Rain­fo­rest destruction

The biggest threat to oran­gutans is the destruc­tion of their habitat. Borneo was once enti­rely covered by rain­fo­rests. But with the start of indus­tria­li­sa­tion and the growing human demand for space, food and energy, forest areas have dimi­nished from year to year. Today, not even half of Borneo is covered by forest.

The extent of rain­fo­rest destruc­tion on Borneo

Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is divided between the states of Indo­nesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Indo­nesia is one of the most densely forested count­ries in the world, but large parts of the rain­fo­rests have been destroyed over the past 100 years.

LKW mit PalmölfrüchtenIn 1950, more than 80 percent of the country was still covered with forests. In the follo­wing decades, the exces­sive explo­ita­tion of tropical timber began, with uncon­trolled logging opera­tions for the export market. Entire forests were cleared in order to grow light wood for plywood, and later for the growing paper and pulp industry. However, the situa­tion for the Indo­ne­sian rain­fo­rests became really dramatic from the 1990s onwards: The palm oil boom began.

By now, 85 % of the world’s palm oil produc­tion origi­nates from Indo­nesia and Malaysia. At least 14 million hectares of the country — mainly in Borneo and Sumatra — are now covered with oil palm plan­ta­tions. This is roughly equi­va­lent to the area of Austria, Switz­er­land and the Nether­lands combined. From 2004 to 2017 alone, 5.8 million hectares of rain­fo­rest were destroyed on Borneo.

Crisis Unfolds: Selec­tive Logging of Tropical Hard­woods Begins

Selec­tive logging may sound harm­less at first. Indi­vi­dual valuable tropical hard­woods like Teak or Meranti are extra­cted from the rain­fo­rest to be exported world­wide, where they are used in garden furni­ture, doors, or hard­wood floo­ring. However, in reality, it marks the begin­ning of destruc­tion. To access the logging sites and trans­port the felled wood, roads or canals must be cons­tructed. This opens up the area to both people and heavy machi­nery, inclu­ding illegal logging operations.

Further­more, when a tree falls, it often takes down other trees and plants with it. The closed canopy is torn apart, leaving the ground vulnerable to drying out and erosion.

Once the path is cleared into the rain­fo­rest, illegal loggers (and poachers) also find it easier to enter. As a result, what starts as the clea­ring of a few indi­vi­dual trees quickly escalates into the removal of hundreds, further thin­ning and weak­e­ning the rainforest.

Transport auf einem Kanal vom illegal abgelozten Holz
Abtrans­port von illegal gero­deten Baumstämmen
Straße in einer Palmölplantage
Ölpalmen soweit das Auge reicht

The Path to Destruc­tion: Roads and Canals

Tropical rain­fo­rests are inac­ces­sible — until a road is built. Without paved roads, neither wood, mineral resources, nor palm fruits can be trans­ported. Simi­larly, canals, cons­tructed to drain marshy peat­land for agri­cul­tural use, have a compa­rable impact, espe­ci­ally on the timber industry.

Further­more, roads increase the value of adja­cent lands, poten­ti­ally leading to land conflicts and further defo­re­sta­tion. They result in land­scape frag­men­ta­tion, disrupting habi­tats and ulti­m­ately causing a loss of biodiversity.

Waldbrände auf Borneo

Devas­ta­ting forest fires

The cata­stro­phic fires of 2015 destroyed nearly 2.6 million hectares of forest in Indo­nesia. In the process, 1,750,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equi­va­lents were released — almost three times the normal annual emis­sions of the entire country of Indo­nesia.
Fort­u­na­tely, such disas­ters do not happen every year — but they are beco­ming more frequent due to climate change. Seasonal fires in the dry season are not uncommon on Borneo. Fires are also frequently used to clear minor areas of land in small-scale agri­cul­ture. This happens at the end of the dry season, in the hope that the onset of rain will extin­guish the fires. This way, the freshly nutrient-enri­ched soil can be used as a culti­va­tion area to supply the farmers them­selves. Yet again and again, larger forest areas are deli­bera­tely set on fire — in order to create a factual basis for new oil palm plan­ta­tions. The onset of the rainy season is not always predic­table, however, not least because of the acce­le­ra­ting climate change. And so a small fire can quickly turn into a large one, spre­a­ding rapidly through the dry grass and under­wood, and destroying large areas of forest.

Fires on dry peat­land are even more dange­rous. There, the fires may be extin­gu­ished above ground, but they can continue simme­ring under­ground and spread for kilo­me­tres. Such fires are highly dange­rous and almost impos­sible to control. For this reason, we ensure the instal­la­tion of fire hydrants, regular fire patrols and fire safety trai­ning in our project areas.

Orang-Utan im Mawas Gebiet während des Haze
Orang-Utan im Gebiet von Tuanan während Brände von 2019
Feuerwehrleute beim Feuerlöschen
Feuer­wehr­teams im Einsatz gegen Brand­herde im Torfmoor
Trai­ning für den Ernst­fall im Orang-Utan-Rettungs­zen­trum Samboja Lestari

Plan­ta­tions and monocultures

People are incre­asingly hungry for food and for energy. And Indonesia’s popu­la­tion conti­nues to grow: in 1990, the country had 179.38 million inha­bi­tants; 270.2 million in 2020. Conse­quently, the demand for staple foods such as rice is incre­asing as well. More and more land is required for culti­va­tion, and more and more forest is being cleared for this purpose. In the mid-1990s, for example, tens of thou­sands of hectares of rain­fo­rest were cleared and the peat­land drained through canals in our Mawas project area in order to make Indo­nesia inde­pen­dent of expen­sive rice imports through the so-called Mega Rice Project. But the acidic peat soil was not suitable for rice culti­va­tion. The project failed, the rain­fo­rest, however, was destroyed.
But the biggest rain­fo­rest killer on Borneo is palm oil, which is exported all over the world. The oil, for which the home of the oran­gutans is destroyed, is found in ready meals, cosme­tics, clea­ning agents, pet food and now incre­asingly also in the so-called biodiesel.

Eine jünge Kautschukplantage
Eine Kautschuk­plan­tage
Luftaufnahme Ölpalmenplantage in Sabah
Luft­auf­nahme einer Ölpal­men­plan­tage in Sabah

Pulp and paper

In Indo­nesia, the produc­tion of paper also leads to the destruc­tion of rain­fo­rests and the plan­ting of mono­cul­tures of fast-growing woods such as euca­lyptus and acacia. On average, 2.2 tonnes of wood are required for produ­cing one tonne of pulp for paper­ma­king. 
Indo­nesia is regarded as the sixth largest producer of paper and pulp (pulp & paper) in the world. In Asia, the country ranks fourth behind China, Japan and South Korea. In 2016, the country produced six million tonnes of pulp and 10.3 million tonnes of paper; and in 2021, already 8.8 million tonnes of pulp and 15.8 million tonnes of paper. And the demand conti­nues to rise.

Bulldozer land clearing

Mining of natural resources

Indo­nesia is now one of the world’s largest exporters of coal. There has been a massive increase in coal produc­tion since 2000, when around 77 million tonnes of coal were produced. In 2020, it was 562.5 million tonnes.
Almost 80 % of the coal is exported to India, China, South Korea, Vietnam, Thai­land and the Phil­ip­pines. The remai­ning amount is used for dome­stic coal-fired power plants with a fore­cast that the demand for this will continue to increase in the future.
Borneo, espe­ci­ally East, South and Central Kali­mantan, is one of the main coal mining areas in Indo­nesia. And coal mining is another crucial factor in the destruc­tion of the rain­fo­rests.
Besides coal, tin, copper, nickel, silver, platinum, lead, iron and bauxite are also mined on Borneo. To this day, Indo­nesia is also considered one of the most important gold mining count­ries. Mining precious metals like gold does not only result in the destruc­tion of forests. The appli­ca­tion of chemi­cals such as mercury and cyanide poisons soils and waters. Through direct contact with the toxins while working, and through a tran­si­tion into the food chain, gold mining poses a major threat.

Gerodeter Regenwald

Folgen der Regenwaldzerstörung

The impacts of decades-long destruc­tion of tropical rain­fo­rests are slowly beco­ming appa­rent to huma­nity. It’s not just trees that are being destroyed; entire habi­tats are being obli­te­rated. Plants, fungi, and animals are going extinct, some of which science hasn’t even had the chance to discover, let alone under­stand their roles in the ecosystem. This loss erases a genetic diver­sity that serves as a crucial natural defense against dise­ases. As we encroach further into once remote ecosys­tems, we come into contact with patho­gens to which our immune systems are ill-equipped, as COVID-19 has starkly demons­trated. Tropical rain­fo­rests are vital for the global climate. They cool the atmo­sphere, sequester carbon dioxide, cleanse the air of pollut­ants, store and filter drin­king water, and prevent soil erosion.

As climate change progresses, even the remai­ning rain­fo­rests suffer. Dry and rainy seasons shift, weather events become more extreme, and tempe­ra­tures rise – all of which have reper­cus­sions on the health of the remai­ning rainforests.

Forest for life

Save the rainforest

Saving the oran­gutans cannot succeed without preser­ving their habitat! Mawas is a thousand-year-old peat swamp rain­fo­rest housing one of the largest wild oran­gutan popu­la­tions in Indo­nesia. Although signi­fi­cant portions of this unique rain­fo­rest were lost as part of a mega­pro­ject in the 1990s.

Now, we have a vision: To restore the forest and make it a home for even more orangutans.

Frequently asked questions

What are the causes of rain­fo­rest destruction?

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In essence, it boils down to the world’s insa­tiable appe­tite for food, energy, and capital. The palm oil boom that started in the mid-1990s acted as a turbo­charger for the destruc­tion of Borneo’s rain­fo­rests. However, the demand for coal, tropical timber, paper, pulp, and food has also led to the anni­hi­la­tion of vast rain­fo­rest expanses.

Adding to this, climate change has made these already vulnerable forests even more suscep­tible to wild­fires during dry spells, while the unpro­tected ground becomes vulnerable to soil erosion during periods of extreme rain­fall, which occurs in some years.

What are the conse­quences of rain­fo­rest destruction?

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The rami­fi­ca­tions of rain­fo­rest destruc­tion are as diverse as the causes.
Not only are forests destroyed, but their biodi­ver­sity as well. Many species, such as the oran­gutan, are adapted to and thus parti­cu­larly depen­dent on the rain­fo­rest as a habitat. By destroying their home, we are destroying their future. Not only the oran­gutan is threa­tened with extinc­tion due to rain­fo­rest destruc­tion. Species such as the banteng, the miller gibbon, the Borneo pygmy elephant or the Malayan bear — to name just the “big” animals — are simi­larly endan­gered. In addi­tion, there are count­less amphi­bians, reptiles, insects, fungi and plants, some of which have adapted to specific habi­tats to such an extent that the sligh­test inter­fe­rence with their ecosystem has far-reaching conse­quences for the entire species. In the worst case, extinc­tion.
On the other hand, the deci­ma­tion or extinc­tion of species has rami­fi­ca­tions for the entire rain­fo­rest system. For each species has its role and task. The oran­gutan, for example, is considered the gardener of the rain­fo­rest: it spreads seeds and breaks bran­ches out of the canopy when buil­ding its slee­ping nests, allo­wing light to reach the ground.
If the rain­fo­rest ecosystem is no longer intact, it can no longer fulfil roles such as clea­ning and storing water. The soil becomes vulnerable to erosion and lands­lides, and floods occur more frequently.
The ground­water level will drop due to the lack of vege­ta­tion. This causes the soil to dry out, preven­ting healthy plant growth.
Rain­fo­rest destruc­tion is an acce­le­rator for the climate cata­strophe. When forests are burned, the carbon stored in the leaves, roots and in the wood is released as CO2, which contri­butes to global warming.
Peat­lands — or on Borneo the tropical peat swamp rain­fo­rests — are gigantic CO2 reser­voirs. A large part of the peat swamp forests is located in Indo­nesia. They cover about ten percent of the country, an area of about 22 million hectares (roughly the size of Great Britain). Depen­ding on their depth, peat swamp forests store between 3,000 and 6,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare, almost 50 times as much as simi­larly sized rain­fo­rests without peat soil (120 to 400 tonnes of carbon per hectare). Clea­ring and drai­ning just one hectare of peat swamp forest emits 1,000 times as much CO2 as flying from Paris to New York. CO2 emis­sions from cleared peat­lands accounted for half of all of Indonesia’s CO2 emis­sions in 2015.

How can rain­fo­rest destruc­tion be prevented? 

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By avoi­ding non-sustainable palm oil, driving less (biodiesel), redu­cing paper consump­tion, using recy­cled paper, not buying or using tropical timber. And of course, by refo­res­ting “Lebens­wald” living forests and protec­ting oran­gutans with BOS.

Sonja Wende

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