Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

13 Dec 2015

Borneo Correspondence: Oil Palm Dilemma

Patronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia’s image as an Asian economic tiger is not without foundation. Since the 1970’s, its monetary base has been steadily growing, bolstered by an abundance of natural resources, best encapsulated by the construction of the opulent Petronas Towers, the crowning jewels of cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur. Along with Petronas oil, the sky-rising capital’s wealth has been reaped from timber and the ‘miracle’ fruit of the palm oil tree (Elaeis guineensis). 

East of this economic Eden lie the western states of Malaysia, those of Sarawak and Sabah on the equatorial island of Borneo. These states make up the majority of Malaysia’s territories, and prove the most important in filling the nation’s coffers. A casual visit to Sabah seems to suggest that the state’s infrastructure has benefited from the fruits of the forest, in both tourism revenue and agro-timer expansion. The city of Kota Kinabalu is polished, with waterfront bars and mega-malls flogging global fashions, whilst the tourist lodges at Sepilok (with its famous orangutan rehabilitation centre) Kinabatangan, Tabin, and in the Danum Valley are of a standard able to cope with the demands of the British Royal Family. At the household level too, access to healthcare, education and economic development have flourished since the 1970s, when the state kicked off its enterprise in agro-timber expansion. 

Primary Rainforest of Danum Valley
50 % of the state of Sabah continues to be covered in forests, although most has been logged, and in the case of certain sites, repeatedly. Natural timber outside of the protected areas of forest in Sabah (which now cover about 20 % of the territory) is almost completely exploited, and in the eyes of the industrial agro-business lobby, would prove far more lucrative were it to be converted to palm oil plantations (which cover a further 20 % of the state’s land mass). The role of oil palm in rainforest destruction is now well documented, and numerous attempts have been made to redress the situation. Indeed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is a group of industries and NGOs which have set in place laws which enshrine the protection of primary forest against further expansion of oil palm. In Sabah however, given that almost all primary forest is now protected in the form of nature reserves, it is the secondary forest (already exploited) which is under threat. And it is now increasingly apparent that these secondary forests can prove critical to the survival of the forests within protected areas. 

Oil Palm at the Eden Project
Disturbed areas of forest have been shown to support larger numbers of threatened mammals such as elephant and orangutan, due to the greater abundance of fruiting trees which are quick to grow in the gaps left by the logged timber trees. But it is the continuous forest cover provided by these secondary forests which is most important, acting as a bridge between the protected area islands. Such cover allows for the survival of species which require large areas of forest if they are to reproduce. Looking around a lowland forest in Borneo, 90 % of the large trees you see are members of the Dipterocarpaceae family, thus a group of high importance within the forest. But once a forest’s size has been reduced to below 200 Ha, the production of seeds and the survival of their seedlings is severely limited. Another organism which required large tracts of forest to survive is the Bornean Rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis harrissoni), which roams over huge areas and remains alone until meeting to breed. A forest which can house enough males and females to maintain a genetically viable population must therefore be expansive. In the latest survey of rhino populations here, the state of play in Borneo’s forests was made jarringly clear. The females caught had multiple tumours in their reproductive tracts, thought to occur when mating is not frequent enough, and ultimately preventing any further successful reproduction. In April 2015, this species was declared extinct within the state of Sabah. 

A lone Koompassia excelsa  tree in logged secondary forest
The extinction of the rhino is a clear signal that Sabah’s rainforests are under threat if a business-as-usual approach is to be taken to oil palm cultivation in years to come. The current legislation put forward labeling oil palm as sustainable is not enough to protect the crucial secondary forest, and given that current oil palm plantations now face severe soil degradation as a result of their repeated harvesting, the dilemma facing Sabah is how to continue to sustain the economic and social benefits gained from the years of its expansion. Palm oil is not an inherent evil as is so often over simplified, but its role in past and future management of tropical forests must be addressed.

1 Nov 2015

Borneon Correspondance: Reassurance from Darwin

Darwin on Travel: "It appears to me that nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist than a journey in distant countries, the excitement in the novelty of objects, and the chance of success stimulates him to increased activity." Voyage of the Beagle 1839

Darwin on Rainforests: "Among the scenes which are impressed on my mind, none exceed the sublimity of the primeval forests, undefaced by the hands of man, Temples filled with the varied productions of the god of nature. No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved and not feel that there is more in man than the breath of his body." Voyage of the Beagle 1839

Marianne North and the Kaleidoscope Cabin

Tucked in a back corner of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, is a building easy to overlook given its magisterial surroundings. The squat red brick building would entice the inquiring visitor in other areas, but when competing with pagodas and palm houses, you could almost be forgiven for passing it by. But woe behold those who leave this gem behind.
Flor Imperiale, Coral Snake and Spider, Brazil (1873)
Entering the central space of the gallery is to be bombarded with shapes and colours, ever changing as you explore the space. The symetrical lines framing them barely containing the images, which explode from the 833 paintings within. Botanic paintings of the highest order, but made more visceral through the positioning of the plants within their habitats. This counters the more traditional framing of leaves, fruit and flower on a clean and clinical white sheet. As your eye moves from one to another, slowly you realise that you are travelling the world, from the Americas to Asia, Africa to Australasia. The experience here is unlike that found in any other gallery, a curation of the life work of a single artist. Who was this intrepid explorer, climbing the slopes of Javan volcanoes, hacking through Brazilian jungle? The more that is revealed, the more remarkable.

Foliage and Fruit of Sterculia parviflora (1870)
It is 1869, and Marianne North is charged to ward on her moribund father, Frederick North MP, Deputy General and Justice of Peace. For the past 15 years, she has not left his side, not for marriage nor career, instead acting as confidante to her widowed father. The upper crust of Victorian society may have suited many, but the stifling conformity seemed to have bridled Marianne so that once her fathers inevitable passing releaved her of her services, she packed her oils and easels and seemingly never looked back. At 40 years old, an amateur artist, Marianne boarded the steamer to Boston, and never stopped travelling, and painting. Shunning invitations to dinner at the ambassadors, avoiding expat society companions for travel, instead preferring the company of the lush vegetation and vistas her journeys presented her.

Papyrus or Paper Reed Growing in the Ciane, Sicily (1870)
The fever and devotion to her task of documenting the hallucinatory fruits and flowers, meant that she captured forms and colours unlike anything found in imperial and increasingly industrial Albion. Her paintings quickly made her a darling of London artistic circles, whilst her tales of travel at a time when women were still to be found incapacitated by corsets fascinated the public. But her ability to capture the finer details of far flung forests meant that soon scientists sought out her services. No less that Darwin requested she travel to document the flora of Australia and New Zealand, which she did in spite of increasing ill health.
Flowers of a West Australian Shrub and Kangaroo Feet (1880)
Her legacy remains in the Marianne North Gallery, built at her request and expense and opened in 1882. The remaining collection captures the Victorian spirit of collection and curation, the walls struggling to contain so much art and adventure. To visit today is to bask in botanic beauty, and to consider with awe the accomplishments of an artist against the odds.

Pictures taken from wikiart

21 Oct 2015

Bornean Correspondence

It is great relief that I check out of the hotel where I have spent 72 hours killing time. The streets here are paved with plastic, the remains of the local market still hang on their corners, piles of waste picked through by children no older than three. The town devoid of distractions, lest that be eateries serving the same rehash of reheated Nasi Goreng, or the karaoke bars where the silent orchestra plays to a silent crowd. But why would I want to leave my air-conditioned cell, when even the air outside is filled with fug? The cocktail of leftover market produce, made pungent with ever-present humdrum humidity, is complimented by a forest fire haze. Half of Indonesia, it would seem, has been on fire since 3 months ago, and now the air is saturated with the memory of Kalimantan’s dwindling forests and peatlands.

The minivan takes me back county, back to basics and back in time. The never ending curtain call of palm oil plantations are slowly but surely replaced by rising green giants. The sight of these sentinels on the fringe of the forests elicits contrasting sensations within my chest. Somewhere close to my heart I feel hope. Hope, that my months ahead will consist of more than respiratory problems and satellite TV consumer culture. Hope that wild nature can continue to exist, and elicit and enrapture. But at the same time a duller and mounting tensing of what feels like my intestines also signals a yellow belly of fear. Fear because over the coming months I am going to have to climb up some 45 m into the canopies of those trees if I am to achieve the aims which have sent me back to the tropical rainforest that I had left behind a year ago.

A year into my PhD and the time has come to step up, and stand of the shoulders of giants in more ways than one. Hiding in a library, a lab and even a botanic garden have all served their purpose, but paper, pyrex and glass can only get you so far. 

Eden through the back door

For the past year, I have had the honour of working amongst those who have made it possible to return to the gardens of Eden. Fuelled by visionary optimism, collaboration and creativity, for the past 15 years a cohort of individuals has come together to create a spectacle of plants, but also a reflection of our place in the living world. The Eden Project is difficult to describe, even for those who work there on a daily basis, but I would place it somewhere along an axis ranging from botanical garden to ecological theme park.

As part of my PhD research, I have been examining what goes on in the soil which forms at the top of trees, and how that is influenced by the plants and insects which make the rainforest canopy their home. Rainforests are few and far between in the UK, but the tropical biome at the Eden Project, a self-contained simulation of temperature, humidity and rainfall, with the vegetation to match has allowed me to trial my tests before leaving the shores of not-so-tropical Blighty. 

The biomes of Eden became my personal playground-come-laboratory, and during the golden hours of 7-10am, before the public came to witness the spectacle, I was able to pass through the back door and set up my experiments. With the help of Eden’s green fingered horticultural team, and the acrobatic ‘sky monkeys’, I was able to recreate my own rainforest canopy, which whilst not immediately comparable to those found in nature, has allowed me to make the initial steps towards understanding the real deal.

Beyond the science, the Eden Project reignited my belief that it is possible to discuss the crisis which nature faces to the wider general public, whilst avoiding cynicism and projecting hope. The biomes provide a forum for discussion, and I myself was able to present my science and discuss its relevance on a daily basis with people from all walks of life. By focusing on the beauty and bounty which nature has to offer, and by communicating what threatens this, it is difficult to leave the place without feeling galvanised into action. Whilst saddened to walk out of the back door one last time, I certainly felt that understanding the natural world remains an achievable and important task if it is to be protected for future generations to come.