By Ben Ng
The Heart of Borneo (HoB) initiative that took place earlier this year marked a historic declaration by Brunei Darussalam to preserve some 220,000 square kilometres of vibrant tropical rainforests, home to a vast array of unique flora and fauna.
Brunei, along with Malaysia and Indonesia, signed an agreement earlier this year endorsing the conservation and protection of one of the most bio-diverse and threatened tropical rainforests in the world.
"The decision to sign this declaration shows the depth of Brunei's commitment to the responsible management of its natural resources.
"The United States is proud to have already provided support for the Heart of Borneo initiative and hopes to continue its support in the future," said US Ambassador to Brunei, Emil Skodon, in a report published earlier this year.
The area protected by the project, which was first launched in March at a UN biodiversity conference in Curitiba, Brazil, includes parts of territories under the three governments in Borneo, reaching from the highlands along the Indonesian-Malaysian border into the lower-lying areas in Brunei.
According to the declaration, through their common vision of environmental conservation and with the ultimate goal of improving their people' welfare, the three countries pledged to work together to ensure the effective management of forestry resources, as well as to establish a network of protected areas, production forests and land use in their areas in a sustainable way.
"The goal is to keep Borneo's natural heritage for the benefit of present and future generations, as well as to fully respect the sovereignty over each other's territorial borders without prejudice," Forestry Minister MS Kaban told neighbouring Indonesia's media agency, Antara News.
The urgency to protect the earth's dwindling natural resources and habitats has even prompted the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to join forces with the governments of the three Asean member states at the national and local level to support the protection and sustainable development of forests in the region.
"The Heart of Borneo is one of the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth.
"Protecting this sanctuary would not be possible without the commitment and leadership of these three visionary governments," said WWF CEO Carter Roberts during talks earlier this year.
In recent years, the rates of deforestation have accelerated due to the large-scale land clearing for oil palm plantations and massive fires - the pollution from which regularly fouls air quality as far away as Thailand and Australia.
According to the WWF, the HoB declaration will formally end the plan to create the world's largest palm oil plantation in Kalimantan along Indonesia's mountainous border with Malaysia.
The plan, backed by Chinese investments, was widely criticised by environmental groups that said it was a cover for logging and would cause wide-ranging ecological damage to critical forest areas.
The loss of Borneo's forests is also having a global impact.
Carbon dioxide emissions from fires in the island's peat forests have made Indonesia the world's third largest greenhouse gas polluter, despite having the world's 22nd largest economy.
According to the WWF, Borneo's forests are some of the most bio-diverse on the planet.
The island is estimated to have at least 222 different species of mammals, 420 species of birds, 100 different types of amphibians, 394 different fish, and 15,000 plants, of which more than 400 have been discovered since 1994.
Furthermore, surveys have found more than 700 species of trees in a 10-hectare plot, a number equal to the number of trees in Canada and the United States combined.
Today, only half Borneo's forest cover remains, down from 75 per cent in the mid 1980s.
According to the WWF, all lowland rainforests in Kalimantan would disappear by 2010 if the current deforestation rate of 1.3 million hectares per year - an area equivalent to about one-third the size of Switzerland - continues.
Moreover, forest fires, the conversion of forests to plantations, and logging are also driving the destructions of Borneo's forests.
As part of the initiative, Malaysia had declared it would protect more than 200,000 hectares of key forest habitats in Sabah for the protection of orangutans, elephants and rhinos.
Brunei has established two conservation areas and Indonesia has proposed a new national park of 800,000 hectares.
- Borneo Bulletin
(31st Dec 2007)