An environmental crisis in Borneo


The island of Borneo was once described as pristine and lush, renowned for its natural beauty and biodiversity. Often referred to as the lungs of Southeast Asia, it now portrays a tragic tale of greed and destruction.

I was born here and have spent half of my life on Indonesia’s third largest island. Borneo is a treasure chest teeming with biodiversity, one of the highest in the world. Its natural environment also stores an enormous amount of carbon.

No wonder, then, that companies saw Borneo’s vast potential and came down to the island to start their businesses. Unfortunately, their business models were focused on endless growth and prosperity, not environmental sustainability.

Surveyors measure and mark land to expand a quarry at a mining concession in Makroman, East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Clearing for mining is contributing to the destruction of forests in one of the last areas of ancient forest in the world. © Kemal Jufri / Greenpeace

A story of corporate greed and government neglect

The province of South Kalimantan covers an area of ​​3.7 million hectares. About 1.7 million hectares, or 33 percent of the area, have been allocated to coal mining concessions. Permits for oil palm plantations cover an area of ​​618,000 hectares, or 17 percent of the area, with a small portion allocated to pulp concessions.

At least 30 percent of Borneo’s rainforest has been destroyed in the past 40 years, including its carbon-rich peatlands which can store twice as much carbon as forests. Logging, mining and plantation development, especially oil palm plantations, have contributed to massive deforestation and impacted the island’s orangutan population. To date, Borneo has lost nearly 150,000 orangutans in the past 16 years.

Share at P&G Palm Oil Supplier in Kalimantan.  © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace
The concession held by PT Multi Persada Gatramegah (PT MPG), a subsidiary of Musim Mas, a palm oil supplier to Procter & Gamble in Muara Teweh, North Barito, Central Kalimantan. Greenpeace calls on P&G to stop destroying Indonesia’s rainforest and engage in a policy of zero deforestation. © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

Indigenous communities have also been severely affected and displaced. The Dayak people, one of the island’s original inhabitants, depend heavily on the forest for their livelihood. Today their culture and way of life is under threat due to corporate greed and lack of government support.

The devastating fires that occurred in 2015 and 2019 are forever etched in people’s memories, burning nearly 4.4 million hectares of forests and peatlands. The plantation sector bears considerable responsibility for the fires between 2015 and 2019, with 27 percent of the burnt areas mapped in 2019 located in palm oil and pulpwood concessions.

Forest fires in Central Kalimantan.  © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace
Members of the Greenpeace Indonesia (FFP) Forest Fire Prevention Team extinguish fires in plantations and forests in Jekan Raya sub-district, Palangkaraya town, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. The Indonesian government has declared a state of emergency in six provinces of Sumatra and the island of Kalimantan as forest fires in Indonesia worsen. © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

A climate emergency in Borneo

At the start of 2021, in the midst of the Covid -19 pandemic, Borneo found itself in the news with general flooding in southern Kalimantan. Unlike the recent devastating earthquake in Sulawesi, the floods were triggered by a series of events that could have been avoided by the Indonesian government.

Over the years, the government has continued to issue business permits on a haphazard basis, resulting in severe deforestation of Borneo’s watersheds. With very little forest cover, South Kalimantan is very susceptible to flooding given the amount of rain that occurs in mid-January. Heavy rains triggered landslides and heavy flooding in at least 10 districts, killing 20 and affecting more than 300,000 people, according to the latest report from the National Disaster Management Agency.

President Joko Widodo, who recently visited the affected areas, said heavy rains were behind the devastating floods in Borneo, the worst to hit the province in 50 years.

Flash floods in South Kalimantan.  © Iman Satria / Greenpeace
A woman walks through the ruins of Hantakan Market which was destroyed by flash floods in Alat village, Hantakan, Hulu Sungai Tengah Regency, South Kalimantan. Hulu Sungai Tengah’s regency is still isolated from aid as the access road has been destroyed. Flooding caused by heavy seasonal rains and massive clearing of land for palm oil and charcoal extraction in South Kalimantan has pushed water levels up to two meters, inundating hundreds houses and forced thousands of residents to flee their homes and find shelter on higher ground. © Iman Satria / Greenpeace

This statement is a confusing tale often used by the government to escape responsibility for wildfires and floods. Clearly, it’s more convenient to blame the weather than to take stock of what happened in Borneo. Never mind that many companies operating in Borneo have little or no respect for the environment and often profit from the conversion of land and forests in the province. It is important to note that most oil palm permits and mining concessions are concentrated in areas where severe flooding has occurred.

In all of this, the Indonesian government has chosen to ignore the environmental crisis as Borneo is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. [1]

What is evident is that the government has not implemented policies for land use planning and protection of forests and the environment, while allowing companies to take advantage of this situation.

Flooding in South Kalimantan.  © Putra / Greenpeace
Volunteers evacuate flood-affected children in the village of Sungai Raya, Banjar Regency, South Kalimantan. Flooding caused by heavy seasonal rains and massive clearing of land for palm oil and charcoal extraction in South Kalimantan has raised water levels to two meters, inundating hundreds of people. houses and forced thousands of residents to flee their homes and find shelter on higher ground. © Putra / Greenpeace

The interests of the oligarchy effectively weakened the function of the state by depriving the public of their rights, namely the right to a healthy environment regulated by the constitution and democratic rights. The flooding came after the government issued a controversial policy – passing the mining law and granting special privileges to mining contractors. [2]

The new Omnibus law, passed hastily by the government, removes many articles on environmental protection. This now opens Borneo to future disasters. [3] What is most alarming is the removal of the minimum 30 percent requirement necessary to protect the carrying capacity of the watershed. This will lead to more forest conversions, granting permits for palm oil, mining and other concessions.

A need for a green and fair recovery

All my life I have campaigned to save the environment and my beloved Borneo. In 2015, I participated in a popular initiative – we filed and won a lawsuit against President Jokowi and five ministers for their negligence in dealing with wildfires and haze. But it’s not enough. We need more people to stay vigilant and put pressure on government and business to change the current economic model which relies on the destruction of nature for economic growth.

Orangutans at BOS Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue Center in Indonesia © Bjorn Vaugn / BOSF / Greenpeace
An orangutan playing on a tree at the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation in Nyaru Menteng, central Kalimantan. © Bjorn Vaugn / BOSF / Greenpeace

Despite social distancing, let’s stand united to protect Borneo. We must stand in solidarity against this destructive and unjust system if we are to face natural disasters and the climate emergency.

Public health and planetary health are closely linked and must be treated together. We call on both the Indonesian government and the business sector to put people and the planet first as they rebuild the economy and society from Covid-19. Indonesia needs to invest in renewables and move away from fossil fuels.

Above all, the focus must be on protecting Indonesia’s forests – changing current agricultural practices and radically redesigning our cities, including transforming the land-based industries that are destroying our forests and peatlands. Failure to do so will have devastating consequences, not only for Indonesia but for the rest of the world. We must protect Borneo because our lives depend on it.

Arie Rompas is the Forest Campaign Team Leader for Greenpeace Indonesia.


[1] The relationship between deforestation and local climate change was more pronounced in the watersheds of southeast Borneo, which have lost 40-75% of their forests since 1973. These watersheds also had a significantly higher frequency of warmer temperatures. at 31 ° C.

The northern and northwestern Borneo watersheds, which lost 5-25% of their forest cover, maintained a more stable climate with a similar distribution of mean and extreme temperatures between forests and modified forest areas. Watersheds with> 15% forest loss had> 15% reduction in precipitation. This situation concluded that the loss of forest in Borneo increased local daily temperatures and temperature extremes, and reduced daily rainfall.

[2] By exempting royalty payments up to zero percent, including providing lifetime guaranteed mining licenses for mining companies that add value and remove maximum limits, so that they can freely expand and increase their production capacity. The mining companies that benefit from it operate mainly in the South Borneo region, and their owners are linked to oligarchs in Indonesia.

[3] The previous forest law required that the total forest area in each river basin and / or island be kept at 30% of the total land area. This was to minimize disruption to the water system and prevent flooding, erosion, sedimentation and water shortages. This requirement was removed by the Omnibus law.

Deforestation and fire monitoring in the Amazon in July 2020 © Christian Braga / Greenpeace

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