Meet The Jungle Gardener Of Borneo

When Peter Lagan wants proof that it’s possible both to log the rainforest and conserve its biodiversity, he considers the orangutans in Sabah’s Deramakot Forest Reserve. “We have close to a thousand orangutans in Deramakot,” says the forest manager. “If you look at the orangutans when they show a healthy population, it means the rest is taken care of.” Dermakot Forest Reserve, which spreads over 55,000 hectares, has been certified as a “well-managed forest” since September 1997. The certificate from the Forest Stewardship Council is due for renewal for a sixth time in October, making it the world’s longest-certified tropical rainforest. That’s important because the mismanagement of the world’s forests is having a devastating impact on the environment. The annual carbon emissions from global deforestation – of which the loss of tropical forest accounts for 90% – are equivalent to all the greenhouse gases produced by the European Union.

Sustainable forestry

For Lagan and those who work with him at Deramakot, it’s about more than producing low-volume, high-quality tropical hardwood timber: it’s achieving a balance between commercial forestry and looking after the creatures – including at least 30 species of frog, those 1,000 orangutans, clouded leopards and pygmy elephants – who call it home. It’s also a haven for orangutans, a species on the WWF’s critically endangered list after much of its habitat was destroyed. To ensure their protection management practices, including felling trees, are done in a way that mimics natural processes, Lagan and his team take care not to take down the big trees used by animals living in the canopy layer to move between different parts of the forest. “It’s just managing your cutting limits, managing how you extract the logs, not damaging your future crop trees,” he explains. “We’re maintaining the structure of the forest. It goes on and on, and you will never run out of trees. You can log the forest and you can also have your wildlife conservation.” They’ve also made some surprising discoveries over the years. “What we found was that there was more wildlife in disturbed forest, as opposed to climax forest,” he says. “Because the forest is growing, there’s more food for wildlife.”

Keep growing

Before Deramakot was established, Lagan says the forest was exploited, loggers moved into areas, chopping down all the trees, and biodiversity suffered as a result. Now they are being rehabilitated, and restocked with saplings, while illegal felling is almost non-existent. Projects like these are a vital way to conserve habitats that are under threat. It’s estimated that almost 75% of the Malaysian island of Borneo was covered in the rainforest in 1973, but by 2010, that had dropped to just 40% in Sabah. Lagan admits the mere mention of the word logging brings a negative connotation. But he says, “What I’m doing here is taking care of nature, thinking of the forest, so that future generations can enjoy it. What we’re trying to do is reduce the impact,” he says. “If we keep doing what we’re doing now, in 50 or 100 years, the forest will still look the same.”

Credit: Kate Whiting for World Economic Forum, 25 September 2019.

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