GNF - Threatened Lake of the Year 2008

Mahakam Wetland in Indonesia is

Threatened Lake of the Year 2008

On 2 February 2008, the World’s Wetland Day, the internationally operating environmental foundation Global Nature Fund (GNF) proclaimed the Mahakam Wetland located in the Indonesian part of Borneo "Threatened Lake of the Year 2008". Together with the partner organisation Conservation Foundation for Rare Aquatic Species of Indonesia (RASI) GNF wants to draw the attention to the dramatic increase in deforestation caused by slash-and-burn clearing. The cleared land is then used for monocultures such as palm oil plantations.


Other impacts caused by mining activities and illegal building development destroy original forest areas and negatively affect the livelihood of the local inhabitants and the plant and animal habitats.


The Mahakam Wetland is located in the southern part of the Island of Borneo and partner lake of the international network Living Lakes, which is being coordinated by GNF. The so called Middle Mahakam Lakes and Wetland (MMLW) covering an area of 8.100 sq. km. is one of the largest wetlands in Kalimantan, the Southern part of Borneo.

The area comprises three major lakes: Jempang (150 sq. km), Semayang (130 sq. km) and Melintang (110 sq. km). Further 30 lakes with an average size between 0.1 and 20 sq. km as well as large peat bogs and freshwater swamps are found there. The lakes and bogs are interconnected and connected by tributaries with the Mahakam River, which is the largest Indonesian river with a length of 920 km. The whole area is an important drinking water reservoir and has a considerable potential for fishery and waterway transport.

The region is an extremely important breeding and resting place for over 90 waterfowl species, including breeding populations of different Grey Heron species and Lesser Adjutant (Sunda Marabu). 298 bird species were counted in the area, among them 70 protected and five endemic species: Borneo Dusky Mannikin (Lonchura fuscans), Borneo Whistler (Pachycephala hypoxantha), Bornean Peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron schleiermacheri), Bornean Blue-flycatcher (Cyornis superbus) and Bornean Bristlehead (Pityriasis gymnocephala).


Loss of original swamp forests

Large-scale forest conversion and devastating forest fires, fostered by long dry periods in 1982 and 1998, contributed to the reduction of 90 % of the original forest areas corresponding to 400.000 ha. Meanwhile 60 to 70 % of the burnt areas are regenerating - original tree species begin to grow.

The loss of the primary forests with CO2 absorbing peat layers and their conversion into agriculturally used land entails a lot of changes for the local population and plant and animal world.


Excessive slash and burn, besides enormous CO2 emissions, also leads to the loss of the unique biodiversity. Over weeks thick smoke clouds affect the life quality of the locals. Many animals perish in the burning rainforests. Connected habitats are being destroyed and retreat of the animals in their original areas is not possible anymore.


Near Lake Jempang, additionally to a mine and three caoutchouc processing plants four oil palm plantations were established - the first in 1996 and the three others followed in 2003. Each plantation has a size of 20,000 ha.

Marshland is drained to create palm oil plantations. The organic mass composed of dead plants formed over decades is being destroyed and carbon in form of CO2 gas released. Large oil palm monocultures are planted, which do not provide adequate habitat for animals and plant species. Irrigation of the plantations lead to elutriation of sediments and pesticides.

For the cultivation of the plantations, additional ways of transportation are necessary to transport seedlings, fertilizers, and tools on the one hand, and the harvested palm fruits to the locations of the processing industry, on the other hand. Roads are cut through woods, waterways are more frequented and port facilities and loading stations constructed. The water quality of lakes and bogs is deteriorating through increased sediment load in association with pesticides and waste water from palm oil plantations and mines. Large floodwater quantities and eutrophication are responsible for uncontrolled growth of e.g. seaweed, which occasionally covers 50 to 90 % of the lake and affects the water transport.


Currently, the annual rate of water loss of Lake Jempang is 4 mm as the Mahakam River carries about 126 t of sediments caused by erosion at the Mahakam tributaries. For 2002, a sediment load of the lakes Semayang and Melintang of 140 t/ha was asceretained, whereas in 1994 the load amounted to 30 t/ha.

On-site protection and preservation measures

The partner organisation RASI aims at preventing further deforestation and plans to restore affected areas by planting native plants. These measures contribute to the conservation of biodiversity of the plant and animal species as original habitats will be preserved or restored. The indigenous people (aborigines) benefit from these measures as their basis of livelihood (fish, rice and fruit growing on small parcels of land) shall be maintained.


In cooperation with the Forest Landscape Researches Group and the Centre for Water Resources Research at the University of Mulawarman, RASI concentrates on area management for different land uses as well as the designation of critical areas as reforestation regions. Other activities comprise the designation of areas with great biodiversity requiring special protection as well as the improvement of environmental awareness of the local representatives and politicians. All proposals, however, were rejected by the Forestry Ministry stating that enough reforestation projects were carried out in East Kalimantan.

In West Kalimantan the Agency for Environment and Mining decided to grant concessions for large plantations more restrictively. Another key activity is the protection of the strongly endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin living in the freshwater of the Mahakam river and lakes. There are two conservation projects in the Western and Central region of Kutai. Workshops inform local fisher families regularly about alternative fishing methods. School classes are instructed about the local biodiversity and the need to protect it. In both reserves data concerning the Irrawaddy Dolphin - number, birth and mortality rate - are regularly collected and analysed.

National and international situation

Borneo covers a total surface of 743,122 sq. km. and is world’s third biggest island politically shared among three states: In the North are the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak, which are part of Malaysia, and the sovereign Sultanate of Brunei. The larger Southern part belongs to Indonesia, is called Kalimantan and divided into four provinces.


The climate of Borneo is characterized by monsoon, the humidity is very high and may reach more than 80 %. In the Northern part of the island there are two rainy seasons, in the South there is no real wet season. The major part of the island was, and still is, covered by dense rainforest providing home to a large number of plants and animals. You can find there elephants, Sumatra tiger, gibbons und orang-utans. Up to now 220 mammal species, 620 different birds as well as 400 reptile and amphibians, and 15,000 plant species were recorded.


In the past years, large areas of rainforest were destroyed and lost for ever through logging and slash-and-burn. On the cleared forest land huge oil palm monocultures (Elaeis guineensis) are grown. This economically important palm species is rich in fruits, the basis for palm oil and palm kernel oil. Malaysia and Indonesia  are the most important countries cultivating this palm species, producing over 80 % of the world’s total production. In 2007, worldwide about 37.4 million tons of palm oil are produced for the food and cosmetics industry. Bio-fuel processing is another industry sector using palm oil.


In the past 10 years an estimated quarter of the wood exports from Indonesia was illegal. Corruption, lacking control and implementation of reforms with regard to the protection of native rainforests are obstacles to stop illegal clearance and fires. The provincial and regional governments do not support sufficiently the planned measures of the central government.


The expansion of palm oil plantations is the driving force with regard to forest conversion. 40 years ago, the total cultivation area for oil palms amounted to 100,000 hectares in Indonesia, in 1985 the cultivated area was 600,000 hectares, and in 2000 three million hectares were used for palm oil plantations. Until 2006 the area doubled reaching 6.4 million hectares. As the planting possibilities on the Indonesian Island of Sumatara are almost completely exhausted, the government intends to expand the cultivation area in Kalimantan and Papua - officially further 3 million hectares of land are taken into consideration.