Camping for Kinabatangan

How many of us dreamt as a child to nestle down amidst the high branches of a huge, charismatic oak tree at the bottom of the garden, in the corner of the park or down in the woods at the end of the road? Imagining an adventurous night spent under the stars and in the tree tops? I often did. Jealousy crept over me when a childhood friend had a tree house built in her garden, I would long to go round so we could climb up the tree, through the trapdoor and to a fantasy world. Such desires often depart with adult sensibilities but on June 24th I will get to nestle down for the night in the canopy of the Eden Project, laying my head to rest with the thought that around the world many others will be joining me amongst the trees from as far as New Zealand to the Pacific North West and here’s why.

In the canopy – Maliau basin, Sabah, Borneo

Are we failing our forests?

According to data published by the World Bank, since 1990 the world has lost approximately 1.3 million square km of forested land. It is estimated that of the 3.04 trillion trees on Earth, 15 billion are cut down every year [1]. Deforestation is an all too familiar word and one that is still functional when looking at global forest trends. Yet it would be misleading to represent all countries and regions in the same light, there are reasons not to be despondent. Many countries have gained forested land and increasingly more land is assigned a protected status, by 2014 more than 14% of the worlds land had been protected. However replacing old growth, primary forest with newly forested areas does not replace the biodiversity or the ecosystem services that were lost with the initial deforestation event. Forests provide not only a calming refuge from the bustle of daily life and a tranquil place to walk the dog but they mitigate climate change, influence weather patterns, prevent soil erosion and serve as a watershed. Forests are diverse in their characteristics and composition, and from an anthropocentric point of view this diversity provides nutritional, health and economic benefits. Of all the forests it is tropical rainforests that house around 50% of terrestrial biodiversity and are among the most threatened. The news website Mongabay has numerous articles reporting on threats to rainforests and many of these cluster around land converted to cattle pastures or to agricultural crops, particularly of oil palm or soybean. Palm oil is found in an incredible array of products from food to cosmetics and detergents. It is hard to avoid. Almost 90% of oil palm production comes from Indonesia and Malaysia and often at the expense of tropical rainforests.

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Can we put a brake on deforestation?

Many developed countries are found in a hypocritical position when advocating the preservation of forested lands since they benefited from the deforestation of their own.  It is ethically dubious to pressurise small scale farmers to leave small patches of forested area and impose restrictions on cultivation when they are striving to better their situation and create opportunities for their children. But what about large scale plantations? Plantation industries have been the main driver of deforestation in Malaysian Borneo over the last 4 decades [2]. Historically plantations may have been founded on lands cleared for other reasons but expansion of plantations has become one of the primary causes of deforestation.  So is it ethically dubious to pressurise industry powerhouses to show environmental consideration? And how is this achieved? Export markets play an increasing role in promoting agricultural expansion and land use change in the tropics.  When a fifth of harvested croplands are exported, global consumers cannot shun accountability for driving up rates of tropical deforestation [3]. It is supply and demand, the crux of the capitalist society, that governs most of the world. Both sides of this coin, supply and demand, should be pressurised into driving down deforestation rates and there are a number of initiatives designed to do so. The REDD+ program (reducing emissions from forest degradation and deforestation) emerged from the requirement of countries to sign up to reducing carbon emissions. Tropical deforestation may account for as much as 3 billion tons of global CO2 emissions per year, not accounting for forest degradation by selective logging or the release of carbon from peat soil. One of principal aims of REDD+ is to encourage developing countries to reduce carbon emissions through improved forest management by providing an alternative income stream for landholders. Basically governments, land owners or companies are paid to forego other land uses. The money that can be made from alternative land uses is often referred to as ‘opportunity costs’. Ultimately for this to work payments must be financially a better option than the alternative land use and higher than the opportunity costs. Unfortunately palm oil with its high yield and high demand is an economically favourable crop and competitive with many REDD+ payments.

EU regulation (1169/2011) now specifies that palm oil will no longer be a hidden ingredient on products sold within the EU. Palm oil has for too long been an invisible presence, indicated only as vegetable oil yet new regulation states that the vegetable origin of oil now has to be included. So consumers will now have a more informed choice but should palm oil be boycotted? For all the felonies thrown at the feet of palm oil it is a highly productive crop that has a high economic value. Any alternative would surely need more land to produce the same yields. But can palm oil be sustainable? The certification of fairtrade is a mark most are more than familiar with and may seek on products bought but how many of us can identify the certification mark for sustainable palm oil? The roundtable for sustainable palm oil has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce certified sustainable palm oil. Such a mark will be increasingly sought by companies if demanded by consumers. Public image is ever more important as awareness of environmental issues grows, this has led to a number of companies making ‘zero deforestation commitments’ in their supply chain. Substantiating such a pledge is itself wrought with difficulties, as highlighted by an article in Mongabay. Yet by growing public awareness and ensuring programs are in place to support well managed and environmentally conscious plantations, a loop of positive feedback between supply and demand will develop to work in favour of rainforests.

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Why save the Kinabatangan River?

Initiatives like the ones described above can be frustratingly slow and bureaucratic so The World Land Trust have taken a different approach: buying rainforest and taking it out of the hands of oil palm plantations. Simply, when land comes up for sale it will go to the highest bidder. In 2014 they were able to raise £1 million to purchase forest along the Kinabatangan River creating the Keruak Corridor. And now they’re trying again.  Land is available to buy in the lower reaches of the Kinabatangan River adjacent to the Pangi Virgin Forest Reserve. The Kinabatangan River is the longest river in Sabah at 560 km. Along its length you will find rich riparian forest stretching into lowland dipterocarp rainforest and limestone caves, in the lower reaches are expanses of mangroves and Asia’s largest alluvial floodplain. It is a sanctuary for diverse flora and fauna including some of the most enigmatic species to Borneo: the orangutan, proboscis monkey, pygmy Asian elephant, clouded leopard, sun-bear and for bird watchers more than 200 species of bird.

Since the 1950s land surrounding the Kinabatangan has been carved up for logging and agriculture with palm oil currently the dominant crop. Fragments of protected land is now juxtaposed within a mosaic of degraded forest and plantations. The Pangi reserve creates a continuous forest corridor between the lower and middle portions of the Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary. Purchasing the available land will buffer the reserve from encroaching oil palm plantations. Furthermore it will connect the reserve with the river, preventing possible forest clearance of the riverbank in future. Despite the abundance of plantations, the lower floodplains do not make an ideal location for palm oil production due to periodic flood inundation. A study published in 2015 found that 20.5% of cultivated oil palm in this region is under-producing and a further 6.3% is commercially redundant due to palm mortality. Of the 30,173 ha of unprotected forest in this region 64% is allocated to future palm oil but at least 54% of this would be unsuitable [4]. Yet regardless of suitability, demand for land is high as it becomes increasingly scarce and more difficult for plantations to grow bigger and extend their reach. In fact it is in locations like this in the Kinabatangan floodplain where REDD+ can outcompete the opportunity costs of palm oil and REDD+ is a viable option [4]. Only last year plans to build a bridge across the lower reaches of the Kinabatangan at Sukau were shelved after pressure from conservationists. Sukau is often used as the gateway for tourists into the Kinabatangan and conserving the Kinabatangan will be vital for making ecotourism pay.

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How to participate in The Big Canopy Campout?

As the sun sets on the evening of Saturday June 24th tree climbers, canopy scientists and other enthusiasts will be bedding down for a night amongst the trees. From the tree tops to the forest floor hammocks will be slung and tents erected to show our appreciation and celebrate the diversity of forests. Money raised will support the World Land Trust project to save the Kinabatangan. To date 26 events have been registered across 18 countries, from small groups of friends to large organised events, camping for the Kinabatangan and camping for conservation.

Please see the website for The Big Canopy Campout for more information and on how to donate.

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[1] Crowther T.W., Glick H.B., Covey K.R., Bettigole C., Maynard D.S., et al. (2015) Mapping tree density at a global scale. Nature  525: 201–205, doi:10.1038/nature14967

[2]  Gaveau D.L.A, Sheil D., Husnayaen, Salim M.A., Arjasakusuma S. et al. (2016) Rapid conversions and avoided deforestation: examining four decades of industrial plantation expansion in Borneo. Scientific Reports (6) Article number: 32017

[3] Henders S., Persson U.M. & Kastner T. (2015) Trading forests: land-use change and carbon emissions embodied in production and exports of forest – risk commodities. Environment Research Letters (10): 125012

[4] Abram N., Xofis P., Tzanopoulos J., MacMillan D.C., Ancrenaz M. et al. (2014) Synergies for Improving Oil Palm Production and Forest Conservation in Floodplain Landscapes. PLoS ONE 9(6): e95388. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095388

[5] Abram N.K., MacMillan D.C., Xofis P., Ancrenaz M., Tzanopoulos J. et al. (2016) Identifying where REDD+ financially out competes oil palm in floodplain landscapes using a fine-scale approach. PLoS ONE 11(6):e0156481. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0156481

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