Monday, April 3, 2017

Urban reforestation

Last week I got to do something I’ve fantasized about for years—urban reforestation.

Our organization here in West Kalimantan does a lot of reforestation work in Gunung Palung National Park.  We plant native rainforest seedlings in areas that are important for wildlife but have been illegally cleared for timber or farmland. One site is in a hilly area that was clearcut and then burned repeatedly until the forest was replaced by man-made grassland.  Another site is a peat swamp that was cleared to make rice paddies.  And earlier this year we planted on land recovering from years of use for farms and plantations.

But our newest challenge may be the most difficult yet.  We’re working to restore 0.5 hectares of urban landscape to native rainforest.

Our newest reforestation effort targets narrow belts of land around a private clinic

The land in question has a long history of abuse by humans.  It was farmed for years, and some small buildings were built on it.  Then in 2006 the vegetation was completely destroyed by a human-caused wildfire, paving the way for the plot’s invasion by invasive Acacia mangium trees.  After nearly a decade of regrowth the vegetation was again completely destroyed, this time by bulldozers.  Construction workers followed the bulldozers, covering some of the site in gravel and concrete, and using the rest as a dump.   The land today is covered in scraps of sheet metal, cans of paint and chemicals, and other garbage, much of which has been burned to form twisted piles of toxic ash and melted plastic.  There are even the ruins of an outhouse, the concrete toilet holes now filled with sand.

The land has been severely degraded by human activities, and many areas are now covered in concrete or trash

For years this land has been valued only for what people could get out of it, put on it, or dump in it, and we’re trying to change that.  If left alone this land could once again become valuable rainforest, and we want to ensure that happens.

To that end, last week we planted nine hundred seedlings of around fifteen native species.   What’s more, we turned our reforestation vision into an educational opportunity by inviting local teenagers to help.  Around 20 students volunteered after school to prepare the site and plant seedlings.

Teenagers from our conservation education programs volunteered to help plant native seedlings…

…and so did nurses, doctors, and other clinic staff

Although this project is relatively small—900 trees on ~0.5 hectares—it could have a huge impact.  It’s in a critical area bordering the national park and surrounded by rapid development.  The newly planted land will serve as a corridor that extends the park’s forest an extra 400 meters to a nearby road.  Just two years ago red leaf monkeys (Presbytis rubicunda) and silvery lutungs (Trachypithecus cristatus) could be seen from the roadside.  Then the land was bulldozed, new homes and businesses popped up nearby, and the monkeys disappeared.  The most commonly seen animals today are foreign invaders like tropical fire ants (Solenopsis geminata) and Eurasian tree sparrows (Passer montanus).

By ensuring rainforest once again reaches to the road, we not only hope to return the monkeys and other native species, but also keep wildlife populations on either side from becoming isolated by development.

We hope to create a narrow belt of forest extending all the way to the roadside to prevent development from fragmenting wildlife populations

The urban conditions are challenging for the seedlings—planted in compacted gravel or among concrete building foundations, exposed to fierce sunlight, and drawing nutrients from soil polluted by chemicals, metals and burned plastic—and we expect fewer to survive than normal.  But we’re optimistic.  Rainforests have thrived here for tens of thousands of years, and they can do so again if we let them.

I can't wait to see how these seedlings look in a few years.

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