Dispatch from a Borneo Field Trip by Dr. Thomas J.F. Goreau, President Global Coral Reef Alliance, Printed Feb. 2018 (shared w/permission)
In the heart of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) I’ve just seen the finest project on regenerative
development to reverse climate change in the world, surrounded by some of the worst deforestation
in the world.
What follows is a brief description based on an intense one day field visit, focused on mangrove and
coral regeneration, green and blue carbon sequestration, sustainable agriculture and forestry, and
community development, with no time to look at their sustainable energy projects, or their rescue
of thousands of orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and other wildlife, saved from deforested areas
where their habitat has been destroyed and where they risk being killed as vermin.
Kalimantan (Borneo) is the second largest tropical island in the world, only slightly smaller than
Papua (New Guinea), with exceptional biodiversity in vast tropical jungles, swamps, and mangroves
that were practically untouched just a generation ago. Now they are subject to a wild land rush as
speculators “buy” virgin jungle inhabited by orangutans and indigenous forest Dayak and Iban
peoples, displace them, and destroy the jungle to plant monocultures of oil palms, or trees for
plywood and pulp for paper mills. Vast areas that were recently high biomass virgin forest are being
clearcut and replaced by single species plantations as far as the eye can see; West African oil palm
(Elaeis guineensis), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta), or black wattle (Acacia mangium, a nitrogen
fixing tree I got to grow more than 8 times faster in the worst soils in Panama using basalt powder
alone). As in the vast areas of Brazil I saw 35 years ago where the Amazonian and Atlantic jungles
had been clearcut for Eucalyptus deglupta pulpwood plantations, these areas have no wild animals,
no birds, no insects. The richest biodiversity in the world has been turned into biological deserts in
the service of human greed. And just as I saw in Brazil in the 1980s, in Borneo you can see massive
erosion gullies growing, caused by bare soil exposure to pounding equatorial rain after clearcutting
and planting to monocultures. These areas are sprayed with Roundup (glyphosate) to prevent
regeneration of secondary forest from seeds in the soil or re-sprouting from the cut stumps, which
accelerates erosion and loss of soil carbon and nutrients.
The massive deforestation of high carbon peat soils, and their drainage for oil palm plantations, has
resulted in severe forest and peat soil fires that last year temporarily made Indonesia the world’s
largest CO2 source! These fires happen most during El Niños, which cause Indonesian waters to be
much cooler than normal, lowering evaporation from the sea and therefore greatly reducing rainfall
on the 17,000 islands of Indonesia, causing crippling droughts. When I first came to Indonesia during
the 1997-1998 droughts not only did I see vast tracts of Clove agro-forests dead, but even the coconut
palms had died from drought, something I’d never seen in my life and didn’t realize was even possible.
What is truly astonishing about this project (which I could see only a small part of) is the complexity,
integration, and scale of what is being done, integrating every possible tool we know of, including
biochar, rock powders, beneficial mycorrhizae and bacteria inoculation, green manure composts,
banteng (Balinese dwarf cattle) manure, tissue culture to mass propagate special selected plant
strains, beneficial plant introductions (many I’ve known all my life in my home countries in the
Caribbean and Central America), agroforestry, and so many other methods of both modern scientific
and traditional sustainable development.
Another major focus of this project, which I did not have any time to look at, is renewable energy.
They are getting local farmers to switch from oil palm to sugar palms (Arenga pinnata) and of Nipa
palm (Nypa fruticans which grows in salt water estuaries with mangroves) both of which can be
sustainably tapped to produce copious amounts of sugar syrup that will be used as feedstock for the
world’s largest ethanol plant for sustainable biofuel production and to produce the raw chemical
materials to make an immense variety of bioplastics.
They also will build a small dam to create a lake, which will produce hydropower, but vastly more
energy from floating solar panels. Unlike the dams in Brazil and Panama, which flooded and killed
live forest, the vegetation will be removed and converted to biochar and biocoal (torrefaction) and
not left to rot in the water. In the Amazon in the 1980s I measured methane emissions from such
flooded forest dam lakes, and found that along with termite nests, they dominated methane fluxes
to the atmosphere from the Amazon, not the cattle ranches.
Some of the projects my own Biorock Indonesia team is planning with them is to regenerate vast
areas of mangrove that were illegally logged for oil palm plantations. We will restore the hydrology
with the Mangrove Action Project team and use Biorock methods to greatly speed up mangrove
growth, both above and below ground (as we do with sea grass and salt marsh), reverse the
acidification of the soil caused by oxidation of peat and iron sulfides that prevents natural
regeneration, and increase the carbon preservation and storage in peat. Since Indonesia has the
world’s largest area of mangroves, our goal is to turn Indonesia into a major global carbon sink to
reverse climate change. We will also grow corals, which amazingly are found 23 kilometers up the
estuary, in waters full of 5-meter man-eating crocodiles.
This project is run by Arsari Enviro Industri, a visionary Indonesian regeneration and sustainable
development company whose Chief Science Officer, Dr. Willie Smits, is a global resource. This huge
project is a model not just for Indonesia but the entire world and involves holistic action on the
mega-scale essential for reversing global climate change that I’ve dreamed of for so long and never
thought I would ever actually see! This is not geo-engineering, it’s Geotherapy, the use of the best
science to regenerate our planet’s natural ability to heal itself and stabilize climate at safe CO2 levels
around 270 ppm.