So the forest clearance looks set to begin. A huge area has been cleared in the south of the Obah Suluk estate within Kalabakan Forest Reserve, the logging camp has been built, the saw mill is finished and a veritable army of diggers, tractors, skidders and lorries are arriving on a daily basis from the coast. A whole new guild of species have invaded the reserve, with frequent sightings daily!
During the summer, lots of new roads suddenly appeared on the hillsides – it was truly awesome how fast these emerged out of the apparently impenetrable, dense jungle. This was mostly the opening up of old roads, so did not involve the clearance of many trees, but I had assumed that the steepness of the terrain and the thickness of the mud might present some sort of challenge to the loggers. No such luck. As I was leaving in September, the main road cutting north into the project area had been hammered for logs along the first kilometre or so and many of the roads I used to jog along have been transformed. Previously sleepy, overgrown logging roads are now wide, scorched thoroughfares with logs piled up along their lengths, sleeping tractors parked up in side roads, abandoned petrol drums everywhere and, most obviously, smashed forest stretching for 50m on both sides. Gone are the days when I used to see hornbills, woodpeckers, orangutans, mongooses, masked palm civets and yellow-throated martens, amongst others, on my jogs. On one night drive we did, however, see a leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis hunting amongst the dumped oil drums beside the road – this incredibly adaptable species, at least, may well prosper in the years to come.
This moment has been subject to so many delays that many of us have been happily able to live in a state of denial that it was ever going to happen. Having got to know the area as my backyard over the last 2 years, I would happily trade in my PhD if the area was turned into a Class I forest reserve over night (not a Class II “forest reserve”, which it currently is and patently does not guarantee that it remains forest). Of course, this choice has yet to be presented to me (disappointing). Instead, I have to make the most of the opportunity to document what really happens as oil palm plantations are established. Too much has been said about the assumed impact on mammals, and we need to confront these assumptions with the cold, hard data.
It will be interesting to see the emotional reactions to this huge clearance event from the various parties involved in the SAFE project. Though the clearance is yet to really gain pace, the diverse reactions are already becoming apparent. Whilst the emotions of the scientists working at the SAFE project are mostly of despair, some who have come to the work at the site have been apparently ambivalent or, worse, entirely unconcerned about the loss of so much forest. I am sure we have all had quiet moments working in the dense, spiny, slippery forests at SAFE where we have wished, just for once, that the forest would part like the Red Sea and let us reach our sampling point. But I cannot feel anything but remorse that, globally, we are allowing these habitats to be irrevocably destroyed to grow a palm tree.
Other parties have had more predictable feelings about the clearance. I had the unfortunate experience of over-hearing a conversation between a Sabah Forestry Department ranger and the boss of the road contractors for Benta Wawasan (responsible for keeping the roads in the SAFE project open) – it went something along the lines of (in Malay): “So did you hear they’ve finished the saw mill at last?”, shifty chain-smoking road contractor says to Forestry Dept employee. “Yeah, this place [referring to our camp] will soon be burnt to the ground!” says the ranger. “You know what they do at Malua [another heavily-logged forest reserve to the north] with the orangutans? They give them ropes to cross the trees!”, he adds. The road contractor replies, “Well they’ll be walking on the bare earth here!”
Similarly, I’ve been somewhat dismayed, but probably not surprised, at the outbursts of feeling I’ve witnessed from some of our own research assistants, who are locals from the surrounding villages, mostly Orang Sungai (“river people”) with little cultural connection with forest. Upon driving past the skidders cutting roads into the forest, they shout to me in a jubilant and victorious tone, “Ollie, the forest will soon all be gone!” and, in case I happen to have forgotten that particular morning, they usually take it upon themselves to remind me, whilst laughing maniacally, that “all your animals will run far away from here and never come back!”. Others I’ve heard speak with anticipation, dollar signs in their eyes, of the riches that will come with expanding oil palm, talking to me at length about how many acres of oil palm they’ll need to plant in order to afford the monthly payments on that shiny new Proton to replace their moped. Some of the guys seem genuinely concerned that the forest is shrinking, but often this seems driven by a feeling that “the man” is increasingly dominating land in Sabah (i.e. the government or large multinationals), with little benefit for the average man in the village. This usually has some political or racial overtones, with many perceiving the government as not representing their interests or, worse, being open to bribery from outside interests, especially large China- or Peninsular-based companies. Overall, I’d say that those who will miss the forest for its own sake – the plants, animals and experience that it provides – are few and far between, though many will express this sentiment to make me feel better!
At some point during the height of the logging machinery arriving day-after-day on the main road into the area from Luasong we noticed a large male orang-utan sitting in an exposed tree overhanging this noisy road. This in itself was a strange sighting, but he stuck around in this tree for the entire day – he was there first thing in the morning and was still there when we passed in the evening. He looked despondent to me, lying on his front with his chin rested on his hand, looking out at the oil palm plantations in the distance. He had no doubt already witnessed multiple rounds of logging and was therefore hardened to the approaches of his ape cousin, but even he had no idea that the worst is yet to come.