Fighting with fire
It was hot and dark that night in 2000, and the frogs were loud in the drainage ditches. The buildings and out-houses of the park headquarters in Pangkalanbun loomed black beside the deserted road. Suddenly: a whiff of smoke, a red glow, a crackling noise and the frogs fell silent.
Figures fled as the fire began to roar, punctuated by explosions as it reached fuel stores, boats and vehicles. Within minutes, the offices, equipment and records of the Tanjung Puting National Park were no more than sparks and oily smoke, drifting and settling over a small town in Borneo.
Within hours, there were parties in the logging camps and brothels on the main rivers in the park.
Then the workers went back to felling as many ramin trees as they could find in the swampy forests, scaring the orangutans and hornbills with the buzzing whine of their chain saws. One by one the mighty trees would keel over into the dark waters, be stripped of their crowns and branches, and winched and floated out of the swamp.
Eventually they’d find their way, with false papers, to sawmills as far away as Singapore, Malaysia and China, part of some 300,000 cubic metres of ramin logs stripped from the 4,150 km2 park that year. This particular species makes a beautiful, fine-grained golden-yellow timber, more valuable than any other Indonesian wood.
The loss of these trees would cause massive damage to up to 60 km2 of the park in the course of 2000, savaging its most valuable lowland areas and orangutan habitats, and again in 2001, in 2002, in 2003 …
The ‘business as usual’ options are to privatise wetlands for prawn ponds and rice fields, to use them as waste dumps, or to drain, dike, dam, dredge, canalize and concrete them over, or, if they contain a lot of timber, log ‘em flat and let ‘em burn. The idea that a swamp might have some merit beyond a one-off use has proved a hard sell during the exponential expansion phase of the world’s economy, and half of all wetlands have already paid the price. Yet it need not be like this.
Flooding disasters occur when seas or rivers take back their own, drowning the works that humans have erected upon lands that are by ancient precedent claimed by waters. We live in a turbulent world, with hotter and higher oceans creating fiercer storms, and a warmer atmosphere bearing more water vapour to dump harder rain in unpredictable locations. In this context, the capacity of wetlands to absorb and dissipate water and energy in times of crisis is increasingly valuable. Environmental and livelihood security surely demand much greater caution over their management.
The Great Tsunami of 2004, and the calamitous hurricanes and storm surges of recent years, Katrina among them, serve as reminders of our vulnerability when we pack vast numbers of people and huge amounts of infrastructure into coastal zones and floodplains. These events could prompt an urgent review of wetland management. Loss of human life on such dramatic scale may be the driver to change that benefits the whole web of life.
In short, we could accept what the environmental economists are telling us, and with it accept the common ownership and public value of wetlands, for fisheries and for their roles in waste digestion, flood control and disaster proofing. We could restore damaged wetlands and build sustainable local businesses using harvests and services from them. And we could raise local awareness of how wetlands and flooded forests provide environmental security. Then we could look to the future with confidence that, by removing the threat to wetlands, they will remove threats to us.
Read on: Lake water.