Seminar report: The Indonesian forest fires and how to rebuild a rainforest after fire and logging

Photo: Ulrik Ilstedt from the Sow-a-seed project on Borneo

Seminar report: The Indonesian forest fires and how to rebuild a rainforest after fire and logging

This blog post is based on an open seminar arranged by Focali on November 10th on the theme "How to rebuild a rainforest after fire and logging - The IKEA funded ”Sow-a-Seed” project in Borneo".

Focali researchers Ulrik Ilstedt Associate Professor and Malin Gustafsson PhD student, Forest Ecology and Management at SLU were invited to present their work in the "Sow-a-Seed" project in Borneo. The Focali seminar concluded with a moderated discussion between the speakers and two discussants; Focali member Martin Persson Associate Professor, Energy and Environment at Chalmers and Olle Forshed, rainforest expert at WWF.

Driving forces behind forest fires
Photo: Cifor

The recent forest fires in Indonesia have developed into one of the worst environmental disasters in modern time. During some days carbon emissions deriving from the fires equals those of the entire US economy. Besides this, both people and animals, living on Borneo as well in other countries in South-East Asia as Singapore, Sumatra and Malaysia are greatly impacted by the haze from the fires. At the time for this seminar in the fires were estimated to be responsible for up to half a million cases of respiratory infections and several people had died due to haze-related illnesses.

According to Olle Forshed, rainforest expert at the Swedish WWF, several of the causes for the fires are manmade and are currently enhanced by the ongoing El Niño which has made the area unusually dry. Rice field projects in Indonesia during the 60's and 70's resulted in large scale canal systems, draining the rainforest and peat lands of water, making them vulnerable to fires. Since then, degraded forest, expanding oil palm plantations and logging activities has made the landscape even more exposed to fires. Around 80 % of the fires in Borneo occur in plantations and degraded forest and peat lands. Many fires are deliberately started and much of the responsibility can be put on plantation owners seeking to access new arable land. With this in mind it is crucial to increase the awareness of how to rehabilitate rainforests landscapes after the fire has been extinguished.


Rainforest restauration on Borneo

The "Sow-a-Seed" project , locally known as "INIKEA", in the Malaysian part of Borneo, started in 1998 with the aim to restore 18 500 Ha of forest land degraded by the extensive forest fire in 1982-1983, as well as selective logging. To date 12 500 Ha have successfully been treated.

Photo: Ulrik Ilstedt

Last year the "INIKEA" forest was reclassified from a production forest to a class one forest thereby giving the forest formal protection. During the seminar, Ulrik Ilstedt highlighted some of the unique aspects of the "Sow-a-Seed" project. These aspects include an emphasis on work opportunities for the local population and growing the tree seedlings in pesticide free nurseries. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the project is the emphasis on improving biodiversity rather than production. Therefore, the project uses seedlings from indigenous instead of exotic species. 80 local species have been replanted, among them many species from the Dipterocarp family that previously has been extensively logged and removed from the area. Another unique feature of the project is that the planted seedlings are taken care of for 10 years after being planted.


Growing knowledge on trees

One of the challenges with having the aim to improve biodiversity and thereby using a large number of local species is that knowledge on how to grow these species is lacking. Malin Gustafsson addresses these issues in her PhD work by investigating life history traits of the local species. One aim of Malin's research is to investigate if it is possible to predict different tree species growth responses to a canopy reduction treatment depending on their specific traits. At the seminar she explained how she created a model that based on the traits of the tree species can predict up to 50% of the growth reaction of the studied trees. This is considered very high for such a complex system as a hyper diverse rainforest.

With this model Malin then explained how it was possible to predict how individual trees with different wood densities reacted to the increased light from the canopy treatment, thereby finding the ideal light setting for optimal tree growth in the forest. These findings can be used in the future to improve the selection of tree species in the management of rainforest rehabilitation. In another study Malin showed that out of 18 Dipterocarp tree species in her study area, 14 hosted a unique lichen species, thus highlighting the importance of high tree diversity not only for the diversity of trees but for the biodiversity of the entire forest.


Panel discussion

After the presentations of the project, there was a panel discussion regarding the two discussants´ reflections on the "Sow-a-Seed" project and the underlying factors for the forest fires in Indonesia. The discussion was moderated by the Focali Project Coordinator Maria Ölund.

Olle Forshed's main reflection on the project was its uniqueness of focusing on biodiversity rather than production; "This is nothing that you see in any other similar project” he said “This project proves that it is possible to restore a real rainforest and not create a plantation with one or two, often exotic, species".

Photo: Kajsa Sjölander

Martin Persson continued: This is an expensive and labor intensive project and it is not feasible on a large scale. The experience from this project should rather be used in specific areas in order to create biodiversity and forest corridors to connect different protected areas with each other.

After a discussion within the panel the speakers and discussants received a lot of questions from the intrigued and diverse seminar participants.


Questions from the participants

- To what extent do you consider people making a living from the "INIKEA" forest in the future? Not from destroying the forest, but by planting trees that can also be commercially valuable not only as timber but also for non-timber forest products, so people can collect fruits and nuts, which would preserve the forest while allowing for sustainable management of the forest products both for humans and animals?

Ulrik Ilstedt answered that the project do include other trees for example fruit trees and explained a future dream project of his. He would like to give the opportunity to some of the local workers in the project to be guardians to an area of the forest. Then later compare that to an area in "INIKEA" were the people were not the guardians and look at the difference in term of biodiversity and how people can make a living out of the forest as well as protecting it.

- Why does the problem with reoccurring forest fires in Indonesia occur, what can be effective in changing this pattern?

Olle Forshed stated that this is a recurrent problem with root causes going back far in history: “The peat lands where the fires occur were more or less drained of all the water in the 60's and 70's through extensive canal projects throughout millions of hectares of land. It is from these burning peat lands the hazardous haze derives. There is also a clear correlation between large scale plantations, villages and the location of the fires." This year the fires are unusually strong due to a combination of these factors and the ongoing El Niño he explained.

In order to stop the fires Olle argued that the government needs to reverse the draining of the peat lands and fill them with water again. Here some of the experiences from the "Sow-a-Seed" project could be transferred and adapted to the Indonesian context in order to rehabilitate the destroyed rainforest and remove the canals draining the peat lands.

In addition to Olle’s answer Martin Persson underlined the role that land clearing for palm oil production plays for the forest fires. Palm oil is one of the main drivers for deforestation in the area and the fires are concentrated to areas of secondary forest or already logged forest.

The final question “What can consumers do in order to halt drivers behind the fires?”

was discussed from various angles. The immediate and underlying causes are vast and complex and needs to be addressed from many levels and actors both locally and globally. Palm oil, which can be used in cooking as well as for fuel, is economically profitable and there will continue to be a high demand for palm oil at the global market. Consumer choices cannot solve the issues alone. Martin Persson outlined why: “consumers can pressure oil palm producers to clean up their act, this has been done to some extent through certification schemes. There is further a need to build institutional capacity in Indonesia and Malaysia in order for them to address these issues and enforce the certification schemes. This said, even if the majority of the global palm oil production would be certified and sustainable, there would still be a small share of the market expanding into the rain forests and deforestation would continue. If we don't get 100 % of the producers on board there is not really a point of certifications.”

Martin ended the discussion with the following wise reflection; In order to save the rainforest it is much more effective to stop the present rainforest degradation rather than of buying degraded forest land and restore it to its former glory.


Sow-a-seed project in the media:

"Sveriges Radio" SR program "Klotet" broadcasted a radio program the day after this seminar, about the Indonesian fires and the "Sow-a-Seed" project. Focali member Ulrik Ilstedt and Peter Holmgren Director at CIFOR were interviewed for the program.


Opportunities for further research:

On the basis of the discussions at the seminar several factors came up that need to be studied in the "Sow-a-Seed" project such as: To what extent has the biodiversity increased? How does the carbon sequestration look like in the forest? Has the water quality improved? What happens when the seeds are collected locally, do we have enough genetic variation? What is the importance of having many tree species for other forms of biodiversity? How can “sow-a-seed” contribute to local livelihoods?



Ulrik Ilstedt is the scientific coordinator in the project and welcomed students and researchers to conduct studies in collaboration with the project. Contact Ulrik if you have any questions about this: .

In addition the Nordic Rainforest research network (NRRN) is an institution supporting and facilitating research in the Sabah rainforest area on Borneo and can be contacted by students and researchers interested in conducting research regarding Sabah's rainforest.


This blog is written by Eric Röhss intern in Focali during the autumn 2015.


Tags: Blog

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