Homemade drones, text messages and blog against deforestation in Borneo

This week RTSinfo focuses on Borneo, a tropical island with one of the richest ecosystems in the world – which is steadily vanishing.

Precious ecosystem

Borneo is a large island that is home to one of the most uniquely valuable forests in the world, with a biodiversity every bit as rich as that of Amazonia. But this very richness has long since aroused the interest of big forest companies. Since the 1960s, the island has lost half of its forests. Whether it is caused by clear-cut logging, palm-oil cultivation or mining, deforestation is an ever-increasing scourge for the natural environment.

In recent years, Borneo’s forest dwellers themselves have been grasping the urgency of the situation. Local initiatives are being taken in many places, often facilitated by new technologies.

In this report, we show how little home-made drones, simple text messages and even a blog on daily life in the tropical forest are helping to advance the cause of anti-deforestation campaigners and challenge the impunity of the big forest companies.

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!!! Cliquez ici pour lire ce reportage en français !!!

>> The geography of Borneo

Borneo is an island in southeast Asia shared by three countries. The largest section belongs to Indonesia, and the rest is shared by Malaysia and Brunei.

Map of Borneo. [RTS]Map of Borneo. [RTS]

>> Forested surface of Borneo

Couvertureforethorizontalanglais [RTS]Couvertureforethorizontalanglais [RTS]

>> Deforestation in Borneo

The map

To navigate in this report, you can click on the links that follow the map, or just scroll through the text.

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>> Take a journey around the some key environments in the tropical forest.

> Drones over a dried-up lake: A mining company has dumped waste from a bauxite mine into Lake Semenduk, which has thus completely disappeared. Home-made drones provided proof of the company’s illegal actions.

> SMS alerts on pollution of the swamp forest: Pesticides and fertilisers applied to oil palm trees have been causing severe pollution. A local television station has built a  community organisation of peasants to alert it by SMS of these happenings.

> Blogging from the tropical forest, where local people are trying to save their way of life. In the village of Loncek, the creation of a simple blog put the internet within reach of all – a small revolution.

> Nothing but oil-palms: these plantations of palm trees are replacing the tropical forest more and more and destroying Borneo’s biodiversity. The big companies are able to exploit all the weaknesses of the system to expand their territory.

>Cutting down the jungle.  Helmi and Apen, two independent woodcutters who engage in illegal logging, talk openly. It is hard work and they scarcely make enough to live on. But Helmi and Apen insist they have no choice.

Drones over a dried-up lake

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Lake Semenduk, right in the middle of a tropical forest, was highly valued by the local inhabitants for its stocks of fish. But in 2010, a company started operating a bauxite mine and dumped the tailings directly into the lake, which has just about dried up as a result.

Using drones they put together themselves, campaigners were able to prove that the company had been operating outside the limits of its concession. The drone surveillance has enabled them to show just how bad the effect of deforestation is on the island.

From overhead you can see how massive the destruction has been, and you see all the problems in the forest

Arif Munandar, campaigner with the Swandiri Institute

>> Report from Borneo

Drones2vignette [RTS]
Info en vidéos - Publié le 22 septembre 2016

>> Lake Semenduk, before-after

>> Maps as a factor in the fight against deforestation

Mapping is today an essential element in the fight against deforestation. This is because mining and lumber concessions are allocated on the basis of such maps. The official ones are compiled by consultants and government departments, which tend to favour the interests of economic elites.

Radja. [RTS]Radja. [RTS]

In 2012, Irendra Radjawali, an Indonesian researcher at the University of Bonn, had the idea of using drones to map the tropical forest. Lacking any financial resources, he had to learn from the internet how to make drones himself. He worked together with researchers of the Swandiri Institute in Pontianak, a city in Borneo.

The Swandiri Institute’s approach is a participative one. The activists have established a "drone school" where everyone can acquire the needed know-how. They have been able to involve the local forest dwellers this way. These people are now calling upon the researchers for help when they see some obvious abuse.

>> Use of drones has resulted in several advances:

> it has shown the extent of the degradation of the forest and how fast it is happening.

> it has raised the awareness of communities living in the jungle – and some politicians.

> The drones have enabled the forest dwellers and the environmental activists to get back control of the data.

> The activists use their data to make reports to government, which can then take action.

Map made by Swandiri Institute. [RTS]Map made by Swandiri Institute. [RTS]

>> Links

Website of the Swandiri Institute in Pontianak.

The mapping done by the environmental activists for part of West Kalimantan province.

Back in Switzerland: the Terra-i project

Here in Switzerland too, mapping is being used as a tool in the fight against deforestation. At the Yverdon Business and Engineering School, a small team led by professor Andres Perez-Uribe is participating in Terra-i, a project for carrying out surveillance of world deforestation and timber loss in near-real time.

Terra-i uses data from NASA satellites, which produce a picture of the Earth every week. At Yverdon, researchers use an algorithm which can detect sudden changes in vegetation. If the data have changed over three successive snapshots, deforestation is likely the culprit. This algorithm also provides information as to what has replaced the missing forest (palm-oil, cocoa, or something else).

"We try to take the forest’s fingerprint and compare different readings over time to see if it has changed", explains Perez-Uribe.

The data accumulated are then passed on to the organisation Global Forest Watch, which produces maps that are used by governments fighting deforestation.

The team with the journalist Dian Lestari. [Cécile Rais]The team with the journalist Dian Lestari. [Cécile Rais]

>> Links

Website of Terra-i

Website of Global Forest Watch

SMS alerts on pollution of the swamp forest

Statisticsupermarche [RTS]Statisticsupermarche [RTS]

The swamp forest surrounding the village of Subah has been polluted for the past thirty years by chemicals being spread on nearby palm-oil plantations. A  local television station has set up a community network of forest dwellers who just send an SMS when they see abuses going on.

This programme has had many positive effects. We can send information to the government and can inform the citizens through television.

Abdul Magid, local peasant and journalist

>> Report from Borneo

SMSvignette [RTS]
Info en vidéos - Publié le 22 septembre 2016

>> Pollution on water

>> Palm oil: produced there, consumed here

Palm oil is of great interest commercially because it has a high yield per hectare and is cheap.

Palm oil plantation in Borneo. [RTS]Palm oil plantation in Borneo. [RTS]

Yet production of it has definite impacts on the environment:

> To respond to world demand, palm-oil plantations are growing all the time, often at the expense of existing tropical forests. In Borneo, the land is often cleared by burning, which is highly polluting and detrimental to health.

> The deforestation and oil-palm monoculture mean a dramatic reduction in biodiversity and the destruction of habitat of rare animal species, like the orang-utang which is the very emblem of Borneo. The populations are endangered and could disappear within ten years.

> These plantations also require fertilisers and pesticides which then leach into the water and pollute the whole ecosystem.

>> Link

Website of Ruai TV

What about Switzerland?

Switzerland is also implicated in this debate, as it imports 35,000 tons of palm oil a year, according to figures from the federal Economy Ministry.

Since January 2014 in Switzerland, the list of ingredients for foodstuffs has to state if the product contains palm oil. Before, the term "vegetable oil" could be used. This provision has arisen as a result of requests from consumers.

Some Swiss producers and distributors have committed themselves to using RSPO- certified oil. In the most recent ranking by WWF, Coop and Migros have a high position on the world scale. But even these companies rely a great deal on certificate trading. The certificates in question just indicate that the companies have paid to support sustainable production of palm oil – so products certified "GreenPalm" could still contain unsustainably-produced palm oil.

>> Link

The WWF ranking of Swiss companies (Fr., Ger., It.)

Blogging from the tropical forest

Statisticprimaire [RTS]Statisticprimaire [RTS]

Inside the preserved tropical forest of Borneo, a group of young people started a blog to document their day-to-day life. This provides something to do in a region where jobs are not easily come by, and it also means learning useful new skills. This simple blog has become a window on the world for the village of Loncek.

The impact is just incredible. Before, in the village, the young people learned from their parents. Now it’s the other way around.

Laurensius Edi, manager of the blog

>> Report from Borneo

Blogfinalvignette [RTS]
Info en vidéos - Publié le 22 septembre 2016

>> In the tropical forest

>> Ambivalent attitude of forest communities

For a long time, the forest dwellers paid little attention to the destruction of their jungle home. They adopted a utilitarian vision of the forest: they wanted to make a living from it. When industrialisation reached Borneo in the 1960s, these communities wanted to share in the prosperity. If a company offered them a large sum or undertook to build a bridge in exchange for using a parcel of land, why not?

But projects like the drones (see above) and unkept promises by the companies made people realise that the exploitation of the jungle was not in their interests after all. Local communities started to get involved in initiatives to protect and maintain the forest. The blog put out by young people in Loncek is one of these projects, like the surveying drones and the SMS alerts.

>> Link

The blog written by young people in Loncek.

Nothing but oil-palms

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Palm-oil plantations are constantly expanding at the expense of the tropical forest, despite conservation measures enacted by the government of Indonesia. This is due to the strategies used by the big companies, which are adept at exploiting the weak points of a system riddled with corruption.

“There are lots of people cutting down trees, so why not me too? But I want to preserve the forest, so I don’t do any logging in protected areas

Apen, illegal logger

>> Report from Borneo:

HdPvignette [RTS]
Info en vidéos - Publié le 23 septembre 2016

>> The state’s responsibility

One of the main issues in the struggle against deforestation is the granting of mining and lumber concessions. Currently, companies can easily get the authorities to rezone forest areas as logging areas

Between 2009 and 2015, 2.2 million hectares were rezoned in this way by the government of West Kalimantan, says researcher Arif Munandar. Most of it went to palm-oil plantations.

Indonesia has shown some positive signs of wanting to control industrial exploitation of the tropical forest. But results are still meagre, mainly due to corruption.

What about Switzerland?

Switzerland is currently negotiating a free-trade agreement with Malaysia, which would include palm oil. The agreement as it stands would favour imports of palm oil into this country, as it would mean a reduction in duties on imports. According to the agreement’s detractors, that will just encourage Malaysia to clear-cut more forest.

NGOs and the agricultural union Uniterre have started a petition to have this product excluded from the accord.

Over the last 6 years, Swiss imports of palm oil from Malaysia have increased almost fourfold.

Cutting down the jungle

Statisticbois [RTS]Statisticbois [RTS]

The illegal woodcutters are forest dwellers who log trees in supposedly protected areas. Two of them agreed to talk to us. They talked about the difficulties of their work and said they have little choice.

If I have money some day, I would want my children to work at something else.

Helmi, illegal logger

>> Report from Borneo

Loggersvignette [RTS]
Info en vidéos - Publié le 22 septembre 2016

>> The work of illegal loggers

 >> A system likely to last

Illegal logging is a scourge in Borneo, just like the palm-oil plantations. Helmi, one of the woodcutters who appear on the video, explains to us how the system works. He takes all the risk: he goes into the forest, logs trees, sometimes in dangerous places, and has no accident insurance if something goes wrong. He sells the trees to his "employer", who transports them to small illegal sawmills that produce wood all day long.

According to activists we spoke to on the ground, the authorities and the police do nothing to stop these activities. The system shows every sign of continuing to flourish. World demand for timber is increasing, especially for production of wood pellets used for fuel.

What about Switzerland?

Switzerland has no law forbidding the import of wood obtained from illegal logging, whereas the European Union has had a ban in place since 2013.

The WWF made an evaluation in 2014 of countries which apply the EU sanction; Switzerland was included. Few states got good marks (14 out of 16 for Britain, and 11 out of 16 for Denmark). Switzerland got 3 points, which gives it one of the lowest scores.

Also from a WWF study dating from 2006, almost 8% of forest products imported into Switzerland are from illegal sources and are usually brought in in a clandestine way via third countries.

>> Link

The WWF ranking of countries ((Fr., Ger., It.)


These reports were filmed between June 9th and 27th, 2016 in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan, part of the island of Borneo.

They were made possible by a journalist exchange programme called “Looking Beyond” (En Quête d'Ailleurs).

>> Link

Le site d'En Quête d'Ailleurs


Reporting in Borneo: Cécile Rais

Assisted by Dian Lestari.

Video editing: Christelle Travelletti and Cécile Rais

Artwork: Yvain Revaclier

Translation into english: Boris Kenov (video) and Terence MacNamee (text).