Borneo forest on brink of destruction

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TRAVEL UP the snaking course of the great Mahakam River in eastern Borneo and your boat will bring you to a broad area of lakes and peat swamps, which used to be one of the most impressive on the island. Proboscis monkeys and kingfishers lived in the trees; the local people fished in the warm waters from towns built on stilts of tropical wood.

Two weeks ago, Anja Hoffmann, a German forestry expert on loan to the Indonesian government, visited the area to survey the regions that were struck by last year's forest fires. "It was amazing to see," she says. "Until last year it was more or less undisturbed forest, and the lake was 10ft deep. Now the trees are still standing but they are black and dead. The swamp is completely dry and dead, and the water's gone. Now it's just grey, grey, grey, as far as you can see."

Events in Indonesia have moved so fast that the great smoking forest fires which disrupted transport and choked people all over south-east Asia already seem like the distant past. But less than a year ago, they were still burning as fiercely as ever, surging through farmland and commercial plantations, as well as some of Asia's last primary rain forest. The fires are out now, and these days attention in Borneo is focused on the murderous head-hunting war in its western province. But the long-term consequences of the devastation are only just beginning to be felt.

Ms Hoffmann's Integrated Forest Fire Management project (IFFM) has just completed an aerial survey of the province of East Kalimantan which reveals the full extent of damage caused by the fires, and the drought which provoked them. Beginning in 1997, weather patterns throughout the world were affected by the climatological phenomenon known as El Nino which interrupted the pattern of tropical rains throughout south-east Asia. In a normal year the fires, almost all of them started by slash-and-burn farmers and corporations clearing land for planting, would have extinguished themselves, but in the parched conditions they burned out of control.

Between the summer of 1997 and the spring of 1998, some 10 million hectares of land were scorched across Indonesia, nearly half of it in East Kalimantan. Last spring the rains returned but the problems created by the catastrophe were not quenched with the fires.

The forests and farmland scorched were not only environmental treasure houses but an important economic resource - both for the forestry and plantation companies who bear much of the blame for the fires, but also local people. For thousands of years, the local Dayak people have lived off the rich fruits of the forest, and off sales of furniture and baskets woven out of the versatile rattan cane. The fires destroyed many of these forest "gardens", and added to the hardship of people already suffering from higher food prices and from the Indonesian economic crisis.

Countless animals, including endangered species such as the orang-utan, perished in the flames, and the job of protecting the survivors has become all the harder. In south and east Kalimantan, valuable work has been done in releasing back into the wild orang-utans which have been domesticated after capture by poachers. After the fires, only one site suitable for this task remains. Environmentalists are pressing for a new national park to be created close to the Malaysian border, but bureaucratic inertia has so far frustrated their attempts.

When large numbers of trees are destroyed the micro-climate of an area changes - the leaf canopy disappears, exposing the forest floor; water, which was once retained by the trees, flows uncontrollably. Ironically, many Dayaks now complain of extraordinary flooding, as devastating to their rice as fire and drought. Rivers have become clouded and acidic as soil is washed into them, creating concerns about the effect on fish and even on coral reefs near the coastal estuaries of the great rivers.

But the greatest concern is that the fires are merely in abeyance and that the next time there is a shortage of water, the whole cycle will start again. The dried out corpses of the trees still stand in many places, a vast stack of tinder just waiting for a spark. "Forests create rain," said Ms Hoffmann. "And when they are destroyed, the micro-climate changes for ever. I predict more and more dry seasons over the next 50 years, and that will make the fires more likely too." The prospect arises of a Borneo dominated, not by tropical rain forests and brown rivers, but by a giant, parched savannah.