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 has the potential to significantly alter local biodiversity and natural ecosystem. Operational requirements for oil palm cultivation, that include land clearing, maintenance, harvesting, processing and delivery, should be guided by conservation principles to avoid or mitigate negative impacts and augment positive steps to restore or enhance original landscape level biological diversity. The group’s plantation, biodiversity and community related conservation actions are reviewed annually to assess whether further refinement is required to improve their effectiveness.
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 per cent of the group’s land titles. The group’s conservation department (“REA Kon”) was established in 2008 and has since evolved, aspiring to exceed, rather than just meet all the requirements of the sustainability bodies by which the group is certified.
REA Kon’s initial mandate was to integrate conservation principles into the group’s plantation operations based upon a detailed empirical description of the landscape within and adjacent to the group’s operational areas. A set of objectives was developed to: conserve the original values of the landscape; minimise negative impacts of human activities; and to provide long term benefits for biological species, local communities and the group. The department’s findings were used to upgrade and progressively refine conservation principles into practical guidelines for the group’s operations.
REA Kon has worked hard over the last few years to expand the department’s understanding of the composition and dynamics of the biological landscape within the group’s boundaries, through an annually updated, permanent database of species’ richness, distribution and abundance. This information includes annual mapping of the locations of any Endangered species within the group’s boundaries and provides a basis for prioritising both financial and human resources 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.
The REA Kon department is organised into three functional areas: plantation ecology (evaluating the long term ecological relationships between planted blocks and conservation reserves); 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).
The boundaries of all conservation reserves are clearly marked with signboards to identify their status. 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. Following an evaluation of the most suitable method for restoration, the sites are allowed to regenerate either naturally or through intervention by careful rewilding.
Quarterly water quality testing and monthly programmes of forest restoration and enrichment are conducted in all conservation reserves (HCV areas) and other sites that are no longer designated for planting. Together with the biodiversity staff, the plantation ecology team also investigates the relationship between forest species and planted blocks. For example, ecological questions such as whether forest birds forage for insects within the plantation are of particular interest, and could potentially have a role in naturally reducing pests within oil palm plantations, reducing the need for chemical spraying. In addition to replanting degraded areas with local tree species, seedlings of native shade, timber and fruit trees are also produced and distributed to local villages, schools and emplacements within the group’s estates. Rambutan, jackfruit and durian trees planted by REA Kon in 2008 now produce abundant edible fruit to benefit wildlife as well as workforce and guests to the estates.
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 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 45 mammal, 147 bird, 26 reptile and 23 amphibian species have been detected and a total of 49 species of butterfly (Lepidoptera) recorded, their GPS positions and encounter dates and relevant conservation data entered into the 2020 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 observed and recorded since January 2020 are: Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus morio) (EN); Bornean gibbon (Hylobates muelleri) (EN); Proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) (EN); Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica) (CR); Flat-headed Cat (Prionailurus planiceps) (EN); Storm’s stork (Ciconia stormi) (EN); Wrinkled Hornbill (Rhabdorhinus corrugatus); and the Sunda freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) (CR).
Through camera trapping arrays and walking surveys along permanent transects, REA Kon identifies the location of each individual orangutan, the highest priority species. Wherever orangutan nests are encountered, at least two units of camera traps are set in order to identify individuals by their characteristics, such as size, sex and facial features, and assessment of their body condition and health, and the detection of infants. Camera trap monitoring provides information of spatial distribution of the species and superior population estimates, in addition to the accurate identification of individuals. In 2020, 29 individual orangutans were identified within five of the group’s forested conservation areas (twelve females, eight males, four adolescents and four infants; the sex of one other adult could not be determined). No orangutan-human conflicts were reported, and one female carrying a small infant was photographed eating an oil palm fruitlet.
REA Kon’s conservation efforts continue to be augmented 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 data that supports valid, evidence-based decisions on conservation practice and the effective management of biodiversity of high conservation value areas. REA Kon compares data sets over time to assess whether the department’s objectives are being met for enhancing species richness, diversity, and restoring natural ecological functions.
REA Kon’s engagement with local communities, schools and workers’ emplacements within the group’s operations were severely curtailed as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. The education camps for school age children at the REA Kon field station were replaced with smaller group discussions and workshops held in open venues to present and explain REA Kon’s conservation programmes. The department also created a series of distance learning tools, including posters on the group’s activities, its conservation policy for Endangered species and species diversity as well as guides for identifying local birds and amphibians. More formal presentations on REA Kon’s role and conservation objectives continued to be made to gatherings of estate employees and to relevant departments of the Provincial, Regency and District authorities. REA Kon maintains its 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 forest habitats. Owing to a complicated traditional land rights system, procedures in the form of a charter have been developed to manage cooperation between local villages, REA Kon and the group’s village affairs and security teams, so that they can respond swiftly to illegal logging or land clearing within conservation reserves. Precautions against transmission of Covid-19 have on occasion hampered efforts to deter encroachments. Nevertheless, REA Kon has continued to inspect locations to determine the extent of an affected area, those responsible for any damage and the relevance of any legal or customary rights. The village affairs department, then follows up on each case to determine whether a case warrants 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 also 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 the group’s designated conservation areas.