Borneo is a unique island divided between three nations, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. And that has meant an ecological mess for one of the oldest rainforests in the world. But logging decimated the forests, which was further aggravated by agricultural expansion. And the plans for the Borneo Highway, cutting across the heart of the island, could finally sound the death knell for the ecology of this region.
Borneo’s rainforests are around 140 million years old. It has been the heart of the evolution and distribution of many endemic species of animals and plants. But intense pressure for infrastructure development on Borneo has intensified, with both Indonesia and Malaysia poised to reap the immediate benefits of this transboundary highway. The long-term ecological consequences have taken a back seat for now.
The Borneo Highway is expected to cut through large tracts of protected zones inside the Heart of Borneo. It will also spend up the expansion of a fresh oil-palm producing region which will extract a severe cost for the indigenous people, the forests of Borneo, and its teeming wildlife. The global climatic consequences will also be far-reaching.
The forests are home to the giant dipterocarp trees, the fruits of which all ripen together. Rare species like the sun bears, the bearded pigs, and the endangered orangutans travel hundreds of kilometers to feast on these fruits, crossing dense forests and national boundaries.
Collective Greed Behind The Borneo Highway
A 2007 pact between the three countries to preserve a third of the land named the Heart of Borneo is set to be broken by the three nations who are party to it. The 54 million-acre (22 million hectares) stretch of pristine forests is set to be carved up by the Pan Borneo Highway. It is expected to be a 3,308 mile (5,324 kilometers) Highway network linking the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah to Kalimantan, the Indonesia part of Borneo.
Even though the Borneo Highway could bring economic development to the region’s inaccessible villages, it will also cut through the Heart of Borneo and leave it vulnerable to the extraction of resources.
Of particular concern is the development of the new palm oil-producing region. Angus MacInnes of Forest Peoples’ Programme, a non-profit based in the UK said the palm-oil companies that will follow these roads to the Heart of Borneo are the most dangerous for the forests.
The administrative capital of Indonesia is slated to be shifted from Indonesia to East Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. This move has the potential to benefit neighboring Malaysia. The Borneo Highway will facilitate ease of access to areas previously considered remote.
The administration has promised in developing eco-friendly industries, and not in those that merely suck up natural resources. However, the plan set out by the Indonesian government lays stress on the palm oil and logging industries that will be given prominence to fuel growth for its economy.
The northern link section of the Borneo Highway has the potential for the most damage. It was carved through the Heart of Borneo, the ancestral land of the Dayak, an indigenous community. But activists say that the plantations and palm-oil companies will benefit from the Borneo Highway and not the indigenous community as claimed by the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Consequences Of The Highway
Experts warn that the consequences of building the Borneo Highway will be felt across the planet as it will lead to the destruction of one of the world’s last rainforests.
Ecologist Mohammed Alamgir of Australia’s James Cook University warns that the consequences will be disastrous for many endangered species that are unique to this part of the world.
It will lead to deforestation, carbon emissions, and finally the destruction of biomass. This will be followed by fragmentation of forests that will lead to loss of connectivity for migrating wildlife. Poachers and hunters will have easy access to the heart of the forests. The pristine highlands of Borneo will be the most threatened.
Activists have pushed for more say for the indigenous communities. They said that they are the best guardians of these forests and need to be consulted before the construction begins. But, after Africa and the Amazon, it appears to be another battle lost against preserving the rainforests of the world.