In March 1983 something strange happened in Singapore: Changi Airport had to be closed down for several days, because a thick yellow-brown haze made it impossible for planes to take off or land on the airport. End of times seemed to have arrived already when 1800 km to the Southeast the airport of Surabaya was closed down for the same reason.
Borneo on fire
The smoke was not an announcement of 'the end of times', but there was a huge natural disaster happening. Only 400 km from Surabaya and 1400 km from Singapore, Borneo's rainforests were on fire for months. When the immense fires were put out eventually in May 1983 because of the extensive rainfall, 3.5 milion hectares of rainforest (the size of The Netherlands) was lost. In 1987, it were the same fires which caused panic. They formed a second warning of nature; quit chopping!
The fires are an almost cosmic protest against the ever growing deforestation. The commercial chopping causes a dryer atmosphere and dehydration of the soil. Not only on Borneo, which houses one of the biggest rainforests in the world, but all over the world a high price is paid for the hunt on the 'green gold'. Unless the fatal results for the population, trees are still streaming down along the rivers to end up as newspapers, construction materials and matched in Japan and Europe.
When the Indonesian goverment declared all rainforest governmental property in 1967, the big commercial slaughter begun. Big woodlogging companies got consessions for tens of milions of hectares of forest. Every year, bulldozers flattened 400.000 hectares of forest, that's over 11 sq.km a day.
The end of the rainforest seems close. In 1968, the Indonesian part of Borneo was covered in forest for over 77 per cent, over 1/3 of the total forest in Indonesia. In 1983, this percentage had dropped to only 65 percent.
When the commercial woodlog goes on in the same pace, the rainforest will be gone in the early years of the 21th century. Official reports, among them from the United Nations, speak of economical and ecological crime, with fatal results for the inhabitants.
The local Dayak are known for their ecologically good traditional field-changine agriculture or ladang-culture. For their rice-fields they only chop a small piece of rainforest, and they burn the lower layers of vegetation to fertilize the usually unfertile red soils of the rainforest. The farmer plants the field one or two times, to do the same a little distance ahead. The old ladang isn't used for another 15 yer, so the protecting canape can restore itself. Only then the farmer returns to burn it again and to start the cycle all over again.
This ladang-system demands high knowledge from the population. The period of disuse has to be long enough for the rainforest to restore itself, and the used tools are not allowed to harm the upper layer of the soil and the population can't grow too fast.
Because of the woodchop not only the precious trees disappear, but also the lower vegetation, which protects the upper layer of the soil against the sun. When this vegetation is gone, the humus is flushed away by the rain, and all that is left is a very unfertile soil. The only thing that will grow there is alang-alang, imperata grass, and the rainforest is gone forever.
The Punan, which only live from hunting and collecting forest products, are directly dependent on rainfall. They substract dozens, or sometimes even hundreds of products from the rainforest for own use or for sale: tools, construction materials like ratten, tree bark and bamboo, medicine and food. The fibre-rich stem of the forest-sagopalm gives enough carbo-hydrates, and the breadfruit, mango, mangostan, papaya, pineapple and the delicious durian feed and refresh at the same time. But for how long? The fish in the rivers is clearly decreasing, and wild animals are getting harder to find. It seems that the fundament for the exsistance of live is being vanished.
The process of deforestation is being increased by the mainly Jawanese migrants. They don't have the knowlegde of the Dayak, and try, in chopped ad well as in fresh parts of the rainforest, to create permanent cultures. On unfertile soil, this is almost impossible, what forces the farmers to move along. Result of this is that the soil is getting exhausted and the forest is not able to restore itself. How big this problem is, is made clear by the fact that the planning of transmigrations between 1983 - 1988 of the government was about 1 milion families. Forests and the local population of Borneo, Sumatera and Papua are paying the bill for that.
Originally, ten per cent of the earths surface was covered by tropical rainforest. The remaining seven percent is being threathened in a high grade over the last decades. Some sources report the loss of 11 milion hectares every single year in the 1990's. Other sources even report the double ammount.
The results of the deforestation are huge. Dry and wet seasons get more extreme and the division of the rainfall and evaporation is changed. Rainforests function like spunges. They hold the water for a longer time, and they swaet it out over a longer period of time. Deforestation increases the number of methane, carbondioxides and nitrogen. Besides that, the green flora is the base of life. Only they can change engergy from the sun into organis carbon-bases products.
Almost half of all known fauna and flora, in total over five milion spiecies, live in the rainforests. Because of the drastic deforestation, about 25 spiecies excinct every singe dag. For their daily meal, 30 milion people in entire Asia and 100 milion people all over the world are directly dependent of the rainforests. The worries of the Dayak and Punan are certainly also their worries. The question is when they will become our worries as well.