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. Agricultural operations should ensure for the long term the effectiveness of natural ecosystem characteristics and services. Ideally, the operational aspects required for oil palm cultivation, harvesting, processing and delivery should be integrated with conservation principles, not only with measures in place to avoid or mitigate negative impacts, but also with positive steps to restore or enhance significant portions of the original landscape level biological diversity.

The group’s conservation work is integral to the group’s policy and efforts in relation to sustainability. Areas designated as conservation reserves within the group’s titled land bank total approximately 20,000 hectares, accounting some 23 per cent of the group’s titled areas. The group’s conservation department (“REA Kon”) was established in 2008 and has evolved substantially over the last ten years. REA Kon aspires to exceed, rather than merely to meet, the requirements of the various sustainability bodies by which the group is certified. REA Kon staff have an important role as the primary contributors of information pertinent to the long-term sustainability of all the designated conservation reserves within the group’s operational areas and to international certification requirements.

REA Kon’s original mandate was an adjunct to the group’s plantation operations. It began by initiating a programme based on an empirical description of the landscape covered by the group’s land allocations and a set of objectives designed to conserve or enhance the original values of the landscape, to minimize negative impacts of human activities and to provide long-term benefits for all. The department’s findings were then used to develop a set of practical conservation principles that could be integrated into the group’s operations.

REA Kon has made vigorous efforts over the last two years to upgrade the department’s knowledge of the biological landscape within its boundaries, creating a permanent database of recorded observations of species, noting their richness, distribution and abundance. This information provides a basis for more efficient prioritising of resources, both financial and human, and for directing conservation efforts to where they are most needed. Linked to this is the day-to-day monitoring of environmental challenges within the group’s plantation blocks to potentially improve pest management (through biological control), with the aim of reducing quantities of chemically-based pesticides.

Following a recent review of REA Kon activities, the department has been reorganised to enhance its role and better reflect its responsibilities. Such responsibilities comprise: plantation ecology (evaluating the long-term ecological impacts and dynamics of the planted blocks); biodiversity management (understanding trends within and conservation management of the natural species of the landscape covered by the group’s land allocations); and communities and forests (conservation and management of the designated conservation reserves areas) (designated conservation reserves are otherwise known as High Conservation Value (“HCV”) by certain sustainability certification bodies).

Quarterly water quality testing and monthly programmes of forest restoration and enrichment are conducted in all of the conservation reserves and selected areas that are no longer designated for planting. Together with the biodiversity team, the ecology team has developed plans to investigate the relationship between forest species and planted blocks so as to seek a scientific answer to the question of whether forest birds forage for insects within the plantation. This could be of significant assistance in reducing pests within oil palm plantations. Seedlings of native shad, timber and fruit trees are produced for distribution to local villages as well as to schools and emplacements within the group’s estates. Rambutan and durian trees planted by REA Kon in 2008 are now fruiting abundantly for the benefit of staff.

REA Kon continues to undertake biodiversity point surveys, camera trapping, and belt-transects and phenology plot monitoring. By mid 2018, a total of 55 camera traps were organised into a 40 unit per month rotation throughout the conservation reserves and plantation blocks. The GPS locations of all Rare, Threatened and Endangered Species are now mapped via GIS technology. Using the camera traps and direct observation, a total of 51 mammal, 114 bird and 14 reptile species were detected. Their GPS position and observation dates were recorded and relevant conservation data (endemic, nationally protected, IUCN and CITES status) entered into the 2018 database. Species listed by IUCN as Critically Endangered (CR) or Endangered (EN) that were detected and mapped during surveys in 2018 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).

REA Kon maps the location of each individual orangutan on a monthly basis through camera trapping and conducting walking surveys along permanent transects. The previous nest surveys, vulnerable to misinterpretation, have now been replaced by camera trap monitoring which produces superior population estimates since individual animals can be identified, and through which characteristics of age, sex, general condition (health) and reproductive success can be determined. In 2018, monthly permanent transect walks revealed a minimum of 11 individual orangutans in the forested conservation reserves (HCV) areas. Information on the current distribution and abundance of individual orangutans and the current conservation status of the orangutan population will continue to be refined in 2019 and beyond.

To encourage long-term, widespread participation in forest conservation, REA Kon also engages with local communities, schools and emplacements within or adjacent to the group’s operational area through discussions and presentations. Education camps for school age children have been running at the conservation research station since 2008. These camps provide a practical approach to conservation as well as an overview of REA Kon’s duties and activities, with fieldwork sessions to teach species identification and acquaint students with the ecology of local flora, fauna and forest restoration. Discussion forums are arranged with senior members of local communities and government departments to explain REA Kon’s role within the group and to encourage species conservation whether through protection (Endangered or officially protected species) or through sustainable use. To enhance the efficacy of such engagement, there is a long-term partnership arrangement with the Provincial Government’s Natural Resources Conservation Agency.

Conservation area boundaries are carefully monitored and conservation reserves are clearly marked with conspicuous signposts. Working alongside other group departments and external consultants, REA Kon uses satellite imagery to monitor for signs of human disturbance or damage to forested areas within the group’s boundaries. Where there are incidences of encroachment, REA Kon has begun taking steps to restore the natural vegetation subject to constraints as regards effective regeneration and cost. This initiative has proved highly successful in the conservation reserves of one of the group’s older estates and will be extended further in 2019.

Managing encroachment of conservation reserves is a significant sustainability challenge faced by the group. The problem is exacerbated by Indonesia’s complicated land rights system. A standard operating procedure has been developed to ensure that REA Kon and the plantation, conservation, village affairs and security teams fully understand their respective responsibilities in tackling encroachment and can respond quickly and effectively if logging or land clearing is detected within the conservation reserves. When an area of encroachment is reported by plantation teams or found during patrols, 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 is responsible for determining whether a case requires compensation or prosecution and for then taking appropriate action.

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 for valid, evidence-based decisions on the current conservation status and effective management of biodiversity and HCV areas.