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  Today Online 29 Nov 06
Guardians of the region's greenery

M'sia, Indonesia, Brunei agree to prevent destruction of Borneo's rainforest
Fawziah Selamat fawziah@mediacorp.com.sg

All eyes will be on three Asean (Association of South-east Asian Nations) members in the coming months to see if they will live up to an agreement to safeguard the endangered Borneo rainforest.

Today has learnt that Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei will be signing off on a plan known as the "Heart of Borneo" (HOB) to stop the destruction of one of the world's largest rainforests. Borneo is divided between these three Asean members. The plan is expected to be endorsed at the upcoming Asean summit in Cebu next month.

Under the HOB project, Malaysia has already declared it will protect more than 200,000ha of vital forest in Sabah, while Brunei will establish two conservation areas and Indonesia has proposed a new 800,000ha national park. More details of the plan will be released at a later date.

Participants at a conference yesterday debated whether Asean should consider payment schemes to compensate countries for economic losses sustained by conserving, rather than developing forests for commercial purposes.

WWF's executive director, Dr Mubariq Ahmad, a speaker at the conference titled "Sustainability and South-east Asia" organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), said governments had to look into poverty alleviation.

It has been reported that many villagers living around these lush rainforests conduct illegal logging and slash-and-burn activities to make a living.

But conservation, he added, need not be seen as a financial burden since the effects of not protecting the rainforest may cost more than the financial gains derived from developing the area.

Citing Sumatra as a precedent for what may happen if the destruction of Borneo's rainforest remains unchecked, Dr Mubariq told Today: "Most of the timber-based operations in Sumatra are gone since most of the rainforest has already been depleted. The lack of rainforest also results in widespread flooding, which threatens many settlements during the rainy season while the dry season threatens the region with haze."

Clearing forest in Borneo may result in a bigger ecological disaster than in Sumatra. There are fears of widespread flooding as the HOB serves as a great watershed, where 14 of Borneo's 20 rivers converge. Sumatra, in contrast, has land mass that is more spread out.

The HOB also remained untouched by forest fires this year. A relentless spread of development into the HOB would, however, increase the areas prone to forest fires and cause a greater disaster than the one induced by the choking haze this year.

The HOB plan would ensure that the haze situation in the region does not get worse.

However, a multi-nation agreement like the HOB requires intergovernmental cooperation tricky when relationships between regional countries have not been consistent, said observers.

Also, investing large sums in a conservation project that may reduce economic activity would be a tough political decision in the wealthiest of nations much less one like Indonesia, where resources have already been stretched.

Nominated Member of Parliament Geh Min said countries like Singapore should step in to ensure the continued protection of the region's environment. "If we can develop mechanisms that would make it profitable for Indonesia to keep its forests, then that would prevent such disasters as the haze ... in addition to ensuring other benefits like protecting the island's biodiversity," she told Today. "Nations should no longer think in terms of borders in situations like this If we want to go global, we have to start thinking of global responsibilities."

Dr Simon Tay, who presided over the conference's opening session, said: "We should figure out the costs of not developing the rainforest and compensate the countries accordingly. But in doing so, there must be a system in place that ensures there will be no more illegal logging and clearing of land by fire. At this point, countries like Indonesia have not shown they would be able to provide such a guarantee."

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