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Losing Forests and the Biodiversity Affects Global Climate Regulation, Disease Control, and Pollination

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Presently, there are parts of the world where groups of people are experiencing the life-threatening effects of land degradation and natural resources depletion. These unfortunate occurrences are usually a result of industrial and capital greed, along with governmental aggression and mismanagement. The results of these dangerous instances of resource-led marginalization against indigenous people and other poverty stricken groups are a distinguishable form of violence, categorized as environmental genocide. To explore this concept further, it is necessary to piece together the set of circumstances that are identifiable as environmental genocide.

It is important to first emphasize that there is an indistinguishable connection between the effects of climate change and the violence that characterizes genocide. The links are a multitude of environmental factors, all of which have serious effects on the Earth as a human habitat. These factors tend to intensify each other, and inevitably portray the impact that climate change has on human society. The impact of human abuse of natural resources, such as peak fossil fuel use and population growth, all possess an environmental dimension. Thus the term ‘environmental violence’ seems suitable. The term violence in this context not only refers to physical violence, but also structural violence.Therefore, environmental genocide is a concept that concentrates on both the structural and physical violence from environmental destruction caused by an outside party, which threaten the lives, health, and environment of a marginalized group of people.

Genocide is not necessarily or not primarily about mass killing, but actually about group destruction. This is a point often overlooked. This destruction can be seen usually in the gradual extermination of the cultural foundation of a group’s identity. The cultural foundation in many cases can be identified by native lands or land use patterns, as well as the resources which those native lands hold. Therefore genocide in this sense is violent communication between two groups of people in competition for space and, in general, for more resources.

This paper aims to explore two cases of environmental genocide. The first case involves the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, and the second Indonesia’s Peat forest of Borneo. In each case, the lands are being exploited in places where there are peoples who have lived in and off these lands for generations. The government, in each country’s case, has made allowances for different industries to encroach on these lands and have unrestrained access to the resources they hold. For instance, in Ecuador’s Yasuni Park, there is a large section where petroleum companies are drilling for oil. In order to have unrestrained access, they have took brutal measures to remove the Huaorani tribe, one of the indigenous traditional hunter-gatherer groups who’s native territory is in and around the park’s borders. The Huaorani tribe are some of the last free beings in Ecuador, who live in what are described as “societies of abundance” because they produce just enough to satisfy their needs. When contracts were negotiated for oil activity in Yasuni National Park, forceful warnings were voiced about the threats this posed to the Huaorani people. Calls were made for strong measures to prevent negative impacts on this indigenous community but to no avail. The effects of oil industry activity have unfortunately been disease, growing poverty, and violent conflicts.

The second case for comparison is Indonesia’s area of Borneo, called Kalimantan. Borneo now suffers from one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Its forests are unsustainably and illegally logged for timber or cleared to make way for farms and plantations. Forty years ago, the island of Borneo was covered by the world’s oldest and perhaps most biologically diverse rainforest. Logging and land conversion has since led to deforestation of about half of this great island. Today, over half of Borneo’s forests have disappeared, and the remainder are still under threat.

Additionally, Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) has a population of about 9 million people, of whom 70 percent live in rural areas. Three million of these are Dayak, indigenous peoples whose traditional home is the forest. The Dayaks’ well-being has been historically neglected by governments and industries in favor of the interests of migrants from Java and other islands. Per capita incomes in rural Borneo are way below the yearly national average for Indonesia. Roads, electricity, water, and sanitation are lacking in some parts. Because the Indonesian governmental health system has less than $6 to spend each year on each person it serves. Even basic health care in rural areas of Borneo is minimal. As a result, people often suffer and die from malnutrition and infectious diseases that could easily be prevented or treated.

Given the adversity experienced by the local people in Borneo, such as extreme poverty and an inability to meet their most basic needs, they may also be guilty of not thinking about preserving their rainforests in sustainable ways. For many, the rainforests are simply an exploitable resource that can produce income for their families. Each day in Borneo more and more trees fall to men earning $2 a day from logging companies, and float downriver to illegal timber mills. Unfortunately, rainforest logging in Borneo is a “boom and bust” economy. If it continues, the forests will be gone in less than a few decades and there is no proof that the local people will be any better off. It is predicted that Borneo will go from poverty and “underdevelopment,” to “maldevelopment,” because of deforestation, and this will directly threaten the lives of its inhabitants.

In this paper, I hope to delve into the different layers of what characterizes each of the aforementioned cases of environmental genocide. Emphasis will be placed on the similarities in the ways that each land is impacted by environmental degradation, and the resultant devastation to the culture of the inhabitants of those lands. Additionally, I hope to make the case that if deforestation of these lands, both the Yasuni National Park and Borneo in Indonesia, continues at the rate it has been occuring, it will jeopardize the life, health, and environmental well-being of both the Huaorani and Waorani tribes and the traditional peoples of Kalimantan. Thus the primary purpose of this paper is to present a comparison of two current and ongoing examples of environmental genocide that allows for a nuanced understanding of the complexities of the issue.

Cutting Down the Forest in Borneo

Borneo is the third largest island worldwide and is the largest island in Asia. “Divided into four political regions: Kalimantan belongs to Indonesia; Sabah and Sarawak are part of Malaysia; a small remaining region comprises the sultanate of Brunei.” Borneo is estimated to be 743,330 km2 (287,000 sq mi) and 73% of Borneo’s forest belongs to Indonesia. Borneo’s forest is currently facing an environmental genocide. “Logging, land-clearing and conversion activities are considered to be the greatest threats to the heart of Borneo. However, of particular concern is the conversion of natural forests to oil palm and timber plantations.”

Borneo is one the most biodiverse islands of the world, and has one of the longest list of endangered species. “The islands of Borneo and Sumatra are extremely rich in life, containing around 20,000 flowering plant species, 3,000 tree species, 300,000 animal species and thousands more being discovered each year.” Environmental genocide is not limited to the forest. The deforestation affects the survival of many different life forms. “Despite this amazing biodiversity and delicate web of species, an area the size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour in Indonesia and Malaysia to make way for the production of one vegetable oil. There have been studies that estimate 6 football fields of forest is destroyed each minute.”

“Satellite studies show that some 56% of protected lowland tropical rainforests in Kalimantan were cut down between 1985 and 2001 to supply global timber demand – that’s

more than 29,000 km² (almost the size of Belgium).” In recent years protection laws were implemented throughout Borneo, however these laws are often inadequate or are flagrantly violated, usually without any consequences. However, the Indonesian government blames indigenous people and their traditional farming techniques for deforestation. The World Bank collected data that discredited the Indonesian government findings. “Although officials claim that some deforestation results from logging, development projects and ‘natural’ fires, they maintain that the evidence (World Bank data included) clearly indicates that the primary cause is swidden agriculture, commonly labelled as slash-and-burn farming.” The Indonesian government is the biggest beneficiary of deforestation. “Indonesia’s political structure and process, and the attitudes of the decision- making elite, which are shaped and encouraged by relations with developed countries, international organizations and international finance, shape and drive unsustainable swidden agriculture, destructive logging, harmful development projects, and government policies which encourage exploitation of the forests.” Politics is the driver and engine for deforestation in Borneo. With complicit or limited government oversight the threat of environmental genocide continues. One of the biggest drivers of deforestation is the growth of oil palm plantations.

Planting African Oil Palm

The demand for palm oils has steadily increased and continues to skyrocket. From 1990 to 2010, Indonesian oil palm areas increased by 600%. “As palm oil is the cheapest vegetable oil, the demand for this commodity as a source of food and energy is expected to rise rapidly.” The Indonesian government controls the majority of the countries resources and are contributors of deforestation for palm oils. With the demand of food rapidly increasing, the possibility doubling of the next decade, the Indonesian government sets a target to increase oil palm production from 20 million tonnes in 2009 to 40 million tonnes in 2020. “Due to the massive international demand for palm oil, palm oil plantations are rapidly replacing the rainforest habitat of the critically endangered orangutan and other species; with over 90% of their habitat already destroyed in the last 20 years.” Palm oil plantations are not destroying the planet, but are threatening the indigenous people and their livelihoods.

The Indonesian government and large corporations have taken the indigenous population’s land without consent, to make way for palm oil plantations. “Deprived of food sources upon which they’ve historically relied, they are forced to become plantation workers who barely earn enough to survive and support their families under poor and degrading working conditions.” Palm oil plantation explanation creates social conflicts according to an investigation undertaken by Greenpeace in 2010. “The investigation revealed that there are more than 500 social conflicts in the Indonesian oil palm sector, mainly over lands, labor disputes, disharmony of corporate community partnerships and criminalization of villagers.” In addition, major conflicts have been exposed from high profile political scandals involving illegal issuance of permits for natural forest conversion, and for oil palm concessions within protected areas and national parks.

Last of Biodiversity of Plants & Animals Species

Deforestation has created huge blocks of disconnected forest putting at risk hundreds of species that may eventually become extinct. The roads necessary to remove the logs and to transport materials to the newly seeded plantations contribute to further separation and destruction of habitat ranges. In particular, large mammals like the orangutans and elephants survival is at risk with the vast amount of forest required for repurposing. “Other smaller species, especially small mammals, may not be able to re-colonize isolated patches of suitable habitat and thus will become locally extinct.” One of the most studied animal close to extinct is the orangutan. In Indonesian orangutan means ‘Person of the jungle’. “It is estimated that 6 to 12 of these ‘jungle people’ are killed each day for palm oil.” During the deforestation process, workers are directed to not allow wildlife existence to halt the job. Meaning kill animals that get in the way and dispose of them, no matter how inhumanely. “Often orangutans are run over by logging machinery, beaten to death, buried alive or set on fire… all in the name of palm oil.” Government data has shown that over 50,000 orangutans have already died as a result of deforestation due to palm oil in the last two decades. Even more endangered species are the ones unknown. In addition, undiscovered species in the peat swamp forest are endangered at higher rate. For decades peat forests were of no interest and the data on the biodiversity was non-existent.

Destructive Complications of the Peat Forest

The biological implications arising from the loss and degradation of peat swamp forests are not yet fully understood. “Peatlands are ecosystems characterized by the accumulation of partially decayed organic matter, called peat, which is formed from plant debris under waterlogged conditions.” Until recently, peat swamp forests received relatively little attention from scientists. Previously limited research indicated that peat forest contained lower species diversity. In 2009, scientist had become increasingly interested in peat forests and their contribution to the global carbon cycle. “Vast tracts of peat swamp forest had already been degraded, and remaining areas are quickly disappearing as a result of logging, fire, and conversion to agriculture and industry.” This later research discovered that peat forests store a large amount of carbon and can be released into the atmosphere when destroyed. Scientists came to “the realization that carbon dioxide emissions from the clearance and burning of peat swamp forests in Southeast Asia may comprise as much as 3% of total global anthropogenic emissions.” As of 2015, Borneo is in the top five carbon emitters although it is just an island. Peat swamp forests are more vulnerable to destruction by fire than any other forest type because the soil substrate itself is extremely flammable when dry. Unfortunately, it is evident from satellite images that very little peat swamp forest remains undisturbed, but there has been no region-wide analysis of the rates of clearance and degradation.

Health Costs to Humans of the Smoke from the Burning Peat

Typically peat forest vegetation burn similar to other forest types. “However, because of peat’s high combustibility, fires can burn both above and below the surface, destroying vegetative structures underground, as well as the seed bank.” Deep peat can create smolder deep under the surface for months that are challenging to extinguish. In addition, these fires can create the collapse of overlying material, contributing to additional tree mortality. Wildfires in Indonesia affect the global tropical biodiversity, carbon budget, ecosystem health, global energy supplies, as well as air quality and human health. During “Borneo’s colossal fires of 1997-1998, smoke covered an area of 2,000 by 4,000 kilometers and pollution of this magnitude not only left hundreds of thousands of people across Borneo with significant respiratory problems, but also prevented fires from being extinguished through natural means.” In 2015, an even worse forest fire than that of 1997 “burned about 261,000 hectares of forests and peatland and sent haze across the region for weeks.” Some researchers argued that 100,000 deaths were due to the fires but that the haze caused no serious health problems. Others did not agree on the researchers finding as experts say those assertions contradict well-established science. “Many were deliberately set by companies to clear land for palm oil and pulpwood plantations.” Unfortunately, Borneo’s wildfires are a threat to humans beyond the severe health risks. “Just as fire spreads to forest, fire also spreads to agricultural lands, thereby damaging the livelihoods of small-scale farmers.” And as more forests disappear, the livelihoods of the few remaining traditional groups of indigenous people come under more intense threat as well.

As we lose forests and the biodiversity that sustains them, we lose important ecosystem services. The valuable natural resources of rainforests do not replenish quickly. They will be totally exhausted if we continue to extract them at an unsustainable rate. Rainforests play important roles in global climate regulation, disease control, and pollination. Rainforests serve as “carbon sinks”, meaning they store carbon in organic material, preventing it from entering the atmosphere as greenhouse gas. But as soon as forests are felled or catch fire, they create threats on a global scale. The demand to clear the Bornean rainforest of peat for the development of oil palm and timber from businesses and consumers continues to grow apace. “On World Environment Day (05/06), World Wildlife Fund Indonesia and Malaysia released an executive summary of an upcoming publication titled ‘The Environmental Status of Borneo 2016,’ predicting that Borneo could lose 75 percent of its forest by 2020 due to the alarming level of deforestation on the island.” The continued destruction of the forest has not been halted even with laws put in place by the government.

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