Fates of Forests in Borneo: A 40-Year Retrospective

By F. E. “Jack” Putz, University of Florida §

After barreling through rural Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) for several hours in a double-cabbed pick-up I was grateful when a bed-rider tapped on the roof to signal the driver to stop. My butt was sore and I needed to pee. The recently paved road allowed spurts of high-speed travel, but the many factory-bound trucks overloaded with oil palm fruits created potholes that were deep and difficult to avoid.

I was happy to return to an area I’d visited at decadal intervals for 40 years and in this essay I attempt to describe and interpret what I observed over those years. My intention here is to convey some of the challenges of conserving forests where global capitalism colludes with governance failures and collides with local cultures. The subtext should reveal just how clueless I remain about the drivers and agents of land-use change in Indonesia even after 40 plus years of work in the region.

All the interventions I championed on those five visits can work, but in this retrospective I describe their impacts at one particular place in Borneo.  During my 1976 visit, I explored paying for forest conservation with the profits from harvesting non-timber forest products. I went back in 1986 as an ecologist seeking a research site at which to study whether pre-felling liana cutting reduces the deleterious effects of selective logging. By 1996, I was bent on using carbon-offset money to reduce those unwanted impacts. I visited in 2006 to assess how delegation of land-use planning from the federal to provincial governments had affected the fates of forests in the area. On my most recent (2016) visit I sought improvements in management of the forested portions of a “sustainable landscape” that was part of a “Green Growth Compact” and certified as responsibly managed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

As by far the most senior of the passengers in the truck’s interior, the tallest by a head, and the only person of European descent, I was riding shotgun, which was terrifying. Behind me were two Javanese foresters, one my research colleague, former student, and friend, the other the silviculturalist from the forest concession to which we were headed. I hoped the latter would pursue a Ph.D. with me; field-oriented forest researchers who are good with data are scarce. He might also play the role of interpreter of the goings on in Indonesia where I too often understand the words but miss the meaning.

After a short break we piled back in and bounced along until we stopped at a spot I’d first visited in 1976 as a recently terminated Peace Corps volunteer with several months free before grad school. At the time of my first visit the area was remote with only a jalan kancil (= trail of a mouse deer) along the ridge that served as the boundary between a Punan Dayak territory to the west and a Kenyah Dayak territory to the east. I was guided by a Punan man in whose village I’d arrived two days before after an excruciatingly long trip up a meandering river in a sometimes-motorized dugout. I was looking for research opportunities related to rattans (= climbing palms and other sources of non-timber forest products). Actually, I was on what Aussies might call a “walkabout.” My shifting destination was always further into the ulus (= hinterlands) in which I tried to maximize my time in what I considered “virgin” forest, despite mounting evidence of sometimes subtle long-term human influences.

Durian fruit. Photo by Doug Sheil, used with permission.

That 1976 visit was made memorable by a durian tree with ripe fruits on which we gorged while enjoying bird songs and the melodious duets of a family of Bornean gibbons. The fruits were my guide’s property because his father, or perhaps his grandfather, had either planted that tree or saved it from being smothered by vines. We ate our fill, and I helped him pull a rattan palm from the canopy. After sending me on my way he’d fashion a backpack from a portion of the rattan stem, fill it with fruit, and lug it home to enjoy a hero’s welcome. As I walked down the hill I reflected on how the remoteness of the area and the consequent high transport costs would make it hard to make a living from the sale of durians and rattan canes.

Logging Road in Danum, Kalimantan. Photo by author.

My visit in 1986 was as a young faculty member in search of a site for research on the ecology of lianas (= woody climbing plants). The jalan kancil had been transformed into a dirt road and the durians were not yet ripe. Loggers had opened the road to access the 150,000 ha concession I’d come to check out. The concessionaire, a military officer, had moved the people from the villages inside the concession to a new settlement near the company’s office.

The Dayaks that formerly resided in the government-granted timber concession represented different ethnic groups, but such distinctions were disregarded when they were resettled. The relocated families were each provided with a wood-framed, metal-roofed house as well as access to a school and clinic. The government expected the villagers to abandon swidden agriculture in favor of salaried jobs, but other than occasional day labor, this seldom happened. The subsistence-farming and forest-product-gathering culture of the Dayaks, coupled with their dense schedule of holidays, renders steady work undesirable. Instead, their new livelihoods derived from a complex, erratic, but flexible combination of sales of rattan canes, resin, jungle rubber, and bushmeat, combined with itinerant wage labor. Their forest product gathering was facilitated by the logging roads and free rides on company trucks. The company happily helped in hopes that they’d thereby quell the simmering land tenure disputes that emerged from conflicts between adat (= traditional) and national land laws.

Skid trail in East Kalimantan, 2011. Photo by author.

When I returned in 1996 my focus was on carbon sequestration through what I called reduced-impact logging (RIL). The forest around my spot had been re-contoured to construct a temporary log landing and the durian tree was gone, most likely a victim of collateral damage from selective logging of red meranti (Shorea spp.) trees. Logs from those trees were being picked up from the roadside landing, trucked to the river, rafted to the coast, barged to Java, converted into plywood, and sold in Japan to be used once as concrete forms and then discarded.  Some logs undoubtedly found their ways to mills in Sabah where few questions were asked about their origin. Those illicit transactions might have been made by illegal loggers, but were more likely made by the logging contractor himself to avoid the official royalties collected by the government as well as the unofficial, under-the-table payments expected by corrupt civil servants along the complicated and cumbersome legal log market chain.

From the log landing where we ate rice-and-fish lunches artfully packed in folded banana leaves, I could see that the logging had been unnecessarily destructive. For example, the bulldozer used to yard logs to the landing had plunged directly down the slope below the road with its blade down with no effort to control erosion from the skid trail. On hillsides in the distance the scars of switch-backing skid trails stood out against the green of logged-over forest. These sorts of behavior explained why the river we’d crossed earlier in the day was so heavily sediment-laden. On the bright side, I heard gibbons hooting in the distance, perhaps relatives of the family I’d encountered in both 1976 and 1986.

Road badly eroded with sidecut in Sabah, Indonesia. Photo by the author.

In 2006 I was back with a focus on the land-use consequences of the Indonesian federal government’s devolution of authority over forests to provincial authorities. I was accompanied by my new Indonesian graduate student who’d turned out to be a master in the field, a marvel with data, and a willing interpreter of what was and wasn’t said. From my spot on the ridge we had a lot further to travel to the current harvest blocks because commercial logging nearby had ceased after two harvests exhausted the valuable timber. Small-scale informal logging continued near the road, as indicated by the Dayak men busily producing chainsaw lumber on the old landing.

With most of the timber gone, the concessionaire had little reason to prevent encroachment by local farmers, and several had already colonized roadside areas. Although Dayaks traditionally farmed near the rivers that provided forest access, they readily shifted to farming near roads, which afford faster travel than meandering streams. Decentralization had mostly benefited elected officials, few of whom were Dayak, but seemed to have emboldened locals to assert their traditional land claims.

Directly below my long-since durian tree-free spot, the skid trail’s erosion gully was still evident. A hectare of forest bordering that gully was recently felled and would soon be burned and planted with hill rice. It’s easier to fell forests on slopes and they burn better as well, but subsequent soil loss rates are high and a year or two of cropping is all that can be expected. In the distance were other scattered small farms and large patches of pioneer trees that indicated that this area had burned hot during the 1997-1998 El Niño fires.

Acacia mangium plantation, Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by the author.

When I returned in 2016, the logging road was a paved provincial highway and the log stringer bridge was replaced by one of steel. The Ministry of Forestry had also changed the official land-use of the area around my spot from logging concession to industrial pulpwood plantation. This change in status was likely related to the redrawing of the concession’s boundaries when a new license was negotiated by a new company that was apparently owned by a relative of the provincial governor.

All the forest along the road was replaced by monocultures of acacia (Acacia mangium), an Australian tree species grown for pulp. Planned conversion of forests in accessible areas to plantations was part of the landscape approach to conservation that I was evaluating. Acacia plantations are biological deserts but damn, those trees can grow; stands of only 6-7 years were being clearcut with the trunks trucked to the coast and barged to Sumatra to feed an enormous pulp and paper mill built with international development aid money.

From my old spot I looked over plantations that stretched to the horizon except right below the road where someone had cut down the acacias and planted cassava. Not only had they cut 3-4 year old plantation trees with trunks already a hand-span in diameter, when they burned the slash they’d let the fire creep off into neighboring stands they hadn’t cut—the cleared field covered about a hectare, with fire-killed trees in an area about twice that size.

That someone had the gall to slash-and-burn a commercial plantation owned by a major corporation surprised me, but there it was. Clearly someone wasn’t abiding by the community conservation agreement in the much-debated land-use plan that emerged from the lengthy multi-stakeholder forum. I mistakenly assumed that the Dayaks who traditionally farmed the area had returned for another cropping cycle. Instead, I was informed that Dayaks from the village I’d visited 40 years before had sold 10 hectares to a man from Makassar with money he’d earned working on an oil rig in Sarawak. I was impressed that Dayaks were successfully navigating the plural legal landscape, with its overlapping land claims of contested validity. I was also informed that, despite evidence to the contrary, the buyer was not a subsistence farmer but instead planned to clear all his land to plant oil palm; the cassava was a temporary crop planted by the Timorese family he’d hired to do the clearing. With the road paved and frequent trucks ferrying fruits to the factory only a few hours away, transportation was not going to be a problem. Given that oil palm plantations in the region can produce 5 tons of oil per year, which sells for $600/ton, the Bugis man expected to soon be wealthy by local standards. That this grand financial opportunity was not being taken by the Dayaks themselves caused me to wonder what would be left of their culture if they fully embraced the market orientation of the cultures by which they are being overwhelmed.

By late afternoon we arrived at the logging camp on the border between the acacia plantation and what remained of the logging concession. Camps surrounded by forest are relatively cool, but this one was blazing hot. That deforestation is followed by increased air temperatures is a complaint frequently voiced by rural people in Kalimantan, and one that is well supported by data from local meteorological stations.

The next morning we drove for an hour to the current harvest block where the company was using an excavator jury-rigged with a winch and 300 m of steel cable. The idea was to reduce the damage that would otherwise be caused by bulldozers cutting switchbacks on the steep slopes. My self-assigned mission was to check it out.

Given that the concession was FSC certified, I was taken aback by the small farms within its perimeter and by the number of people on motorbikes traversing the main roads. With the contested land claims, it isn’t clear what concession managers can or should do to restrict Dayak access to their ancestral lands. In any case, their abundance made me wonder about the sustainability of the forest management operations certified by FSC auditors. When we passed a fellow on a 125cc Yamaha motorbike, I noticed a small wooden chest of drawers strapped to the seat behind him. The many small drawers were perforated, the openings screened. Under one arm he carried a long pole like the lance of a jousting knight. It took me a minute to recognize the rig as that of a bird catcher. His presence reminded me that I hadn’t been hearing the familiar calls of shamas, bulbuls, and babblers.

Later when I asked about what was going on in the concession other than selective logging, the silviculturalist reminded me that hunting was almost a religion to the Dayaks. He pointed out that their motorbike saddlebags might contain bushmeat from mousedeer, porcupines, or even small bearded pigs, but certainly all contained wire snares. That this rampant hunting might violate FSC principles didn’t seem to cross his mind. For my part, I would draw the line at trapping nestling birds for the pet trade, but would waffle about subsistence hunting, if that’s what was happening. Although the area wasn’t yet a completely “empty forest,” the uneaten fruit and carpets of tree seedlings on the forest floor suggested a scarcity of whatever it was that formerly ate those fruits and dispersed those seeds.

Log fisher, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by author.

When we arrived at the logging site the operator was busily yanking 10 m long (5 ton) logs 200 meters up a 70% slope. It was like watching a master craftsman at work—or perhaps a ballet dancer. Moving that metal behemoth with an impossible fluidity, he caused the massive logs to fly out of the forest, swinging them up onto the road, and using the grapple to manipulate them like pick-up-sticks for easy loading onto waiting trucks. Within less than two minutes, the relay team was snaking the cable down for another log.

I will not deny deriving guilty pleasure from watching that giant machine at work, but my reactions to the cable yarder in action were not solely testosterone-fueled. Most important for my assignment, the soil and stand damage done by this logging operation was a small fraction of what would have been caused if the same harvest were carried out in the standard way with bulldozers. But even if cable yarding causes less damage, it seems obvious to question whether such slopes should be logged at all. In light of the increasing frequency and depth of flooding in many coastal cities in Borneo, restrictions on erosion-causing land uses seem warranted. Unfortunately, there’s zero enforcement of forest regulations and no one offering money for maintenance of the hydrological functions of intact forests. Then again, given that the profits from logging decrease with increasing slope angles, it actually might not take much to convince the concessionaire to stop logging.

When I suggested this course of action, no one responded, which in Indonesia is a characteristic response to a discomfort-causing question. Later, the silviculturalist discretely explained that the Dayaks would be none-too-pleased to see the roads closed and their access restricted to areas where they hunt, make chainsaw lumber, and collect rattans and other commercial non-timber forest products. My confused look must have clued him in about my cluelessness because he went on to explain that they’d be even less happy to forego the $5 per cubic meter royalty they receive from the concessionaire for logs harvested from within what were historically their village areas. That amount puzzled me because it’s a quarter of what the concessionaire earns, but I was even more surprised by the respect shown to traditional land claims. Once again I was reminded that even after decades of experience in the region, I still missed much of what was happening.

In regards to my mission, this last visit made me wonder about the efficacy of conservation interventions in general and what impacts in particular we can reasonably expect from forest certification. For example, certification is supposed to reduce deforestation, but if certifiers respect the rights of displaced Dayaks, might not the opposite happen? And should we expect controls on hunting, given local cultural traditions and livelihood needs of local people? Finally, is it reasonable to expect certified concessions in the tropics not to log steep slopes when such a restriction would substantially reduce yields and there are no such restrictions in North America?

Gibbon. Photo by author.

Back from Borneo, I resumed my university teaching duties, which included a course on conservation biology.  The focus of one class was on the “zero deforestation” pledges being made by corporations that owned cattle ranches, soybean farms, and oil palm plantations in the tropics. In preparation we’d read an encouraging essay about the emergence of this sort of corporate social and environmental responsibility. In my confusion about the likely efficacy of this and other great-sounding conservation interventions, I was relieved that the discussion flowed without much input from me.

Upon reflection, it’s clear that I’ve lost my footing on the slippery slope of real-world conservation in countries that are not my own. Even from my comfortable perch high in an air-conditioned ivory tower with fast internet I find it hard to point fingers. And, anyway, I’m no longer clear where I should point them. It’s easy to condemn the multi-national corporate agriculture folks for their greed-driven destruction, but what about my smallholder friends? Should I be more critical of the consumers of palm oil, beef, and paper than of the producers? And, more generally, can I blame the cash-strapped tropical countries that want to convert some of their natural capital into bankable assets? Finally, how much natural forest is likely to be retained where nature’s fate is determined by people with values very different from mine? To answer these questions, it would help if I had a better understanding of those values and a clearer picture of the power dynamics at play. Perhaps in regards to values my grandson can help; he too appreciates the gibbon duets we mimic with more enthusiasm than talent.

Jack Putz.

Francis E. “Jack” Putz:  After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Jack commenced his career in tropical forest conservation in 1973 as a Peace Corps Volunteer at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia. After a PhD at Cornell in 1982 and a NATO Post-Doc at NATO Oxford’s Forestry Institute he joined the University of Florida where he is now a Distinguished Professor of Biology and Forestry. He’s published more than 300 research articles, reviews, and books including a jungle novel (Borneo Dammed: A Very Family Affair) and a frequently cited essay entitled “Are rednecks the unsung heroes of ecosystem management?” He admits that most of his international conservation efforts to date failed, but is determined to at least make new mistakes in the future.

*See our page, “Perspectives on Conservation in Borneo: A Role-Playing Lesson Plan,” part of our Environmental Anthropology Curriculum initiative, for ideas about how to integrate this post into your teaching.


This post is part of our thematic series: Natural Histories.