Prince Charles' Visit Spotlights Forests and the Oil Industry Working Hand in Hand in Borneo

A visit to Brunei by HRH the Prince of Wales and HRH the Duchess of Cornwall is focussing attention on the small sultanate’s disproportionate share of pristine peatlands and forests.

Peat swamp forests such as this one in Gunung Palung National Park, Borneo provide the water that keeps oil companies in business © Daniel Gavin

“To many people, peat swamps are inhospitable places that are only of interest to nature lovers,” said Dato Hamdillah Wahab, Chairman of the Brunei Heart of Borneo Council and Deputy Minister of Industry & Primary Resources, “But if the Badas peat swamps stop supplying water to Brunei Liquid Natural Gas, the company would stop operating within 24 hrs."

“You cannot produce liquid natural gas without water and what we have in our rivers would be unmanageable and too expensive to clean up without the filtration and slow release that the peat gives us for free,” he added, “ We could not invent a better, more cost-effective system, yet we tend to take it for granted.”

Dato Hamdillah was speaking prior to the royal visit to the Badas peat swamps in the Heart of Borneo conservation area, a tri-country (Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia) initiative which aims to preserve one of the world's most important centres of biological diversity, approximately 220,000 square kilometres of equatorial forests, or almost a third of Borneo.

Brunei’s swamps, which include the best preserved peat domes with their vast stores of carbon, are vital to absorbing and regulating water flows and avoiding floods and potential dry season issues such as saline intrusion into rivers. However, when these waterlogged peat areas are drained, they become very susceptible to fire, as well as releasing huge quantities of their stored CO2 into the atmosphere.

This is of major concern – it has been calculated that, in the last few years, the CO2 emissions from drained and fire-affected peatlands in Indonesia amount to some 2,000 million tonnes, putting Indonesia third in the CO2 emissions league behind the USA and China, and ahead of Russia and India.

Fires from the degraded peatland areas have been occurring more and more frequently over the past two or three decades, resulting in haze and smoke that envelope the Southeast Asia region. This causes serious health problems, particularly respiratory diseases, and disrupts normal life and the economies of the countries affected. During the 1997 and 1998 haze episodes, it was estimated that US$ 9 million worth of damage was caused.

“About 60% of Brunei’s peat swamps are still relatively pristine, compared to only a fraction of that elsewhere in Borneo,” said Dato’ Dr Mikaail Kavanagh, WWF’s Special Advisor to the Heart of Borneo Programme, "Brunei has laid out a roadmap of priority work to be done to implement the Heart of Borneo nationally, and peatlands management is one of the top issues. It is vital to manage these areas for their water, for fire prevention, and for their carbon storage and biological diversity.”

“We should also note,” he added, “that attempts to convert peatlands into other land-uses, such as large-scale agricultural schemes, have generally ended up as expensive failures. Because of the nature of the peat itself and the water management that has to be done, it is a lot better to manage these areas in harmony with nature.”

The project is receiving support from the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Standard Chartered Bank, among others.

"Since climate change is a major global concern, it is fitting that the international community is assisting Brunei in the wise management of its peatlands," said Adam Tomasek, Leader of WWF International's Heart of Borneo Initiative.

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