Time for tea in Java (Part II)

This blog post forms part two of two pieces I wrote for the Condatis News Blog, describing my recent trip to Southeast Asia as part of my role (Knowledge Exchange Assistant and Landscape Analyst) at the University of Liverpool, working under Dr. Jenny Hodgson. We spent three weeks in Malaysia and Indonesia, as a component of the 11 month NERC-funded Innovation Follow-on project: Decision support for restoring ecological networks in rapidly developing, biodiverse countries. The first blog post can be found here.

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The edge of the rainforest bordered by a tea plantation, within Mount Halimun Salak National Park, West Java, Indonesia.

We flew south over the forests, mountains and oil palm plantations of Borneo and landed in the recently modernised Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, retrieved Jane Hill and headed straight to Bogor, taking care to avoid Jakarta – the city of impenetrable traffic jams! We had the pleasure of staying a few minutes’ walk (and a treacherous road crossing) from Bogor’s Botanic Garden (Kebun Raya Bogor), an 87 hectare forested landscape in the middle of a city of one million residents, set up through a Dutch-British botanical collaboration in 1817. Definitely worth a visit!

The next morning we met with our main project partner for the Indonesian component of our project, Dr Lilik Budi Prasetyo, the Head of the Environmental Analysis & Spatial Modelling Lab. at Bogor Agricultural University (Institut Pertanian Bogor) and our other chief contacts, including Erlan Sodahlan, the Community Engagement Officer of Halimun Salak National Park. These two gentlemen guided us over the following three days, and were so patient in answering an almost continuous stream of questions from us interested and unacquainted British tourists!

After hearing about the exciting work that Lilik and his team are doing around improving the accuracy of remote classifying forest land cover in Indonesia, Jenny gave some background to Condatis and our collaborative project. Then it was time to head into the landscape in question: the Mount Halimun Salak National Park (Taman Nasional Gunung Halimun Salak, TNGHS).

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Our party stopped to view the wildlife corridor we are proposing to model using Condatis, between Mount Halimun and Mount Salak, within the National Park. (Note the road – a modern feature of most “wildlife” corridors!)

We observed a complex, fascinating landscape as we drove through, with a mix of expertly terraced rice paddy, small vegetable plots, perched hamlets on the edges of small, steep valleys, all with the backdrop of Mounts Halimun and Salak. Beautiful and interesting to look at, but far from a natural environment with only small patches of forest remaining outside of the Park. Much like all of the UK! Inside the Core Zone, there remains one of the largest continuous tracts of tropical forest in Java, and it is intact due to strict protection. Outside of this zone, there is a complex mosaic of human-modified landscapes, with degraded forest in between tea plantations, hydrothermal electricity plants and football pitches. Erlan and the National Park staff talked to us about how they are working with individual communities to develop village-specific Memorandums of Understanding on responsible use strategies and to make decisions on where to establish collaborative forest restoration projects.

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The Indonesia Condatis team outside the Taman Nasional Gunung Halimun Salak (TNGHS) Offices: Lilik, Erlan, Jenny, Jane, Pairah and me. (Photo credit: Jenny Hodgson.)

During our stay at the TNGHS Headquarters, we carried out a one-day workshop on Condatis for ten staff members of the National Park. The morning was spent introducing participants to Condatis and allowing everyone to have a go at their own analyses; the afternoon involved a discussion around the case study we are performing in their landscape. Through some lively discussions (mostly in Bahasa Indonesia!) we gathered useful feedback on the key species of interest and major conservation challenges. We are hopeful that Condatis will generate maps which will highlight priority areas for forest restoration in and around TNGHS’s corridors. We had a fascinating few days learning about another tropical forested landscape, which shares broad similarities with Sabah and important subtle differences.

Three action-packed weeks later we returned to the UK, bringing the tropical temperatures with us it seemed! Now it’s time to process all of the information we gathered on our travels across the islands of Borneo and Java, to develop our plan of work in TNGHS and to make any refinements to the Condatis layers contributing to the Sabah connectivity project. We thank everyone who made our trip so exciting, so interesting and fed us such yummy food!

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Business cards, butterflies and boats in Borneo (Part I)

This blog post forms part one of two pieces I wrote for the Condatis News Blog, describing my recent trip to Southeast Asia as part of my role (Knowledge Exchange Assistant and Landscape Analyst) at the University of Liverpool, working under Dr. Jenny Hodgson. We spent three weeks in Malaysia and Indonesia, as a component of the 11 month NERC-funded Innovation Follow-on project: Decision support for restoring ecological networks in rapidly developing, biodiverse countries.

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The kind residents of Kampung Sikalabaan, in Sabah’s Heart of Borneo region, showed us around their community forest and farmland for the day.

Whilst everyone was sweltering under abnormally tropical temperatures in the UK during July, Jenny and I were enjoying a relatively temperate time in the Tropics. We spent the majority of the month in Malaysia and Indonesia, visiting the partners and landscapes that are involved in our NERC-funded project: Decision support for restoring ecological networks in rapidly developing, biodiverse countries. Ghana is the other country involved in the project, which we had the privilege to visit back in April (reported on here). This time, road trip around Southeast Asia!

Our travels started with a stop-off in Kuching, Sarawak, to attend the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation’s (ATBC) annual meeting, entitled Linking Natural History and the Conservation of Tomorrow’s Tropical Ecosystems. It was a fascinating five days, attended by a huge range of nationalities talking on a similarly wide variety of topics. Jenny presented on Condatis and I on the long-term ecology of tropical peatlands (another passion). Many of our collaborators were also there presenting, including: Professor Jane Hill and Dr Sarah Scriven from the University of York, and Dr Jed Brodie and Dr Sara Williams from the University of Montana. And we made some useful contacts for the Condatis project, as my new collection of business cards testifies.

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Jenny presenting the concepts of Condatis to the participants of our training workshop at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS).

Just hours after the closing ceremony of the conference had finished (and the after party was likely still in full swing!), we flew on to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, to attend a catch-up meeting for the Sabah-based project we are involved in. The meeting was organised by the Southeast Asian Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP), the charity that is coordinating this multi-stakeholder project. The other partners involved in this mapping project include the Universities of York, Aberdeen and Montana, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, the Carnegie Airborne Observatory and the PACOS Trust (an inspiring charity supporting indigenous communities in Sabah). We discussed the first set of outputs the group had developed for the project; generated using biodiversity and soils data, satellite imagery and modelling, including various layers derived through Condatis that have been incorporated into the prioritisation process. The next stage of the project will involve the PACOS Trust consulting with indigenous, forest-based communities on which of the areas highlighted through our ecological analysis, are appropriate for enhanced protection.

In order for us ecologists to understand the human-component of these forested landscapes, we were extremely fortunate to be invited to visit several different communities with PACOS. So the next morning, five of us, equipped with walking boots and mosquito nets, headed upstream, into the Heart of Borneo.

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Travelling by boat to the village (kampung) of Sikalabaan, about two hours up-river from Kampung Salong, where the road ends.

We spent three nights in the “cultural house” of Kampung Sikalabaan, along with a dozen other men and boys who were visiting in order to attend training on how to fix boat motors, organised by PACOS. These communities rely on mechanised boats to travel between villages, to school, to obtain provisions and to generate an income; with replacement parts for engines being so expensive, it is important that people know how to fix them. PACOS offers training courses for members of indigenous communities across Sabah, on subjects ranging from how to plant chilli peppers, fix broken machinery, to how to make soap, with the aim of improving their capacity to sustain a low-impact livelihood in the often remote locations they occupy.

We spent one incredible day observing how members of Kampung Sikalabaan use their forest and its plethora of resources. Members of seven families led us patiently (we were significantly slower and less agile than them, despite the laden woven backpacks they were carrying!) through the jungle to their farms, laid out in forest clearings. Along the way, they stopped occasionally to harvest wild ginger or check on a small vegetable plot they’d established, apparently opportunistically, within their community land. Early afternoon, after walking upstream/in-stream for quite some time, we stopped for a spectacular picnic: out of their woven baskets, the women produced a feast for the twenty or so of us, with freshly boiled rice, freshly picked aubergine broth and then to top it off, they caught and we cooked freshly-netted fish from the flowing waters two feet away. Beats a Sainsbury’s sandwich.

It was a privilege to see how this community so expertly uses their land, and how important it is for them to have access to the forest and its resources. With rural-urban migration and the designation of ‘communal lands’ providing opportunities for the expansion of oil palm into these areas, as well as pressures on resources and disturbance to ecosystems from logging, industrial agriculture and mining, these community-owned lands are being compromised. The Government’s goal of expanding strictly protected areas across more of its forested asset adds another dimension to the challenge of maintaining indigenous communities in these landscapes. But more discussion on this complex issue will have to wait for a future blog! We thank PACOS and SEARRP (Gordon, Angie and Agnes in particular) for organising this insightful opportunity.

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The first river crossing. We didn’t realise there were about a dozen more to come. Each time it was so refreshing to wade through thigh-deep water; a welcome relief from the tropical humidity. Thankfully my camera avoided any refreshing dips though!

Leaving the forest and returning to Kota Kinabalu was a bit of a shock, though the washing machine was welcomed! The next day we headed into the Forestry Complex at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) campus for two days of training. We had 20 participants attend from a range of backgrounds: in addition to UMS students and lecturers, people attended from the Departments of Agriculture, Irrigation and Drainage (JPS), Forestry (SFD) and Environment Protection (JPAS), from WWF-Malaysia and SEARRP. The first day was led by Dr Sarah Scriven and introduced participants to the R program and how to perform basic analysis and geospatial data processing. The second day, led by myself and Jenny, introduced the concept of Condatis, followed by an interactive session where we guided people through performing their own analyses using the new web version of the tool. (Butterflies (rama-rama in Malay) were used as the study organism; Jenny’s favourite!) Though we were a little optimistic as to how much material we wanted to cover in two days, it seemed to be a success: our participants provided positive and useful feedback that we used to improve and refine our training workshop the following week in Indonesia.

With our fascinating range of meetings and field trips complete in Malaysia, we headed for the next stop-off: the island of Java.

~

For the second episode in our Southeast Asian adventure, click here or check out the next post.  

One of the things….

….I did in the 11 whole months since I last wrote anything on my poor neglected bog blog was go to Ghana.  I wrote a bit about it here, published on the website for the new project I’m Research Assistant-ing on at the University of Liveerpoowelle: Condatis.

Ghana was hugely interesting, despite the distinct lack of peat.  There were trees though, but that’s another blog post….to come (she promises!).

How Ghana does sunset.

Over this period, I’ve also surveyed 1028 fields across the country, installed two weather stations, been electrocuted two times, run 17 miles over 17 of London’s bridges, missed a marathon due to injury, applied for a handful of jobs, been invited to a couple of interviews, been convincing infront of a panel, moved to the Great North*, had a jolly send-off by my old, great crew at Rezatec**, learnt how to tune a TV to the appropriate transmission, run out of electricity, run along the Mersey, taken a ferry across the Mersey (obvs), located my nearest Waitrose (with some assistance) and am in the process of developing a Scouse accent….amongst other things.

The new project I’m fortunate enough to be a part of now, directed by Dr Jenny Hodgson and the great team she’s gathered, will take me to Indonesia, Malaysia and back to Ghana to explore how the connectivity of landscapes for wildlife can be improved with strategic habitat restoration.  You can find out more here, and hopefully in future blogs.

Peat, I’ve not forgotten you.  I’m still on the look out for pots of gold that might reunite us one day….

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Red-red, the food of the Ghanaian gods.

*There’s actually still a lot of north to the north of Liverpool.

**I’m ever grateful they made use of me for so long!

 

 

Still time….Before the Flood?

This time last week I was feeling a strange mixture of distraught, angry and empowered.  The latter emotion primarily because nothing else seemed to be very important anymore, compared to the task in hand, i.e. sorting out the mess we’re rapidly making of our planet.

If you haven’t seen it yet, please watch Before the Flood.  It is an honest, hugely powerful portrayal of the challenges we’re facing with living “sustainably” on Earth, conveyed through the eyes of a very talented and passionate environmentalist*.  As UN Messenger of Peace for the Climate, Leonardo DiCaprio travels around the world for two years, observing the impact we are having on it, from the melting of the Arctic ice sheets to the burning of the peatlands of Southeast Asia.  It’s as beautiful as it is harrowing.

There are so many different ways we’re doing damage to the natural and semi-natural environments of this world; in some circumstances with a (dwindling) level of ignorance of the impacts and in some cases with full knowledge (and abandon) of them.  Hypocracy Money rules.  Trump got in.  The burning continues.

If we don’t all consider what’s going on out there, how we’re contributing to it, how we’re implicated in it (it is in our back yard) and tell the people above us that we care, the ecosystems on which we completely depend will continue to go to s**t.

Please watch it.

*As much as a multi-billionnaire (I presume, since millionnaires are old hat) can be an environmentalist….but he doesn’t shy away from the incongruities/inevitable hypocricy.  (If only a few more of the celebrity billionaires out there were as useful as this great chap.)

Peat’s muddy past

Today, at some point, the Special Feature on Forest resilience, tipping points and global change processes will be published by the Journal of Ecology.  With some tweeking, I managed to get an article accepted in it, showcasing the work I presented at the symposium of the same name at INTECOL, back in 2013.  And here is the article I wrote to accompany it, freshly posted on the Journal’s blog.

Unashamedly, this post is all about peat!  More on Tanzania very soon though, when I find time in between Christmas preparations and gluttony.

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What is so special about peat?  To the untrained eye, these ecosystems appear as desolate swamps, with limited value, biodiversity- or other-wise.  To the seasoned wetland ecologist, the more apt question is what isn’t special about peat?  These long-neglected ecosystems are vital reservoirs of fresh water for us thirsty humans; they contain ten times as much carbon as all of the world’s forests, whilst occupying only 3% of the Earth’s surface; and house a rich diversity of species found nowhere else.  Yet as we begin to learn more about the world’s peatlands, we master the technologies needed to exploit them rapidly and irreversibly (Fig. 1).

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Fig. 1      A drained peatland in Indonesian Borneo, with young oil palm plants in the foreground and heavily degraded peat swamp forest in the background.

To be scientifically accurate, the irreversible component of peatland conversion is an assumption, wanting of sufficient evidence from “the field” due to the recent nature of large-scale exploitation.  But any ecosystem we see today is a product of its evolving past; a period over which it has encountered disturbances and presented a response.  From these patterns of responses, we can measure the resilience of the ecosystem (Cole et al., 2014) and develop hypotheses as to how it may respond to future disturbances.  In its simplest form, resilience is described as the ability of an ecosystem to maintain its structure and function despite perturbation (Holling, 1973).

How resilient are peatlands?  Specifically, how have the tropical peat swamp forests of Southeast Asia responded to disturbance in the past?  We sought to answer these questions for the coastal peatlands of Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo (Cole et al., 2015) (Fig. 2).

The plug is rapidly being pulled on these sweaty, mosquito-ridden jungles as industrial-scale agriculture spreads like wildfire across the region.  Dipterocarp forests, rich in a variety of fruit-bearing trees, ‘black-water’-adapted fish and nimble mammals, are being drained, flattened and converted into monoculture landscapes where oil palms (Elaeis guineensis) can quickly bring economic profit to even the inexperienced farmer.  Though wild-fires themselves are in fact a rare phenomenon in intact peatlands, the recent elevation in burning has been blamed primarily on the recent expansion of agriculture, and brought huge environmental, health and political challenges to the region.  But how frequent were fires in the past?  And what impact did they have on the vegetation?

Unlike in the temperate zone, tropical peat swamps are naturally forested.  It is the pollen grains and fern spores produced by this vegetation that provide the answers to our questions and insights into the resilience of these ecosystems.  Fossilised grains, deposited tens to millions of years in the past, are one of the primary datasets available in palaeoecology.  Often referred to as (the less archaic-sounding) long-term ecology, the discipline extends the scope of ‘short-term’ ecology through using deposited remains to study plants and animals and their interactions with the environments of the past.

We used pollen grains, fern spores and fossil charcoal to explore drivers and impacts of disturbance in three peatland areas in northern Borneo.  Peat cores were collected from three coastal sites in Sarawak (Fig. 2), where peat extends over approximately 13% of the States’ land surface.  The depths of the cores ranged from c. 1.5 to 3m, and radiocarbon dating of sediment samples from each demonstrated that they covered a period of 2000 to 7000 years before present (BP).

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Fig. 2      The three degraded peatland sites (red circles; DPL, PSF & CPL) from which cores were collected for this palaeoecological study, in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.  Sarawak’s peatlands are shown in brown and its major towns in blue.

Once I’d spent many more hours than I’d like to remember counting and identifying microscopic pollen grains, I was able to look for answers to our key research questions:

  • How has the vegetation in these peatland ecosystems changed through time?
  • What factors disturbed the peat swamp forest vegetation?
  • How did these ecosystems respond to the different disturbances?

Vegetation change

Our data demonstrated that peat swamp forest vegetation has persisted in these coastal peatlands since the onset of ecosystem development c. 4000yrs BP.  At this time, coastal progradation, resulting from sea-level fall, provided land suitable for peat to accumulate.  Apart from fluctuations between pioneer and mature peat swamp forest species over this period, reflecting local disturbances and dynamic internal responses (Fig. 3), the only significant vegetation change observed was shown in the last 500 years in two of the cores.  Increases in plant taxa associated with degraded peatlands suggested the introduction of humans and land use change to these coastal ecosystems.

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Fig. 3      Relatively intact peat swamp forest patch, near to the site where the “PSF” core was extracted (Fig. 2).

Disturbances

There were three drivers of vegetation change that we focused on in this study, each with its associated palaeoecological proxy: climatic variability, such as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) activity, identified through a literature review; local and regional fire inferred from fossil macro- and microcharcoal respectively, and anthropogenic activity indicated by pollen and spores of plants common in open areas, such as grasses (Poaceae) and sedges (Cyperaceae).  The literature reported increasing intensity of ENSO events in this region over the late Holocene, subjecting northern Borneo to arid conditions.  Burning, both from local and regional fires, occurred throughout the past in all three sites, though elevated dramatically in the last c. 500 years in parallel with greater levels of open vegetation indicators.

Vegetation response

Only within the recent past, from c. 200-500 years BP, did the peat swamp forest vegetation show signs of being ‘disturbed’.  Prior to this period, episodes of more intense ENSO and burning did not appear to correspond with notable declines in the peat swamp forest taxa, suggesting ecosystem resilience to these forms of perturbation.  However, given that elevated levels of open vegetation indicators and charcoal do correlate with the declines observed in the recent past, and in the period when literature and interviews suggest humans started exploiting these environments, it is likely that anthropogenic activities are responsible.  Though a lack of sufficient data prevents us from inferring whether these changes equate to a recent loss of ecosystem resilience, we have made several conclusions:

  • These peat swamp forests have shown resilience to natural disturbances in the past;
  • Levels of disturbance within the last c. 500 years have exceeded those recorded in the previous 5000 years, and humans are the main culprits;
  • Recent, coincident instability and declines in peat swamp forest taxa suggest a notable anthropogenic impact on this ecosystem, potentially challenging the future persistence of these forests.

Back to the future

So, what more do we need to know about these vital* ecosystems?  Our study has provided some baseline data and information on the functioning of the coastal peat swamp forests of northern Borneo, but there are many other patches of peat around the island, and indeed the whole region to investigate.  In order to design more sustainable management practices for these unique ecosystems, it is important that we find out more about their ecology, past and present, and in particular their ability to respond to different disturbances.  With fire posing a major threat to the persistence of Southeast Asian peatlands, and the resultant carbon emissions posing a major threat to us, we need to gather insights from patterns of past recovery and build an understanding of peat swamp forest resilience.  And fast, before there’s no mud left.

*I hope I have convinced you of their extreme importance by now!

 

References

Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A. & Willis, K.J. (2014) Recovery and resilience of tropical forests after disturbance. Nature Communications, 5:3906, 1-7. Doi: 10.1038/ncomms4906.

Cole, L.E.S., Bhagwat, S.A. & Willis, K.J. (2015) Long-term disturbance dynamics and resilience of tropical peat swamp forests. Journal of Ecology – Special Issue on Forest Resilience. Doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12329.

Gaveau et al. (2014) Major atmospheric emissions from peat fires in Southeast Asia during non-drought years: evidence from the 2013 Sumatran fires. Nature, 4:6112. Doi: 10.1038/srep06112.

Holling, C.S. (1973) Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 4, 1–23.

Page, S.E., Siegert, F., Rieley, J.O., Boehm, H.-D.V., Jaya, A. & Limin, S. (2002) The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature, 420, 61–65.

Summarising SEARRP

Another catchy acronym; another interesting symposium.  The Royal Society’s Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Programme held a two day meeting in London, quite a few weeks ago now, that managed to attach some of the top contemporary tropical forest scientists, as well as a bunch of my good friends!  All the great people work in SEA forest conservation, it seems.  (Conjecture only.)

Here are my five take-away points/unanswered questions from the meeting:

1. Should we rethink our current approach to conservation or try a bit harder doing what we’re already doing?

Good question, and probably the answer is it is depends on the situation.  I know I could certainly try a bit harder with both advocating for forest conservation and with figuring out a method for translating the words I’ve written on paper into something useful for those ‘on the ground’.

2. Native charismatic leaders are needed in the country where a conservation action is required.

This is a particular favourite of mine and one I hear people bring up frequently: change starts with respected, charismatic leaders.  I think I would be more likely to participate in the annual ragwort-pull in my New Forest village if the long-standing Doctor (come theatre director, actor and charmer) encouraged me to, than if someone popped by from Sevenoaks to give his/her opinion on what us villagers should do.  Not a great example, but we all take more notice when someone we know, trust and respect gives their opinion on something concerning us.

3. The risks associated with not doing anything about forest loss and biodiversity conservation are major.

….in case anyone was considering a change of profession – please hold off for a bit longer.  We need to know more about these risks so that we can prioritise our efforts and use the knowledge to incentivise behavioural change.

4. Should scientists be aiming to publish their work on the front page of Science or on the front page of the Daily Mail?

I would say both.  As to which is more important if only one is possible, again it probably depends on the situation.  But I think there should be an obligation for scientists to somehow find the time to translate their work into publicly-accessible pieces (with advocacy potential), and for politicians to put more emphasis on the use of policy-relevant research so that society becomes more tuned-in to evidence-based decision-making….and to all of the proven c**p that’s going on in the world today.

This point is along similar lines to something that came up at this year’s Earthwatch Debate, which focused on the controversial topic of rewilding in the UK.  As summarized for the twitter nation:

Need to take the #rewilding debate from London to the village halls where people will be dealing with the #beavers head on.

5. What potential does the plethora of new technologies have to deal with the old threats?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this one, and again it probably depends.  There are hundreds of people who are better placed to give their opinion, one of which is the Captain of the Carnegie Plane of Dreams.  Professor Greg Asner, along with his hardworking, uber-intelligent minions, has developed technologies to map the chemistry of forest canopies, allowing for species-level identifications over vast areas.  I didn’t fall asleep once during his presentation.  And there are lots of other things going on out there, one of which I’m involved with.

6. Just remembered a 6th Roads: the bane of tropical forests, or are they?

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A road that I wish wasn’t there.  It was constructed illegally (though it seems that’s disputed) into land owned by the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve in Central Kalimantan, and not the plantation company that built it and has started to convert the area on the left into the bland oil palm plantations that this region is now accustomed to.

Fronting the “yes” campaign, Bill Laurance provided a convincing argument, showcasing his work on the impact of roads on the tropical forests across the world.  On the “No” side, the incredible Vojtech Novotny told a captivating story of the meaning of roads for the people of New Guinea.  His colleagues from the island were shocked to hear that people in the UK campaign to halt road building.  In a country where access to many places during much of the year is near impossible, and formal education and health care near absent, the thought of getting a road is equivalent to a lifetime of Christmases rolled into one (though the concept of Christmas is probably even more alien to them than roads).  In this richly forested nation, the argument for/against roads is nuanced and warrants consideration.

The answer to most of these questions seems to be that it mostly depends on the situation.  This isn’t just my indecision shining through; I think many tropical forest conservation projects have suffered in the past from the imposition of general rules on unique situations, as each project focus inevitably is.  General theories, principles and strategies are obviously necessary and useful, but there’s a whole load of specifics beyond these, which need to be gleaned from every forest and every community.

Selungo & the Penan Peace Park

At the end of September, the documentary Sunset over the Selungo was released.  It beautifully portrays the culture of a community belonging to the Penan tribe, living in a very remote part of the remaining rainforest of Sarawak.

                  Sarawak, one of the Malaysian States in Northern Borneo, Southeast Asia.                    (Thanks Mongabay for the image….and for all of my tropical forest news!)

Though I’ve spent some time in Sarawak over the last 6 years, and so learnt a bit about the State’s many different tribal groups and their unique cultures, I was mesmerized when I watched this film last night.  You get a privileged insight into just how skillfully these people live off the riches of the rainforest.

Then in the last few minutes of the documentary, the bomb drops/chainsaw starts.  After cleverly drawing you in to the sustainable romance of the Penan’s forest existence, the Producer/Director extraordinaire (Ross Harrison) hits you with the hard-line campaign behind his piece: deforestation.  Illegal and legal loggers are trying to move into the area, and have been for some time, despite its remoteness and importance to local and global communities.

Unfortunately, this is no new story for forest-based communities.  A friend of mine, Dr Fran Lambrick, had the premier of her documentary, I am Chut Wutty, last month also.  She tells the story of the incredibly brave Cambodian campaigner, Chut Wutty, who tried to prevent the logging and destruction of the forests in his country that many communities rely on for sustainable rubber tapping and a range of other forest products and services.  He was killed.  Probably under the direction of his own Government.

Before Chut Wutty died, he made a great noise about the injustice and destruction he saw, and generated action and support that continues in his absence.  The Penan people in Ross’ film have created a voice for themselves too, and are working to create the Penan Peace Park.  If you manage to watch the film and feel inspired to help their campaign, you can donate to it here.