As the plane dipped to one side, the window revealed a sea of deep green below. Thousands of trees packed together like tiny cotton balls, their canopies forming a roof over one of nature’s greatest shows. Beneath, a beguiling cast of orang utans and gibbons, birds and insects.
Just a few decades ago this majestic scene would have met visitors anywhere they arrived on the island of Borneo. It’s the good fortune of passengers between Jakarta and Palangkaraya, in Central Kalimantan, that their flight path passes over Sebangau National Park, a vast expanse of peat swamp and one of the last bastions of rainforest on Borneo. But it’s a throwback to a seemingly distant past, a time when the level of destruction that would subsequently unfold in Borneo would have been unimaginable.
Today, the island’s landscape is scarred by logging roads that carve deep into the interior, pockmarked by coal and gold mines, rendered monochrome by palm oil plantations that stretch to the horizon. It serves as a salutary lesson in how much damage humans can do in a relatively short space of time; in 1950, almost all of Borneo was under forest cover. By 2005, almost half of it had gone. Rampant, unsustainable development proved just how fragile the rainforest can be. Even Sebangau has barely escaped the teeth of the chainsaw.
If this dystopian vision jars with Borneo’s evocative reputation, and is too gloomy for a Friday afternoon, now might be a good moment to point out that the game isn’t up: it just means the stakes are higher.
Since beginning its forest campaign at the end of the last century, EIA has demonstrated how a combination of hard evidence, relentless campaigning and, fundamentally, a belief that things can change can make a difference. The rate of deforestation in Indonesia, while still high, has slowed. Illegal logging has fallen and new regulations in both Indonesia and the EU gives us our greatest chance yet to clamp down further, addressing our culpability as consumers in driving this crime.
While EIA occasionally grabs the headlines, the unsung heroes of this work are the Indonesians who face the realities of forest crime every day. These men and women have seen their homes destroyed and their livelihoods stolen from them in the name of development. While EIA campaigners can always leave Indonesia, can at times switch off from the work, they lack that luxury. People like Wancino, who I met in Central Kalimantan last month, stand up to vested interests with wealth and power vastly beyond their own.
Together with EIA’s partners Telapak, we spent several days touring the less salubrious sights Borneo has to offer. We raced down peat drainage canals in a boat rigged up with a car engine, Indonesian pop music blaring out of a boom box. We drove for almost an hour through a bizarre, desert landscape; rainforest replaced with bright white sand after the illegal gold-miners had plied their trade. We fell in peat swamp that came up to our knees in newly opened palm oil plantations, the baking sun beating harshly down now the canopy has gone. It’s not hard to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of destruction, or the brazen nature of the crime, but people like Wancino don’t give up.
‘In the past the forest was friendly to the people,’ he told me. ‘We looked after each other.
‘Then one day the government gave a plantation to people who had money. They cleared the forest. The people’s forest, where the animals were, was gone.
‘We had no power. However much we protested, there was no response – not from the government, or the people who took the land.’
Wancino has no option but to fight for the forest that’s left – and neither do we.