Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia
An expedition to raise awareness and understanding of the 'biggest environmental crime of the 21st century': the forest fires of Kalimantan. Oh, and we're going to climb this!
I’ve been planning the Sanduki Pinnacle Expedition for years. This isolated limestone pinnacle is so striking, so iconic, and has bedded itself so firmly in my mind that I know it has the potential to excite a huge audience. I’ve taken my time over this one, because I only have one shot to get it right.
The concept is simple. Take a team of climbers, scientists and filmmakers to the location, survey the area around the pinnacle. Facilitate an Indonesian first ascent, and use the adventure of the journey (days along old logging roads followed by hike into the rainforest) and the climb itself as the narrative arc and hook for an environmental adventure documentary, including interviews with the local people and the efforts of the scientists to research the biodiversity surrounding the pinnacle.
The goals being to:
- Raise international awareness of the serious issue of deforestation in Kalimantan
- Raise national empathy and pride for the Heart of Borneo rainforest by showcasing the natural beauty and wonder of Borneo through the journey of Indonesian athletes and scientists.
I’m not sure yet! First I need to conduct a successful recce to work out how best to navigate the old logging roads to get close to the area. I need to meet with local villagers to get their permission and secure their involvement. I need to recruit my team. I need to raise the funds.
But it’s the recce that’s really slowing me down. I’ve already made one failed attempt by jeep: the roads were just too hardcore. I’ve considered using motorbikes, but now I’ve settled on mountain bikes, and will use this adventurous recce to create an expedition in its own right, which will be used to promote the final stage.
The “expedition-recce-expedition” will be called the Broken Roads of Borneo Expedition. This is currently scheduled for early 2017 and may take up to two months. I’m going to film it and will probably write my first full length book about it.
The island of Borneo was once covered coast to coast by rainforest. Today, less than half of that forest cover remains and half off that is degraded. The pace of deforestation is not slowing down. One of the major causes of deforestation is forest fires. Last year forests fires raged across Indonesia, destroying yet more forest. The epicentre of these fires was Central Kalimantan, where the huge peat forests were decimated as the fires spread underground, making them almost impossible to fight.
At their height, more CO2 was being released from these fires than from the entire US economy. A cloud of toxic haze the size of Europe enveloped south east Asia. NGOs evacuated their staff because of the extreme danger to human health. The vast majority of local people were not so lucky. Forced to stay, they had to suffer these conditions for months. The impact on children will probably not be known for years to come, but will likely be terrible.
Kalimantan, already dealing with off-the-scale rates of deforestation, lost even more of its unique forests. Countless animals will have suffered horrendous deaths, including untold numbers of orangutans whose capacity for suffering almost certainly approaches our own.
Every year these fires rage across Indonesia, but 2015 was the worst year yet. It was called the ‘greatest environmental crime of the 21st century”, yet it received almost zero attention from the international media.
What is going on here? How can we call it a crime? What can we do about it? And how can a climbing expedition contribute?
Traditionally, Dayak villages practicing small scale swidden agriculture will burn small areas of vegetation as part of a fairly sustainable farming practice. These fires are small and controlled by teams of villagers who are expert in this sort of farming. It goes against their interests and their culture to burn more than necessary.
In recent decades, unscrupulous palm oil and timber companies have been using totally uncontrolled fires illegally to burn huge areas of forest. Why? Because it is the cheapest and quickest way of getting the trees out of the way so they can start planting oil palm or fast growing timber for the pulp and paper industry.
An environmental movement is building in Indonesia, and recent legislation has created some cause for hope, but there is much work to be done. The international community can help, but ultimately it is the Indonesian people who will decide the future of their natural environment. People protect what they love and value, and so this expedition is primarily aimed at an Indonesian audience, to raise awareness within Indonesian and to build empathy for the forests of Kalimantan and the indigenous people whose culture is so entwined with them.