Saturday, December 3, 2016

From Java to Borneo

In preparation for our work in Borneo, Sara and I spent the past month studying the Indonesian language.  We’ve been living in Jogjakarta, on the island of Java, about 450 miles south of our home in Borneo.

When I talk about conservation issues in Indonesia, I usually start with Java.  With a population of around 140 million people, Java is the most heavily populated island on the planet.  It has about the same land area as North Carolina but with fourteen times as many people.  Jakarta—Indonesia’s capital and the world’s second largest city—alone contains over 30 million people in its immediate area.  That’s more than the entire population of Texas, or the combined census populations of the fourteen largest cities in the United States.  All in one massive metropolis.  Needless to say, there is not much room for nature here.

Java’s remaining forests are mostly limited to the steep sides of tall volcanoes.  Almost all other parts of the landscape are devoted to human use.  Crops are planted right up to the edges of rivers and over the spines of ridges, leaving few corridors of natural vegetation.  The vast majority of Java’s native species are now divvied up into isolated populations holding on in pockets of rainforest, unable to cross the expanses of farmland to move from one to another.  Many of Java’s largest species, like elephants and tigers, have already been wiped out.  The world’s last population of Javan rhinoceros, the most endangered of the five rhino species, persists in a single national park at the island’s western tip.

Java’s remaining forests—seen here as dark green dots—are limited to a string of volcanoes running west to east along the island’s spine.  The light green areas dominating the rest of the island are farms or plantations, and gray blotches are cities.  The ashy smear near the northwest tip is Jakarta, the second largest city on earth.

These issues—overpopulation, intense human use, and habitat destruction and fragmentation from farming—aren’t unique to Java.  They’re the primary conservation issues in Indonesia’s other islands and throughout the world.  But as an extreme example, Java illustrates what happens when those processes go unchecked.

Today many of Java’s remaining forests are protected as small, but vitally important, national parks.  Those scattered conservation areas are the last stronghold for the island’s natural heritage, and the key to its the future.  Decades or centuries down the road, as the human population declines to healthier levels and the economy becomes less agricultural and extractive, the hope is that forests and their native species will expand out of their volcanic strongholds and reclaim other areas of the island.

In Borneo, meanwhile, our organization works to ensure that national parks serve as similar refuges for this island’s biodiversity.  We also try to prevent the same excesses that characterize Java from occurring here.  By reforesting degraded areas, mitigating conflicts between humans and natural ecosystems, and developing alternative livelihoods for the region’s poorest communities, we hope to reduce human impacts on the landscape.

Yesterday Sara and I, now armed with a solid understanding of the Indonesian language, returned to Borneo to take up this challenge.  In a fitting start to this chapter of our life, we found that our house had been occupied by some wildlife of its own.  During our month away, vines had taken over our deck and outdoor kitchen, alang-alang grass (Imperata cylindrica) had grown tall in our front yard, and a colony of spiny golden ants (Polyrhachis sp.) had made a nest in between our front door and its frame.

In our own conflict with nature, a colony of beautiful spiny golden ants took up residence in our front door…

…and vines had colonized our back deck from the garden behind the house.

As far as I’m concerned the vines can stay, and I may replace the grass by planting more trees, but the ants had to go.  They fled with their eggs and larvae soon after we opened the door and disturbed them.  Then I carried Sara over the threshold of our first home and we set to work.

It’s going to be an interesting year.

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