By Michael Mobbs

26 October 2011 – “We have a brief window to save the rice farms of Ubud”, said Stephen Lansing to me and my fellow listeners, assembled under the high set roof of Indus Restaurant in Ubud, Bali.

We’d come to listen to Mr Lansing speak during the October Ubud Writer’s Festival.

He’d been introduced as “the Mick Jagger of rice”.  The respect for him by locals, governments and writers was palpable.

Troubled by his story about the threat to the thousand year old highly sophisticated irrigation and farmers’ controls that supports the rice fields I bought his books straight after the session and read them the next few days. (1)

Lansing compares the threat to Bali’s rice fields to the threat that once faced the forests on the island to its north, Borneo.  That threat has been carried out.  Borneo’s forests are expected to never recover from extreme capitalism and greed.  The forests were perhaps the richest, most diverse and abundant on Earth.

The unfinished story of Bali’s rice fields remains one of possible continued sustainability and that’s a story for another time.

Here, to show how the environment cannot negotiate, and why I take Mr Lansing’s warning seriously, is the story of Borneo’s forests.

In 1967 Indonesia opened up islands for logging rainforests to sell to Australia and other countries.

By the early 1970s logging exports generated over US$1.5 billion, rising to US$6 billion 15 years later.

But in the 1980s, because the logging was causing soil erosion and other problems, the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry began to promote commercial tree plantations for the pulp and paper industry and palm oil plantations.  It was supported by interest-free loans from national funds and by international investment.

Some national parks and selective logging were introduced.

In 1990 the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry asserted the logging “. . . creates the necessary conditions for social and economic development.”

In 1999 ecologist Lisa Curran and a research team reported results of a 14 years study into the island forests of Borneo. (2)

Curran found out how the forests live. There’s a constant tension between the trees, which reproduce by seeds, and the animals, birds and insects that eat the seeds to live.

To reproduce themselves, and to “outwit” the predators of the seeds, the trees produce too many seeds in a short time so the predators can’t eat them all.  Large quantities of seeds and fruits are produced in short, irregular moments every three to six years.

The seeding is triggered by ocean currents called the El Nino Southern Oscillation. ENSO causes extreme rainfall reduction in Borneo from June to September. Then the trees begin to flower and reproduce. So, too, do the predators of the trees’ produce.

It took 30 years of modern western forestry, commencing in the 70s, to remove or fragment much of the tree cover of Borneo. At the end the reproductive cycle was broken.

Now, Curran’s research shows the trees cannot produce enough seeds to out-produce the appetites of the predators. The trees can no longer reproduce themselves.

ENSO, which used to sustain the forests, has become their destroyer and is causing more damage than the humans who removed the forests.

ENSO droughts cause huge bushfires, which are increasing in their intensity.

The 1998 ENSO caused bushfires across Borneo which put 400 million metric tonnes of carbon into Earth’s atmosphere.  Peat swamps caught fire and added another 200 million metric tonnes of carbon pollution.

Compare these figures with the goal of the Kyoto climate change treaty to reduce carbon pollution for all of Earth by 500 million metric tonnes.

Curran’s research team concludes the forests can never be restored.

Solutions we can apply in Australia include:

  • Don’t buy imported timber. Because of corruption along the whole supply line, including in Australia, it’s impossible to verify the source of imported timber. It is possible, with some effort and discipline, to verify the source of Australian timber.
  • Don’t buy palm sugar; it comes, with rare exceptions, from palm tree forests, which destroyed and are destroying rainforests.
  • Professional bodies should this year make it a condition of membership, and the right to practice, that a member not specify rainforest timbers or timbers which are imported; that’s bodies such as the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Planning Institute of Australia, Local Government Associations, Institutes of Landscape Architects, etc.
  • Sustainability checklists asserting they deliver “sustainable” projects should make it mandatory not to use imported timber, a breach of which renders any rating void; for example, NABERS, BASIX, First Rate, Greenstar and the like.

My first thought as I read that list is, “In your dreams”.

Yours, too, right?

So my second thought is, “Bye bye forests of Borneo and anywhere. Hello greed”.

Now, when I look at a well-dressed “professional”, or listen to a well-spoken, reasonable city designer or builder, or hear about a new gee whiz sustainable project, or buy some imported paper I’ll probably wonder: behind that façade are there a few tonnes of greed-driven Borneo forest up in Earth’s atmosphere?

(1)       Perfect Order: recognising complexity in Bali, J Stephen Lansing 2006

Priests and programmers: technologies of power in the engineered landscape of Bali

J Stephen Lansing, 2007

(2)       L Curran and M Leighton, Vertebrate response to spatiotemporal variation in seed production of mast-fruiting dipterocarpacae, Ecological Monographs 70 (1): 102