovoltaic manufacturing facility. There are also plans for a waste-to-energy plant and for harnessing wind power. Officials empha­sise the importance of having young people involved in moves to a green economy, al­tering attitudes – particularly in relation to Bruneians’ ongoing love affair with cars.

With its relatively small economy, Brunei is well down the list of global CO2 emitting nations. However, according to World Bank figures, the country has a high carbon foot­print, with average per capita CO2 emis­sions well ahead of neighbouring countries – and exceeding those in the USA. A start has been made to combat these levels but much still needs to be done if Brunei is to become truly green.

About the author:

Kieran Cooke is a former foreign correspondent in South-East Asia for both the BBC and The Financial Times. He is now a freelance journalist, specialising in financial and environmental issues


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International