Land degradation, climate change and biodiversity loss are intrinsically linked and increasingly affecting human wellbeing. Under climate change, extreme weather events such as drought and flooding are becoming more frequent and severe, degrading the land and hastening biodiversity loss. In turn, biodiversity loss contributes to land degradation through reduced nutrient cycling.
Degraded landscapes store less carbon, worsening climate change – and so the cycle continues. Meanwhile, global ecosystems are already struggling to meet the demand for goods and services, and competition will only grow fiercer as swathes of productive land cede to desert.
Although dryland habitats are under greatest threat from drought and desertification, traditional wetlands are also at risk of drying up. Borneo’s peat swamp forests are among the most biodiverse on Earth, home to a fascinating array of rare and threatened species, including the Critically Endangered Bornean orangutan.
See also: Dammed Peat, Healthy Peat
In their natural state, these forests are permanently waterlogged, but by-products of historic logging have damaged the peat. During the early 90s, peat swamp forests became a major source of timber commerce. Loggers dug canals to transport timber out of the forest, a destructive legacy which threatens ecosystems even today, where timber extraction has long ceased.
So why are these canals so damaging?
Besides facilitating the removal of timber from the forest, huge amounts of soil and mud were dumped into rivers during the excavation process. This sediment affects the depth and water quality, as well as disturbing aquatic life. Moreover, the presence of these ex-logging canals damages the natural flow of peatland water, drying out the soil and increasing the risk of forest fires.
All of this paints a pretty grim picture for Borneo’s evaporating wetlands – but don’t lose hope!
Ex-logging canals are being blocked on a massive scale, with efforts currently underway between NGOs, the Indonesian government, local authorities and, of course, communities. By blocking or damming these drainage channels, we can re-wet the peat and allow forests to regenerate naturally.
What can people do to help?
Shaniya (Indonesian Borneo)
Personally, I think that raising awareness is the most important thing I can do to help combat desertification and drought in Indonesia. Many people do not realise the effects of peatland drying on wildlife, especially since these forests harbour some of the richest biodiversity on the planet. I have seen some incredible things on my trips into the peat-swamp forest, including orangutans, gibbons and an astonishing variety of birds.
If drought and fires destroy all this, it isn’t just biodiversity that will suffer. Many local community members rely on the forest as their source of livelihood, as well as for food, water and traditional medicines. In addition, Borneo’s peat-swamp forests are a major carbon store, with global implications for the fight against climate change.
As a young Indonesian keen to address the environmental issues faced here in my country, I understand that solving these problems will take time and hard work from across sectors. Not just from conservationists, but anyone willing to lend their voice and speak up for nature.
Olivia (UK) and Alizée (France)
Younger generations are under a lot of pressure when it comes to environmental catastrophes like desertification and drought, which are likely to get much worse before we can make things better. At the time of writing, the UK is still in the grip of this year’s first major heatwave, prompting health alerts across the country. Meanwhile, in France, some regions are already facing water restrictions due to drought – and the summer is only just beginning.
It’s clear that there is a need to act, and each of us has a role to play. We only have one Earth, so whether you live in Indonesian Borneo or Europe or anywhere else, our lives are inextricably tied to the fate of its ecosystems. Of course, you can take direction action by donating to environmental projects, such as BNF’s peatland restoration efforts, or becoming a fundraiser. However, even the most mundane day-to-day choices — from the clothes we wear to the foods we eat and the way we travel — have a collective impact on our global environment. The problem may be man-made, but we can be the solution too!