Biodiversity conservation in East Kalimantan, Borneo island
REA operates in the Indonesian region of the island of Borneo, which is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and a powerhouse for the provision of critical ecosystem services, including clean water, climate regulation and nutrient cycling. The longevity of REA’s business is wholly dependent on its ability to maintain and enhance this biodiversity.
Plantation development in the tropics can result in a significant alteration of biodiversity and natural ecosystem functions. Operational requirements for oil palm cultivation, such as land clearing, maintenance, harvesting, processing and delivery, should be guided by conservation principles to avoid or mitigate negative impacts and augmented by positive steps to restore or enhance original landscape level floral and faunal diversity.
Conservation work is a principal element of the group’s policy towards the achievement of sustainability. Currently a total of approximately 20,000 hectares have been set aside as conservation reserves within the group’s titled land bank, accounting for some 23% of the group’s land titles. The group’s conservation department (REA Kon) was established in 2008 and has evolved over the last ten years, aspiring to exceed, rather than merely to meet, all the requirements of the sustainability bodies by which the group is certified.
REA Kon’s original mandate was an adjunct to the group’s plantation operations. It began by undertaking a detailed empirical description of the landscape within and adjacent to the group’s operational areas, based on which a set of objectives were framed: to conserve or enhance the original values of the landscape; to minimise negative impacts of human activities; to provide long term benefits for biological species, local communities and the group. The department’s findings were used to develop a set of practical conservation principles to be integrated into the group’s operations.
REA Kon has worked hard over the last few years to upgrade the department’s knowledge of the biological landscape within the group’s boundaries, maintaining a permanent database of species’ richness, distribution and abundance. This information provides a basis for prioritising resources, both financial and human, and directing conservation efforts to where they are most needed. Linked to this is the day-to-day monitoring of environmental requirements within the group’s plantation blocks.
Following a recent review of its performance, the REA Kon department was reorganised in 2018 to further enhance its role and to better reflect its mandate, including plantation ecology (evaluating the long-term ecological impacts and dynamics within planted blocks); biodiversity management (understanding trends within and conservation management of natural species of the landscape); and communities and forests (collaboration with local communities in the conservation management of the group’s designated conservation reserves, including HCV areas).
Quarterly water quality testing and monthly programmes of forest restoration and enrichment are conducted in all conservation reserves and selected areas that are no longer designated for planting. Together with the biodiversity team, the plantation ecology team investigates the relationship between forest species and planted blocks, for example to seek scientific answers to questions such as whether forest birds forage for insects within the plantation. This could be of significance in reducing pests within oil palm plantations, as well as reducing the need for any chemical spraying. Further, seedlings of native shade, timber and fruit trees are produced and distributed to local villages, schools and emplacements within the group’s estates. Rambutan and durian trees planted by REA Kon in 2008 now produce abundant edible fruit for the benefit of staff and guests.
REA Kon continues systematic biodiversity point surveys, camera trapping, belt-transects and phenology plot monitoring as part of its assessment of the living landscape. A bank of 55 camera traps is on a 40 unit survey rotation throughout the conservation reserves and plantation blocks. GPS points for the locations of all Rare, Threatened and Endangered Species are permanently recorded and mapped via mapping technology. Based on camera trap photographs and incidental observation, a total of 51 mammal, 166 bird, 22 reptile and 19 amphibian species have been detected, their GPS positions and encounter dates recorded and relevant conservation data entered into the 2019 database. These records are then compared with the previous year’s results, and entered into a continuously updated master list. Species known by IUCN to be Critically Endangered (CR) or Endangered (EN) have been detected and mapped. Species included in this effort since January 2019 are: Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica) (CR); Sunda freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) (CR); Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus morio) (EN); Flat-headed Cat (Prionailurus planiceps) (EN); Bornean gibbon (Hylobates muelleri) (EN); Proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) (EN); and Storm’s stork (Ciconia stormi) (EN).
Through camera trapping arrays and walking surveys along permanent transects, REA Kon identifies the location of each individual orangutan, the highest priority species. In previous years, such monitoring was done through nest counts, which have proved to be inaccurate in estimating total numbers and vulnerable to misinterpretation. Camera trap monitoring provides superior population estimates, in addition to the identification of individuals, along with information on their age, sex, health and reproductive activity. In 2019, these methods produced an initial estimate of 20 individual orangutans within REA’s forested conservation areas.
REA Kon’s conservation efforts are enhanced by close technical cooperation with research scientists and experts from local and international institutions and universities, as well as with Indonesia’s environmental NGOs. These provide sound empirical information, and support for valid, evidence-based decisions on current conservation practice and the effective management of biodiversity of high conservation value areas.
To encourage broad-based participation in forest conservation, REA Kon engages with local communities, schools and workers’ emplacements within the group’s operational area through workshops where REA Kon’s programmes are presented and explained. Education camps for school age children have been conducted at the conservation research station since 2008. The REA Kon staff present an overview of REA Kon’s duties and activities interspersed with games and interpretive walks through the forest. Fieldwork sessions teach students how to identify local flora and fauna, learn basic forest ecology and participate in forest restoration. REA Kon staff also gather with local communities to conduct meetings where participants exchange views on conservation. More formal discussions of the group’s conservation policy are held with relevant departments at the Provincial, Regency and District levels to explain REA Kon’s role and to coordinate species conservation efforts. A long-term partnership maintains REA Kon’s close cooperation with the Provincial Government’s Natural Resources Conservation Agency.
The boundaries of all conservation reserves are clearly marked with conspicuous signboards to identify their status. Working in cooperation with the group’s survey department and an international mapping consultant, REA Kon uses satellite imagery to monitor any signs of human disturbance or damage to forested areas within the group’s boundaries. If encroachment is detected, REA Kon investigates and takes steps to restore the original forest vegetation. Based on an evaluation of effectiveness the sites are allowed to regenerate naturally or through intervention by rewilding.
Managing encroachment into conservation reserves poses a significant risk to the viability of endangered species and their habitats. The process is challenging as a result of a complicated traditional land rights system. Thus, a standard operating procedure is in place so that REA Kon, in cooperation with the village affairs and security teams, can respond quickly and effectively if logging or land clearing is detected within the conservation reserves. Where any encroachment is discovered, REA Kon visits the location to determine the extent of the affected area, the person or group responsible and the existence of any legal or customary rights. The matter is then passed to the village affairs department, which determines whether a case requires compensation or prosecution by local government authorities.
REA Kon’s plantation, biodiversity and community-related conservation actions are reviewed annually to assess whether further refinement is required to improve their effectiveness and are enhanced by close technical cooperation with research scientists and experts from local and international institutions and universities, as well as with Indonesia’s environmental NGOs. These provide sound empirical information for valid, evidence-based decisions on the current conservation status and effective management of biodiversity and HCV areas.
Since 2018, REA has been working with Satelligence in the Netherlands to develop and implement an online land cover mapping and change monitoring system. The aim is to track land cover change over the broader landscape in which the estates are integrated, including the concession areas, the entire FFB supply base, forest areas and all other land cover types within a defined area surrounding the concessions. The land cover map is used to identify areas for rehabilitation that have been previously disturbed by, for example, fire, logging or other locally initiated encroachment. The online monitoring system provides alerts of further land cover change due to land clearing or fire in areas within and surrounding the concessions. This enables operational teams on the ground to respond rapidly to instances of encroachment or illegal deforestation at an early stage and complements existing ground-based patrols and other surveys.
Fires in and around the company concessions are an ongoing threat to habitats and operations during periods of dry weather, and the project with Satelligence provides the company with an effective additional tool to monitor incidents and work with local communities to raise awareness and reduce such risks. In 2019 there were 36 incidents (fire hotspots) recorded within the company concessions that were reported to the RSPO.
In 2020 the company started working with the local government and communities to develop a network of trained community groups to promote fire prevention and develop fire-fighting capabilities in, initially, 8 neighbouring villages. These groups are intended to spearhead efforts in the local communities to reduce the traditional reliance on fire for clearing village land and work in parallel with other company-funded community development initiatives to promote forest and habitat conservation. The company will continue to extend this project through further communities and villages.
REA Kon and the estate management team at CDM management works closely with the KEE (Kawasan Ekosistem Essential), a provincial government initiative for the protection of endangered species in the CDM-Mesangat wetlands area. In September 2019, REA Kon initiated contact with the European Crocodile Networking Group (experts on Asian crocodile species) to continue long term monitoring and assessment of the endangered species in the company-managed portions of the wetland. REA Kon also met with representatives of the French NGO Planete Urgense to discuss possible cooperation in the restoration of damaged habitats in the wetland.
REA Kon collaborates with senior scientists (Prof Dr. Sri Suci Utama Atmoko and Dr, Tatang Mitra Setia) of the Biology Faculty of the Universitas Nasional (UNAS) in Jakarta in monitoring resident orangutan and hornbill populations within the estates managed by the REA Group. REA Kon continues to work with the staff and students of Prof. Dr. Rudy Agung Nugroho the Zoology Faculty, Universitas Mulawarman (Samarinda), and provides support for undergraduate as well as graduate research projects, thus building local capacity in field biology and conservation. Students receive meals, lodging and transport for internships in conservation outside of protected areas. All of these collaborative efforts are integrated with REA Kon’s monthly monitoring programme of species inventories and monitoring through systematic camera trapping, line and point transects, incidental observation as well as drone-based mapping and field visits across REA Group’s designated conservation areas.