Field Notes - Borneo 2019

ON ASSIGNMENT WITH BTS NATURE

You'll plant 20 trees with every print you purchase to support reforestation efforts in the jungles of Borneo. Read more below. 

In late 2019 I traveled to central Borneo on assignment for Behind the Scenes of Nature (BTS Nature). During our month-long stay documenting the reforestation efforts of Friends of the National Park Foundation (FNPF) we witnessed firsthand the challenges they face to protect the forest, but also their dedication to restoring it.

The following photo series and captions introduces the conservation work of FNPF and shows the lesser-shown reality of what it really takes to protect and restore nature in one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world.

Protect. Restore.
Fires rage across the entire island of Borneo, which hosts the world's third largest forest ecosystem after the Amazon and Equatorial Africa.

During our visit FNPF was focusing their energy to protect and restore Tanjung Puting National Park and the greater area at risk of destruction due to fires during one of the toughest dry seasons in recent memory.

PI MATI ATAU KITA MATI.
One of the local FNPF firefighters marches across the ashy remains of a once lush peat swamp forest recently burned by the invisible fires that blaze underground.

When a peat swamp catches it’s incredibly difficult to battle, because the fire not only burns above, but also beneath the surface of up to several meters of decomposing vegetation. The trees are literally suffocated from below as the smoldering inferno travels between root systems.
This year, the drought has been so bad that the ground is a lot drier than normal. The chance of the fire growing much more out of control is high.

Because so much of the biomass is stored underground in dense layers, the burning of peat swamp forests releases significantly more carbon dioxide than traditional forests, which further drives the global temperatures up… resulting longer drought periods, which result in higher frequency of rampant fires, which leads to more drought, and so on.

When we arrived, the destruction was less than 2km from the FNPF base of operations and their tree nursery with over 100k seedlings being grown to reforest previously burned land.

The stakes are high.
Written on their firefighter water packs- API MATI ATAU KITA MATI - See the image for the translation.

 

Armed with “Jet-shooters” …

The only way to combat these fires is to extinguish the smoldering ash by soaking it with water in the hopes that the coals won’t reignite. Arbain and 3 other men fill up their ghostbuster style packs with 15L of water at the closest source 800m from the frontline of the fire.

They march across the ash field and into the forest to the frontline of the fire. Empty the contents of their pack onto the hot ash. Walk 15-minutes back to the water source. Then back to the fire. Then back to the water source. Repeating this for several hours. In 40-degree Celsius heat. Standing over the exposed embers in a cloud of billowing smoke and raining hot ash to combat the fires... in nothing but rubber boots and thin medical masks.

But why? They do it because there is no one else out here to protect the forest. And for these local people they are more than aware of how the forest provides them life. It would be a tragedy if the fire comes to their tree nursery… but if the fire takes the entire forest…

API MATI ATAU KITA MATI.
THE FIRE DIES OR WE DIE.

 borneo fire

Reignite.
We returned to the charred area over multiple days and on several occasions came upon surface brush that had been reignited from below. Arbain would attack the blaze with anything he could… sometimes mere sticks and often only in flip flops. Without any water pack he’d beat down the surface flames as best he could.

But the forest still burned beneath.

What’s at stake here?

More than just the local people will suffer if this forest continues to burn. The forest ecosystems of Borneo are enormously important to the entire world because they are home to not only countless species of plants and animals, but also because of their ability to retain carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere where it can further increase global temperatures as a greenhouse gas.

The trees of the forest act as natural climate regulators. And they do it for free!
Retaining our existing forests, peat swamps, and jungles is critical in order to avoid releasing more carbon dioxide into the air and further destabilizing our planet’s climate.

We need to protect the forests of Borneo and others worldwide at all costs! 

forest fire borneo

Please, Rain.
The only thing that can really stop these fires is rain. Otherwise, since they burn underground it’s almost impossible to put them out with the limited and crude tools the locals have at their disposal.

Beating sticks, ghostbuster water packs, and even fire breaks can sometimes be no match for the force of an invisible fire burning underground. 

forest fire borneo

Aftermath.
In some places within a few hours the forest begins to regrow on its own. Little sprouts of life begin to emerge from the dark ash.

But the forest will never be what it once was before.

borneo planting trees

A helping hand.
Restore.

Although they do their best to protect the existing forest, in the event that fires overwhelm the landscape, FNPF has been the local leader in reforestation since 2003.

borneo forest 

Forest Dweller.

This is Ledan Redansyah, fondly known as ‘The Professor’. His unofficial title was not earned within the library halls of a university, but in the forest he calls home. Having spent the past 20 years living in Tanjung Puting National Park, he has developed an expertise in medicinal plants. Despite having no formal education himself, botany students travel from far and wide to learn from him.

More than just a teacher, Ledan is a custodian of the forest. Pesalat is FNPF's most successful reforestation site, where over 100,000 trees have been planted since the area was destroyed by fires in 1997 and 1998. Since then, the Professor has been living here alone with his two cats and the saplings which he lovingly attends to every day.

This may sound like sad or lonely existence, but as you can see, Ledan radiates joy and contentment, and the kind of peace that only time in nature can bring.

sapling restore reforest borneo

RESTORE

These little saplings are grown in this tranquil nursery for three months before they are planted in one of the three reforestation sites FNPF currently work at.

The reforestation team care for them with the love and dedication you might expect to see given to real infants. Each day they tend to them, watering, weeding and pruning, in the hopes that one they will grow into big strong adult trees, providing shade and sustenance for the many animals in the forest that are being put at risk of habitat destruction. At Pesalat, FNPFs most successful site, sightings of sun bears, birds and even orangutans have become regular.

Some days from this tranquil nursery one can hear the sounds of distant chainsaws and smell the smoke from nearby fires, and the severity of the situation can feel overwhelming.

Yet the team continues work, volunteers continue to donate countless hours to nurture these plants, and these little saplings continue to grow and thrive, standing firm as a symbol of hope for the future of this ancient and precious ecosystem.

HOW CAN YOU HELP RESTORE BORNEO? 

FNPF borneo sapling tree nursery

Each print you purchase will provide enough funds to plant 20 trees. Funds from print sales will be donated to FNPF to support their reforestation efforts. First and foremost within the National Park through the development of their nursery sites where they grow young saplings to replant. You can help Isam (above photo) restore the forest he calls home. The forest inhabited by countless species of animals, plants, and bugs. And the forest that we as a species all around the world actually depend on to survive. Thank you.

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