Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. Rosdy Abaza is under no illusions about the task before him as the person in charge of restoring the sprawling Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan to pristine condition.
“We’re attempting to restore a forest that has been comprehensively destroyed, so you could say this is a mission impossible,” he tells the Jakarta Globe at one of the observation posts scattered across the 568,700-hectare park.
The park, between the Katingan and Kahayan rivers, was only formally established in 2004. Between 1980 and 1995, it was the site of 13 massive logging concessions that left the formerly dense and pristine peat forest stripped bare and dried out.
In the unregulated years between being a logging forest and a national park, the Sebangau area was the target of massive illegal logging that was estimated to have cleared some 66,000 hectares of forest.
Rosdy says the park area previously covered by peat swamp — a meters-deep layer of hundreds of years’ worth of decaying vegetation — makes up 85 percent of the total area, and to restore it back to its pre-logged state would take another several centuries.
One of the first things the loggers did when they came in was to carve out a network of more than 1,000 canals, two to four meters wide, to drain the peat swamp to make it easy to transport the logs downstream. That left the exposed peat layer, in some places up to 12 meters deep, highly vulnerable to forest fires.
Also to blame was the government’s misguided Mega Rice Project of 1996, a scheme to clear-cut the centuries-old peat forests in Kalimantan, drain the soil and set up a million hectares of rice paddies.
Part of the land for the MRP was a wide swath between the Sebangau and Kahayan rivers. When the MRP was abandoned, there was no attempt to restore the peat forest and the affected area on the eastern third of the Sebangau National Park remains severely degraded.
The key to restoring the condition of the peat forest is to get the water back into the ground, which Rosdy acknowledges is a daunting task.
The park management’s two main conservation programs deal with blocking the former logging canals and reforesting the denuded land. The success of the latter is contingent on that of the former, but the canal-blocking program has stumbled on funding issues.
Of the 428 dams built since the start of 2011 to block up the canals, only one was funded by the park. The rest were funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature.
“Ideally we should be building 100 dams a year,” Rosdy says, adding that the cost for each dam is about Rp 80 million ($8,500).
Like the canal-blocking program, the reforestation program has also been slow to take off.
Just 4,868 hectares — less than 1 percent of Sebangau’s total area — have been reforested. Of that figure, less than half was funded by the state, with the rest coming from conservation groups and corporate social responsibility programs.
But against the overwhelming odds, Rosdy says there is reason to be hopeful about the future of the park.
Thanks to the damming program, the water level in the peat layer in some areas has begun rising since 2005, leading to the return of native tree species, including the critically endangered red balau, the hardwood jelutong and the softwood pulai.
The recovering water levels have also meant less frequent forest fires. “We haven’t had any major forest fires in this area since 2009,” Rosdy says.
As the forest slowly recovers, there is also hope for the survival of the various wildlife species native to the area. These include Bornean orangutans, proboscis monkeys and Bornean gibbons, all of which are endangered species.
Sebangau is home to an estimated 6,000 orangutans, the largest wild population of the ape anywhere in the world.