Borneo Under a Bad Sign: Is Island Paradise Doomed to be Slashed and Burned?

Categories: Environment


Will biofuel and manufacturing transform jungle island into … Foster City?

By Joe Eskenazi

At a recent discussion on the imperiled South China Sea Island of Borneo, U.C. Berkeley biologist Steve Ruzin noted that the isle’s once-thriving ebony forests have now nearly vanished. Considering the scarcity of ivory, both the materials in Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s ear-bleeding paean to racial harmony are endangered. Sadly, this will have little effect on the tune’s radio play.

Our children, however, may have no idea that ebony is a type of wood and not a magazine aimed at African Americans.

Along with Patrick Murphy, a USF political science professor, Ruzin discussed the tenuous social and economic future of the world’s third-largest island at a forum sponsored by the University of San Francisco’s Center for the Pacific Rim.

In a nutshell, it’s looking about as good as “Ebony and Ivory” sounds – but there is hope yet.

If islanders’quests...

for more arable land leads them to slash-and-burn agriculture, however, all bets are off.

“The nutrients in the rainforest are above the ground. There’s almost no soil – there’s rocks and clay and mud, but below a centimeter, there’s no nutrients. They’re all in the plants. So if you clear cut the trees and try to replant, nothing will grow,” said Ruzin.

Burning the forests – which is common in nearby Indonesia – releases those nutrients into the soil, but at a heavy price. The microbes that break down plant detritus into nutrients are incinerated, so after two to three years, the land is about as productive as a bag of Kingsford charcoal.

“You end up with deserts,” said Ruzin.

Already, an estimated 50 percent of the island’s dipterocarp forests – huge tracts of exotic, flowering trees up to 300 feet tall – have given way to rows of oil palms resembling a more tropical version of Kansas.

Ruzin and others saw a light at the end of the tunnel when concerns about palm oil’s incredibly unhealthy nature as a cooking ingredient put a dent in the worldwide market. But that light turned out to be a train: The oil’s use as a biodiesel component suddenly makes it more valuable than ever.

The traditional ways of life may also be going the way of the dipterocarp forests. Borneo is quickly becoming a home base for Southeast Asia’s manufacturing jobs. A big city like Kuching has nearly 600,000 souls, and electric is generated by flooding the valleys that used to house longhouses and villages. Many island residents now live in tracts of homes the lecturers compared to Foster City.

The result is a society in flux. Murphy notes that his guide on a recent trip to Borneo was the grandson of a headhunter. The professor recalls looking in the windows of extremely modest homes only to see flat-panel TV sets on the walls.

For Borneo to avoid destroying its environmental treasures, high-level government planning is necessary. And eco-tourism, while profitable, is not a cure-all -- especially if, as occurred recently, enraged orangutans rob and tear the clothes off of horrified sight-seers.

On second thought, let’s send Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder to Borneo.

Photo | Courtesy of

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