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10. The eastern Sundaland region of south-east Asia

Sundaland as a "critical environmental zone"
Forestry in Borneo since the 1960s
Land-use change and agricultural settlement
Impending crisis in forestry and the timber industries
The state, the timber industry, and shifting cultivators
Lessons for the future from peninsular Malaysia
Questions of criticality in Borneo
A changing resource frontier

Lesley Potter, Harold Brookfield, and Yvonne Byron

The analysis in this chapter covers all Borneo and the east of Peninsular Malaysia, but for reasons of space we focus principally on Borneo, both Indonesian and Malaysian, and make only brief reference to the Malay Peninsula. In a larger sense, Sundaland, the partly submerged continental spur extending south-eastward from Asia to the Wallace line, also includes Sumatra and Java, and all of it was dry land during the low-sealevel periods of the Pleistocene. Our area of focus, together with much of Sumatra, has for 30 years been the "resource frontier" of Indonesia and Malaysia. This role is undergoing change as the old-growth timber resource that has been heavily exploited nears exhaustion, leading to a new phase that will have to depend more on oil and gas, agriculture, forest management, and industry.

We focus principally on four of the questions posed by the authors of chapter 1. First is the change in the resource base. Clearly, the timber resource is declining rapidly, but the agricultural land resource, however defined, has increased, though the increase may be approaching limits. We have to try to place values on this shift, and to do so in global, regional, and quite local contexts. The second question involves the thresholds of criticality, an issue of continuing concern in this volume. For much of the original forests, any such threshold has long since passed, and we do not think that merely to lament this fact is productive. Criticality has to be assessed in terms of the present transitional economy and its effect on people and on the environment. The third question addresses poverty. National governments see their policies as reducing a pre-existing condition of poverty rather than as creating new poverty. In asking, who are the poor, we need also to ask, who are the rich? Moreover, change in any environment creates biophysical vulnerability, but how much is this transitory? What is the role of tropical deforestation in increasing global vulnerability through climatic interference? Each of these questions needs to be disaggregated and considered at different levels of scale. We deal with them through the text, then bring the issues together in conclusion.

To approach these problems we first review eastern Sundaland as a whole, to determine what about its present condition might be regarded as critical, both in terms of how the world sees it and in terms of its own transitory situation. We then describe the changes and the current conditions on the island of Borneo. Because it is the central issue, we concentrate almost wholly on the changes arising from deforestation, timber extraction, and conversion to agriculture. These issues underlie all others. Although oil and gas, mainly extracted offshore, will be of major future importance, the land and forest resource issues are our vehicles for discussion of criticality in Sundaland.

Sundaland as a "critical environmental zone"

A region of rapid change

The 1990 population of Borneo was 12.7 million people - 3.3 million in East Malaysia, 0.3 million in Brunei, and 9.1 million in Kalimantan (see fig. 10.1 for locations). Table 10.1 shows the distribution of population. In addition, between 0.5 and 1 million people, most of whom are illegal but tolerated immigrants in Malaysian Borneo, are unrecorded in census data. Peninsular Malaysia has 14.7 million people, plus up to 1 million illegals. The island of Sumatra has a further 33 million people, and over 107 million now live on Java, with a land area about the size of the former Czechoslovakia. Together with almost 3 million in Singapore, there are over 170 million people in the whole of greater Sundaland. Only 7.5 per cent are in Borneo. Growth is rapid, but in most of Borneo the density of population is still low. Except for the oil and gas fields, the major element in the recent exploitation of our part of Sundaland has been the clearance of forest. both for planned and unplanned land settlement and for timber extraction. The island of Borneo alone has provided at least one half of the world's total exports of non-coniferous tropical hardwoods since the early 1970s and 60 per cent in 1987 (Brookfield and Byron 1990). After the United States and Canada, Malaysia is the world's third-largest exporter, almost entirely from its Borneo territories, of all solid woods (hardwood and softwood together) (Vincent 1988); Indonesia, principally from its Borneo (Kalimantan) provinces, produced 58 per cent of all world exports of tropical plywoods by 1987.

Table 10.1 Population densities on the island of Borneo, 1990

State Population (million) Area (kmē) Population density (persons/kmē)
E. Kalimantan 1.88 211,440 8.9
W. Kalimantan 3.24 146,807 22.0
C. Kalimantan 1.39 153,800 9.0
S. Kalimantan 2.59 36,985 70.0
Sarawak 1.77 124,449 14.2
Sabah 1.54 74,398 20.7
Brunei 0.30 5,765 52.0

Sources: Census of Indonesia (1990); Asian Yearbook 7990.

Fig. 10.1 Sundaland and adjacent areas, showing places mentioned in the text

Equatorial South-East Asia is both the most populous and the most rapidly developing part of the low-latitude tropics. Singapore and Malaysia, though not yet Indonesia, have attained levels of per capita national income above or comparable with those of the lesser-developed countries of Europe, and the GDP growth rates of all three countries over the period 1965-1989 were consistently high, though more spectacular in the 1970s than in the 1980s (World Bank 1991, 206-207). The people of both Indonesia and Malaysia, and of all ethnic groups within them, are proud of their national achievements since independence and impatient for further development. It would be folly to disregard this essential part of the total environment.

Deforestation as a critical issue

The rate of deforestation, and its consequences, are now recognized as serious issues in both Indonesia and Malaysia, but this recognition is rather new and its origins are more economic than ecological. In the eyes of the powerful world conservationist movement, on the other hand, deforestation alone makes this area a "critical environmental region." The issue rose to international prominence in the late 1970s out of a growing realization that rates of clearance and harvesting were both unsustainable and ecologically damaging (e.g. Eckholm 1976; Myers 1980, 1984). In the United States, a series of official inquiries conducted around 1980 brought concern about tropical deforestation into US aid and foreign policy (Stowe 1987). The International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), initially proposed as a trade organization in 1977, became also a body charged with sustainable use and conservation by the time it was formed in 1983. It is argued that, in the long run, the high rate of forest reduction both for timber extraction and for agricultural land settlement will have been unsuccessful in establishing any sort of sustainable future even for agriculture. The latter claim, the evaluation of which is central to any review of "environmental endangerment or criticality" in this region, is found mainly in the more popular literature and seems to derive largely from extrapolation of tropical American experience to South-East Asia. Yet the view gains support in relation to South-East Asia from Gillis (1988), who joins more forcefully with Repetto (1988, 1990) and many others in maintaining that neither Indonesia nor Malaysia will have gained much lasting benefit from the rapid depletion of their forest resources. Conservationists see the rate of deforestation as critical for two further reasons: it is destroying a "global" resource of inestimable value and great genetic diversity, and in the process is also wiping out the basis of livelihood of the forest-dwelling people; it is contributing substantially to carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, and hence to global climatic change. An immense literature covers both these aspects; the former is mainly a regional issue that we take up below, but the latter is of global concern.

The global significance of deforestation

The issues involved have been complex from the outset. Estimates of deforestation (usefully reviewed by Brown and Lugo 1982; Lugo and Brown 1982; and Allen and Barnes 1985) are now being refined on the basis of improved information. Some problems of interpretation, and the policy implications, were recently assessed by Wood (1990). The World Resources Institute (1988, 1990) has raised its former estimate of Indonesia's annual deforestation rate from 6,000 to 9,000 kmē per year, putting this country third in rank after Brazil and India; the estimate for Malaysia remains unchanged at 2,550 kmē per year. Revisions are said to be based on satellite information, a data source criticized as full of "ambiguities and impossibilities" by Blasco and Achard (1990); apart from the problems of low resolution and lack of synchroneity in cloudy regions such as Sundaland, there are inconsistencies in interpretation through time. In addition to complete clearance for land development, generalized deforestation data may or may not include the effects of shifting cultivation and the consequences of selective logging. It is widely held that tropical deforestation is an important source of CO2 inputs into the atmosphere. Tropical Asia as a whole is estimated to provide 25 per cent of the world's contribution from biotic sources (World Resources Institute 1988). This is a view hotly disputed in some quarters in the developing countries, most recently by the Indian Centre for Science and Environment (Agarwal and Narain 1991).

A review of data on greenhouse gas emissions at national levels put Indonesia in seventh rank among contributors in carbon equivalent, ahead of West Germany and the United Kingdom and behind only the United States, the USSR, China, Brazil, India, and Japan (Hammond, Rodenburg, and Moomaw 1991). Malaysia, being much smaller, comes a long way further down the list, but lies well above Indonesia on a per capita basis. Two principal elements contribute to the high rank of Indonesia: the quantitatively small but effective interceptor, methane, and carbon. The former is produced largely from wet ricefields and swamps. The review pays more attention, however, to the carbon released by forest-clearing and from the soil exposed in consequence of deforestation. A principal authoritative source on carbon flux is Richard Houghton (1991; Houghton et al. 1987; Palm et al. 1986), whose work is used by Hammond, Rodenburg, and Moomaw (1991). The estimation of carbon flux from tropical forests undergoing change has improved enormously since the time of some initially very high estimates made in the 1970s, but it remains an area in which increasingly sound methodology is applied to very unsound data. What can be described only as "heroic" extrapolations from very limited measurements are necessary.

Three main elements are involved. First is estimation of change in the forest area and its rate. Second is calculation of forest biomass. Third is evaluation of the effects of interference other than complete conversion to non-forest uses, that is, of shifting cultivation and logging. This last element is complicated by uncertainty about the net effect of initial destruction and subsequent recovery during which new growth takes up carbon at a higher rate than occurs in dynamically stable forest. It is also necessary to take account of carbon removed, but not destroyed, in the form of wood products. Calculations based on land-use change alone yielded a carbon release from all the non-fallow forests of the Asian tropics equal to only 7 per cent of that from global fossil-fuel consumption (Houghton et al. 1985).

Subsequent work has both modified results and provided important new bases for quantitative estimation of the effects of forest interference (Dale, Houghton, and Hall 1991). Brown, Gillespie, and Lugo (1989) revised the basis for conversion of forest inventory data to biomass, using expansion factors applied to stand tables. Hall and Uhlig (1991) further refined biomass estimates by using these new expansion factors with data on commercial tree volumes per hectare, for undisturbed, logged, unproductive, and managed forest. They applied the results to FAO data on 1980 land use, with allowance for shifting cultivation, to obtain new estimates of carbon flux, but the lack of good data on shifting cultivation reduces the value of their effort to refine estimation on this basis.

Other researchers (Brown, Gillespie, and Lugo 1991) made use of the two national forest inventories of Peninsular Malaysia, carried out in 1972 and 1981 (FAO 1973; Malaysia 1987), to introduce the concept of "degraded" forest, meaning forest reduced in biomass from its original state, principally by logging or shifting cultivation. Comparing area and calculated biomass for different forest types on the Peninsula at the two dates, they found a statistically highly significant reduction in mean biomass per hectare on the much-enlarged area of partially logged hill forest and the very small area of shifting-cultivation forest. For no very evident reason, biomass in the small area of partially logged swamp forest had increased. They noted that degradation as well as decrease in the forest area implies loss of carbon, and derived a "degradation ratio" from the ratio of biomass lost to area lost, relative to the initial average biomass. For Peninsular Malaysia in 1981 this ratio was 1.6.

The data on which all these estimates rely are a good deal less than satisfactory, though the authors have worked very hard to improve on them. The effect, however, is to enhance the role of tropical deforestation and degradation as an important contributor to global carbon emissions, so long as we accept at least the median level of estimates. The Scientific Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change (IPCC) notes, however, that one of three possibilities that might explain the imbalance in the global carbon cycle could be, just possibly, that inputs from tropical deforestation are at the low end of the range (Houghton, Jenkins, and Ephraums 1990, 17). A comparison of maps of carbon emissions from terrestrial ecosystems and from fossil fuels, on an equivalent tonnes/kmē basis (Houghton and Skole 1990, 399), places tropical South-East Asia in a class with the industrialized countries. The new data on forest degradation would add to this calculated contribution. Even though the total area concerned, and hence the total quantity, is far smaller than that supplying high levels of carbon from fossil fuels, the addition to atmospheric carbon by forest conversion and degradation in Sundaland could, therefore, be a significant, though uncertain, element in global atmospheric pollution. Methane from the ricefields and wetlands, and the growing flux of carbon from fossil fuels burned in the region, might already be as important.


The island

The large island of Borneo is occupied by the two eastern states of Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, by the independent country of Brunei, and by the four Indonesian provinces of East, West, South, and Central Kalimantan. Two-thirds of the total area of 753,644 kmē is in Kalimantan, one-third in Malaysia and Brunei. Borneo has long been famous for its forests: current estimates give Indonesian Borneo 51 per cent of Indonesia's standing stock in forests of all types, and 75 per cent of the commercially valuable dipterocarps (FAO and GOI 1990). With the rest of "Sundaland," including Sumatra and Malaysia, Borneo forms the important forest belt of West Malesia, with a uniquely rich and varied flora and fauna (Whitmore 1984).

Borneo has considerable physiographic complexity, the landforms generally descending from a north-central mountainous spine. The geology of the Malaysian part is better known than that of Kalimantan, though a recent survey of a potentially mineral-bearing swath across northern Kalimantan helps rectify this imbalance (Pieters and Supriatna 1990). Palaeozoic basement rocks and Mesozoic volcanics and meta-sediments form a central and south-western core related to that of Peninsular Malaysia, onto which Mesozoic mountains have been attached in the south-eastern Meratus range (Katili 1974). Most of northern and eastern Borneo is also added to the original Sunda plate. Oceanic basement sediments in eastern Kalimantan contain Devonian corals. Some of the highest north-central mountains are younger than the pre-Tertiary core. The Crocker range of Sabah, rising to 4,100 m in Gunung Kinabalu, is a mass of igneous intrusives less than 2 million years old. Late-Tertiary volcanic plateaux cap older formations, to rise to between 2,000 m and 3,000 m in eastern parts of Sarawak and western East Kalimantan. Tertiary limestone formations are widespread, with cave systems of great size in Sarawak that hold important evidence of human prehistory.

Most of Sarawak plus Brunei forms a geosynclinal belt of Tertiary and Quaternary sedimentaries, still actively subsiding, and comparable Tertiary basins lie in northern and central East Kalimantan. These basins and their offshore extensions contain large oil and gas pools, and Kalimantan has extensive coal deposits. Extensive Quaternary deposits occupy the lower valleys of numerous large rivers, the most important being the Kapuas, Mahakam, Rejang, and Barito (fig. 10.1), and there is considerable Holocene peat swamp development along and behind the aggrading southern, western, and northwestern shores. Except in some alluvial areas, the soils of Borneo are generally of low quality and deeply weathered. However, the volcanic plateaux in Sarawak and East Kalimantan, though remote, possess favourable soils, and similar volcanic soils exist at low altitude in the east of Sabah.

The dipterocarp forests are most richly developed in the nonswampy lowlands and the foothills, particularly in Sarawak, Sabah, and East and Central Kalimantan, whereas swamp timbers, such as Ramin (Gonystylus bancanus), have also been utilized commercially. Following two decades of continuous exploitation, East and Central Kalimantan still have 69 per cent of their land under forest. This declines to 54 per cent and 44 per cent, respectively, in the more heavily populated western and southern regions (FAO and GOI, 1990). On the Malaysian side, Sarawak retains a forest cover of about 68 per cent and Sabah 60 per cent of their respective areas (Thang 1990).


Administered as two districts by the Dutch, and as one large unmanageable unit after independence in 1949, Kalimantan received its current subdivision in 1957. The old cities that had served as the seats of colonial administration, Banjarmasin (South) and Pontianak (West), are now the largest urban centres in Borneo, with roughly 500,000 and 400,000 inhabitants, respectively, and their provinces are also the most populous (table 10.1). East Kalimantan already had two towns, Balikpapan and Samarinda, to act as foci for its resource extraction, begun in a limited way during colonial times (Potter 1988). Balikpapan developed solely to serve the nearby oil wells from its inception in 1898, but Samarinda, with an extensive hinterland up the Mahakam river, was a gateway to the interior and its timber. The new province of Central Kalimantan was most remote, with its capital, Palangkaraya, far inland with no road access. Despite much recent road construction in all provinces, one finds a network only in the more populous areas.

Before the logging boom commenced in the late 1960s, both Banjarmasin and Pontianak derived much of their small industrial income from the processing of rubber, the principal peasant cash crop since the early 1900s. Timber and other forest products have provided the impetus for recent growth, from large plywood mills to small hand-operated sawmills and furniture factories. The influence of the forest remains pervasive, despite the existence of important hinterland agricultural activities. South Kalimantan leads in wet rice production, West Kalimantan in tree crops, especially smallholder rubber. The bulk of the logging is carried out in East and Central Kalimantan. The value of East Kalimantan's lowland dipterocarp forests was recognized early, and a forestry office was established at Samarinda in 1923. Almost all of the forests in East, Central, and South Kalimantan had been mapped after a fashion by 1933, and published figures recorded the volume and extent of valuable species. These early maps and statistics, although approximate, were still in use by Indonesian foresters and concessionaires in 1975. The entry of Japanese interests to East Kalimantan in the 1930s prompted attempts to organize and regulate concessions. All the logs cut on the Japanese concessions were exported directly to Japan, but there was also an effort to establish a large-scale sawmilling industry. The swampy coast near Sampit in Central Kalimantan, which had seen a boom in the wild rubber, jelutung (Dyera sp.), around 1910 was, in 1941, selected as the site for the development of Agathis bornensis, intended for plywood and pulp. Production was overtaken by World War II, but resumed during the late 1940s, when it became the leading timber export from Kalimantan for a few years.

Samarinda and Balikpapan now have 300,000 people each; with Tarakan and the new industrial centre at Bontang, with its large liquefied natural gas plant, they constitute a typically immigrant, "enclave" economy based on timber and oil; 49 per cent of East Kalimantan's population is urban. Samarinda has one of the world's largest concentrations of sawmills, plywood factories, and other timber industries (Schindele and Thoma 1989). Much of Central Kalimantan's timber, on the other hand, is produced in the thinly peopled north of the province and rafted down the Barito river for processing in Banjarmasin. The up-country areas, away from the coastal urban agglomerations and alluvial agricultural land, remain regions of low population density, with no roads apart from logging tracks, where scattered Dayak groups practice shifting cultivation along the rivers. It is in these districts that recent changes have been most rapid - from the timber industry itself and accompanying government resettlement schemes; and from the influx of new arrivals, both government-sponsored and spontaneous, intent on converting the logged-over lands to alternative uses. It is not surprising that, with 28 per cent of the area of Indonesia and, in 1990, still only 5 per cent of its total population, Kalimantan has been perceived as an "empty" land and a suitable location for new settlers, mainly officially sponsored government transmigrants from the crowded islands of Java and Bali.

Sabah and Sarawak: Two semi-independent states

The Malaysian part of Borneo has a very different history. Sabah and Sarawak joined the Federation of Malaysia only in 1963. Oil-rich Brunei, the third territory in the former British area of Borneo, opted to retain its independence. Brunei is the small remainder of the ancient sultanate, which lost most of its territory to British colonial entrepreneurs during the nineteenth century. It permits little timber extraction and is not discussed here. Sarawak was under the private rule of the Brooke family until World War II, after which it became a British crown colony. Sabah was the fief of the British North Borneo Company until the same time. In joining the Federation, Sarawak and Sabah retained a greater degree of independence in relation to central government than did the 11 states of Peninsular Malaysia; they have far more autonomy than the provinces of Kalimantan. Each maintains full control over immigration (even movement within East Malaysia) and over the use of its land and forests.

Most of the 1.5 million people of Sabah and the 1.8 million people of Sarawak live in the western parts of the two states, in the lowlands west of the Rejang delta in Sarawak, and on the western coastal strip of Sabah. Large areas in eastern Sabah have been almost without population for at least two centuries, and in the interior of Sarawak people now live mainly along the rivers. Throughout north-western Borneo, large movements of population have occurred since the seventeenth century as Iban people have expanded from an original homeland in present West Kalimantan, driving others before them. Later, people moved to the rivers to gain easier access to trade. With the exception of formerly powerful Brunei, northern Borneo had no towns of significance before the colonial period, and the modern capitals, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu, remain much smaller than the cities of Kalimantan. They are still populated largely by the descendants of immigrant Chinese. The oil and gas centres of Bintulu and Miri are smaller, but rapidly growing. As in most of Kalimantan, Sabah and Sarawak have substantial indigenous, or "Dayak," populations, most of whom practice various forms of shifting cultivation, while a few are hunters and gatherers. These indigenous, mainly non-Muslim people, form 44 per cent of the population of Sarawak and are the majority in Sabah. Like their cousins in Kalimantan (and many groups are found on both sides of the international border), they have for centuries been linked to regional networks through the trade in forest products such as rattans, resins, and edible birds' nests, mediated through the coastal Malays and Chinese.

Early commercial development was limited. The North Borneo Company sought to promote tobacco plantations in early cash-cropping efforts along the sparsely peopled east coast of Sabah but met with only limited success. Rubber plantations became established on the west coast, and the focus of economic activity shifted there. Activities along the east coast focused on timber extraction following the founding of the Forest Department in 1915. Timber soon became an important export (Aye and King 1986; Naval Intelligence Division 1944). After World War II, some large timber concessions were allocated. Mechanization was introduced for the extraction of dipterocarp timbers, and by 1960 Sabah was the principal exporter of sawlogs in the Indonesia-Malaysia region (Brookfield and Byron 1990). The Brooke government in pre-1941 Sarawak was more concerned with keeping the peace than with development, though happy to receive revenues from the mining of antimony, gold, coal, and the oil discovered at Miri in 1910. Only four estates were established, but smallholder rubber was planted quite widely, even well inland (Jackson 1968; Lian 1987); for some years it was the principal export, although, from 1948 on, the main thrust was with timber. The pioneers developed the extensive swamp-forest stands of Ramin (Gonystylus bancanus) as sawn timber for the British market. Although no mechanization of timber extraction occurred for more than a decade, production expanded rapidly and, by 1960, the swamp forests were almost all under timber concessions. Only toward the end of the 1950s did logging commence in the dryland dipterocarp forests in response to the rising Japanese demand for hardwood sawlogs. The introduction of mechanized extraction followed in the early 1960s, with capital from abroad (Jackson 1968).

Formation of the Federation in 1963 was expected to signal a new period of development, based on agricultural diversification. From the outset, however, there was a shortage of labour for new enterprises, especially in Sabah, where unsuccessful attempts were made to recruit migrants from the Peninsula (Ongkilli 1972). The rising Japanese demand for sawlogs soon came to dominate the economies of both states, but in different contexts. In Sabah, a major part of the forested area has, from the outset, been intended for conversion to agriculture. The declared Permanent Forest Estate (PFE) came eventually to occupy 45 per cent of the land (Collins, Sayer, and Whitmore 1991). In Sarawak, the main non-timber use of the forests is for shifting cultivation. The area "assumed to be available for timber production" covers 59,300 kmē, only 48 per cent of the state (ITTC) 1990, 30), but the actual timber-production area is larger. Sarawak has experienced more diversified development than Sabah, with some significant expansion of petrochemical and other industries, including even car assembly.

As in much of Kalimantan, a basic problem of development in East Malaysia is lack of infrastructure. The river systems have been the main arteries of transport in Sarawak since the Brooke period. Today, hawkers still travel their navigable length, buying produce and selling retail goods and fuel, and the reach of river communication extends as far as longboats and canoes can be paddled and pushed over the rapids. Penetration of the interior by roads is, however, increasing rapidly. A trans-Sabah road was opened in the early 1970s, and a road from Kuching to eastern Sarawak in the early 1980s, and all towns are now linked by at least dry-weather roads. In Sarawak, the lower reaches of the river systems are already being bypassed as transport arteries.

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