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Friday, January 8, 2010

Balikpapan Bay in East Kalimantan is home to an incredible variety of ecosystems: in the shallow bay waters endangered dugong feed on sea grasses and salt water crocodiles sleep; along the bay proboscis monkeys leap among mangroves thirty meters tall and Irrawaddy dolphins roam; beyond the mangroves lies the Sungai Wain Protection forest; here, the Sunda clouded leopard hunts, sun bears climb into the canopy searching for fruits and nuts, and a reintroduced population of orangutans makes their nests; but this wilderness, along with all of its myriad inhabitants, are threatened by a plan to build a bridge and road connecting the towns of Penajam and Balikpapan.

The bridge, known as Pulau Balang, would span the bay, splicing through Balang Island, cutting off the mangroves from the rainforest, and running the entire length of the western edge of the protected forest. While the direct impacts would be severe—deforestation for the road, splitting the mangrove from the rainforest, damage to the reef—researchers say that providing people easy access to the mangrove and forests will inevitably destroy them.

"The most serious threats are the indirect ones, notably opening an uncontrollable access to the whole area," Stanislav Lhota, a primatologist with the University of South Bohemia, told mongabay.com.

Map showing proposed road and bridge and shorter alternative (larger image at the end of the article). Image courtesy of Stanislav Lhota.
The project "will open access for settlements, farming, illegal logging, more land speculation, subsequent forest fires, poaching of wildlife, illegal logging. In effect it will cause the destruction of the mangrove area and all wildlife there, but also (slow but certain) destruction of the western side of the Sungai Wain forest," Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson says. Fredriksson, an expert on sun bears, has worked on managing and conserving the Sungai Wain Protection Forest for over a decade.

"The destruction of the mangroves will also impact the fragile marine wildlife in the [Balikpapan] bay and fisheries due to destruction of fish breeding areas," adds Dr. Danielle Kreb of the local NGO RASI, who has studied the marine mammals in Balikpapan Bay for several years and noticed that the Irrawaddy dolphins’ core habitat is in the vicinity of Pulau Balang.

Despite the clear environmental impact outlined by conservationists, the provincial and federal governments support the project. Local governments, however, have signalled over the past couple months that they oppose the project, especially since there is an alternative plan that would threaten none of the ecosystems, and in addition provide a far shorter route between Penajam to Balikpapan.

A lost wilderness?

Sungai Wain protected forest. Photo by: Marian Bartos.
If the Pulau Bridge project goes ahead, Balikpapan Bay will be forever changed. The already shallow bay will face erosion and sedimentation from construction work on the surrounding hills, making the bay less accessible for large boats and leading to more frequent flooding of the coastal villages. Species in the bay, such as dugongs, crocodiles, and green sea turtles—already affected by sedimentation—would likely face further impacts from pollution.

The mangroves—an ecosystem that has faced heavy losses worldwide—would be severely impacted as well. The green corridors allowing species to move between the mangrove ecosystem and the Sungai Wain protection forest will be altogether broken.

"Fauna such as proboscis monkeys and many other species cannot survive in long term in mangroves alone," Lhota explains. "They need regular access to the neighboring forest where they find numerous key resources. Mangroves alone are rather inhospitable environment with only limited food sources. If they are isolated from other forests, they may apparently survive but they will gradually turn into a lifeless stand of Rhizophora trees."

The eventual loss of the mangroves also threatens the local fishing trade since fish require the mangrove forest for breeding: the mangrove stand in question is the last place for fish in the bay to breed.

"East Kalimantan only has a small mangrove area left, because much of the mangrove area [has] already [been] converted to shrimp ponds and industry. And on Balikpapan, [this] is [the] last mangrove forest," says Ade Fadli of BEBSiC, a local conservation group.

The road connecting the bridge to Balikpapan would next pass along the western edge of the Sungai Wain forest reserve, the last major stand of dipterocarp trees along the south and central coast. While the direct impact of road building to the forest reserve would likely be minimal, the road would open the reserve to "illegal logging, land clearance, and above all, forest fires," according to Lhota.

Fire is the most significant threat to the forest. While tropical forests rarely burn under natural conditions, human impacts in Indonesia has left a scar of burning across Kalimantan. Sungai Wain contains the last unburnt primary forest in the area; in 1998 devastating fires spilled across the region, but only burnt a part of Sungai Wain.

"The [Sungai Wain] forest, which was burned only once, regenerates well but becomes highly prone to subsequent fires due to the decrease in humidity and huge quantities of highly flammable dead wood," Lhota explains. "If it burns a second time, it can no longer regenerate easily. With the current tendency of governments to consider such forest as 'lost forever', it is likely to be doomed to further encroachment and conversion."

Home to over 100 mammal species and over 250 bird species, the loss of the forest would devastate tropical species, including a population of reintroduced orangutans.

In addition, the forest is as a catchment source of clean water for the state-owned oil company Pertamina, and the Kariangau Baru industrial area. The loss of the forest would endanger the water needs of these industries, which uses it for cooling in refineries and drinking for employees.

The Sungai Wain forest "is the last watershed covered with forest and hence supplying freshwater on an ongoing basis. The water from this reserve has been used for the oil industry and its workers/households (which make up almost 20 percent of the population in Balikpapan) since 1945," Fredriksson explains.

According to Lhota, Balikpapan Bay has huge ecotourism and education potential which has largely gone untapped.

Taken from: www.mongabay.com

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