Three Nations Agree to Conserve Biodiverse Heart of Borneo

BALI, Indonesia, February 12, 2007 (ENS) - A declaration to protect the forested Heart of Borneo was signed today by ministers from the three Bornean governments - Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia. The agreement will conserve and sustainably manage one of the most important centers of biological diversity in the world, inhabited by endangered orangutans, elephants and rhinos.

The agreement ends plans to create the world’s largest palm oil plantation that would have cleared a vast rainforest along Indonesia’s border with Malaysia across the world's third largest island.

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A boat makes its way up the Rupert River in the Heart of Borneo. (Photo © Rupert Ridgeway courtesy WWF)
The Heart of Borneo covers 220,000 square kilometers (85,000 square miles) of equatorial rainforests – almost one-third of the island of Borneo. The area spreads across the transboundary highlands of Indonesia and Malaysia, and down through the foothills into adjacent lowlands and to parts of Brunei.

"This is an historic occasion which marks new collaboration between our three countries," said Malem Sambat Kaban, the Indonesian Minister of Forestry. "This will put the Heart of Borneo on the world stage as one of the last great blocks of forest in the world."

Kaban

Indonesian Forest Minister Malem Sambat Kaban (Photo courtesy Government of Indonesia)
The island is inhabited by 13 species of primates, including the endangered orangutan, 150 species of reptiles and amphibians, over 350 species of birds, and around 15,000 species of plants.

Many species are still undiscovered - more than 50 new species were identified on Borneo last year alone.

The Heart of Borneo Declaration, signed at an official ceremony held in Bali, is a lifeline for Borneo’s rainforests that are threatened by logging, forest fires and forest conversion for plantations.

"This event is more than symbolic as it represents a commitment between our three countries to conserve and sustainably manage the Heart of Borneo," said Dato Seri Azmi bin Khalid, Malaysian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment.

bin Khalid

Malaysian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Dato Seri Azmi bin Khalid (Photo courtesy Parliament of Malaysia)
Since 1996, deforestation across Indonesia has increased to an average of two million hectares (7,722 square miles) per year and, today, only half of Borneo’s original forest cover remains.

The world’s largest palm oil plantation, supported by Chinese investments, was planned to cover an area of 1.8 million hectares (6,949 square miles) and would have had long-lasting, damaging consequences to the Heart of Borneo.

"It has become clear since we started to discuss cooperation on the vision for the Heart of Borneo that the world outside our countries is excited by what we are doing and is prepared to lend us support," said Pehin Dr. Awang Haji Ahmad bin Haji Jumat, Minister of Brunei Darussalam’s Industry and Primary Resources.

Jumat

Brunei Minister of Industry and Primary Resources Pehin Dr. Awang Haji Ahmad bin Haji Juma (Photo courtesy Government of Brunei)
"Future generations will look back on this occasion and admire the leadership and courage shown by the three governments today to conserve the Heart of Borneo," said James Leape, WWF International’s Director General.

The global conservation organization WWF has supported the three governments in their desire to conserve the Heart of Borneo since the announcement of their joint intention at the Convention on Biodiversity in Brazil in March 2006. "WWF stands ready to assist Borneo’s three governments in realizing the groundbreaking commitment they have made today," said Leape.

The United States government is contributing financially to protection of the Heart of Borneo. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a pledge of US$100,000 to help advance this regional project focused on combating illegal logging and wildlife trafficking during her joint press conference with Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid in Kuala Lumpur on July 28, 2006.

The U.S. funds will be disbursed through the World Wildlife Fund and the International Tropical Timber Organization, in consultation with the three Southeast Asian countries.

Leape said, "That three countries have come together with a shared vision that will promote sustainable development, protect vital natural resources and reduce poverty, should be an inspiration to everyone."

"The Heart of Borneo harbors up to six percent of the world’s total biodiversity," said Dr. Dino Sharma, Executive Director of WWF-Malaysia in January.

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The unspoiled rainforests of Borneo will be protected by the three nations that share the equatorial island. (Photo © Rupert Ridgeway courtesy WWF)
"The highlands and adjacent foothills along the borders of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia are vital for the people of Borneo," Sharma said. "The Heart of Borneo is the source of 14 of the island’s 20 major rivers and conserving this precious region is essential for safeguarding the water and food security for the people of Borneo."

But the natural forests of Borneo are being cleared for commercial uses, including rubber, palm oil and pulp production. As logging trails and cleared forest extend into remote areas, the illegal wildlife trade grows.

In addition to endangered animals, plants that could help treat or cure diseases such as cancer, AIDS and malaria have been found in Heart of Borneo rainforests.

A WWF report published in April 2006, "Biodiscoveries, Borneo's Botanical Secret," detailed the efforts of scientists who are testing samples collected in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, as well as in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo.

The Australian pharmaceutical company Cerylid Biosciences has identified a promising anti-cancer substance in a shrub found in Sarawak. A compound present in the plant Aglaia leptantha has been found to effectively kill 20 kinds of human cancer cells in laboratory tests, including those that cause brain and breast cancer, and melanoma.