Forests of Brunei Darussalam
- Mangrove forests
- Peat swamp forests
- Heath forests
- Mixed dipterocarp forests
- Montane forests
- Conservation policy
- Ecotourism and recreation
- Research and education
Author: Jacqueline Henrot, written for the video "Treasures of Brunei Darussalam"
Brunei Darussalam, a small Islamic Sultanate, is an independent state situated in the north west of Borneo. It is one of the most ancient sovereign states of south east Asia, already known to Chinese historians in the 6th century. At the height of its power, in the 14th to 16th century, its territory extended throughout Borneo and to islands in the north and the south that now belong to the Philippines and Indonesia. The growth of European influence in the 17th century led to a decline of the country's territory and power. In 1906, Brunei became a British protectorate. In January 1984, after five years under a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between the two countries, Brunei celebrated its full independence.
Present day Brunei Darussalam covers 5765 square kilometres and is still sparsely populated, with about 260 000 inhabitants (census of 1990), two thirds of which are Malay, the remainder other indigenous people, Chinese, and expatriates. Half of the nation is under twenty years of age and, with a growth rate of 3.5 percent annually, the population is rapidly expanding. Most of the Bruneians live in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, and in the two other major towns: Seria and Kuala Belait.
Brunei Darussalam's economy relies heavily on the exploitation of its natural resources of gas and oil and on associated industries. The country is prosperous and technologically advanced. Over the last decades, Brunei Darussalam has undergone a period of rapid modernisation accompanied by important social and economic progress: an extensive state education system, free healthcare, 2000 kilometres of paved road, housing developments, and shopping complexes. It has established itself as an important nation in the region.
Over the centuries and in the course of modernisation, the people of Brunei Darussalam have succeeded in preserving not only their ancient traditions, among which are the monarchy and Islam, but also another natural heritage: the forests that cover most of the country.
The forest types
About 80 percent of Brunei Darussalam land area is under forest cover, 60 percent of which has not been affected by human activities. These pristine forests belong to six major types, each presenting numerous variants: mangrove forests over the coastal swamps, peat swamp forests on waterlogged areas further inland, freshwater swamps , along the river banks, heath forests on white sands, mixed dipterocarp forests over the lowlands and lower altitude, and montane forests above 800 metres.
Each forest type has its own atmosphere and characteristics.
Among countries covered by rainforests, Brunei Darussalam is unique. No other has such a wide variety of forest types, in pristine condition, over such a small area and so close to the capital city. As the need for land and income increases in most tropical countries of America, Asia, and Africa, pristine rainforests are disappearing rapidly, making Brunei Darussalam more unique every day.
forests disturbed by human activities (secondary forests)
urban, cleared, and cultivated land
Mangrove forestsgrow on the coastal swamps and are flooded with salt water at every tide. Only specially adapted plants are able to cope with such an environment. Some of the mangrove trees (bakau) have adapted to life on the soft and little oxigenated tidal mud by developing an extensive system of specialised roots for support (stilt roots), other species have developed breathing roots (pneumatophores) that poke above the mud.
The seeds of the bakau tree do not fall in the tidal water on which they would float and be carried to sea, but they germinate while still attached to the tree. The young plant separates itself from the mother plant only when it has produced a sturdy spearlike root (hypocotyl) that enables it to plant itself firmly in the mud.
The mangrove forest is very productive. The fallen leaves are decomposed by micro-organisms that are food for many other species. Fish, prawns, crabs, clams, oysters, and snails are abundant. These in turn, provide food to a variety of animals like otters, eagles, egrets and kingfishers.
Famous mangrove inhabitants include the pot-bellied, big-nosed proboscis monkeys (orang belanda), unique to Borneo. They feed extensively on mangrove tree leaves and are commonly seen in large troops at the water edge around dusk, when tens of thousands of giant fruit bats (flying foxes) leave the mangrove, where they roosted during the day, in search of food.
The mangrove forest is a valuable ecosystem: not only does it support unique animal life and maintain the highly productive coastal fisheries, but it also stabilises the mudflats and protects the coastline from storms and erosion.
Peat swamp forests
Peat swamp forestscover about 15 percent of the land. They developed in low-lying areas that were, six thousand years ago, a coastline colonised by mangrove swamp. Over the millennia, the peat built up into convex domes which can be as deep as 20 metres in their centre.
The peat swamp is a harsh environment for plant life: the peat is acidic, poor in available minerals, and rich in toxic substances dissolved in the brown waters, it can be waterlogged and suffocating for the roots after heavy rains or too dry during periods without rainfall.
At the periphery of the peat dome, where the peat is more shallow, the forest is dominated by a single tree species: the dipterocarp Shorea albida, locally called alan, which is endemic to Borneo. The alan trees tower at 70 metres, making them one of the tallest trees in the tropics. Towards the centre of the peat dome, the height of the alan decreases and where the peat is deepest, the alan trees are no more than 15 to 30 metres high and other tree species become more dominant.
In nutrient-poor habitats, animal trapping is a way by which plants can increase their nutrition. Pitcher plants are found in peat swamps, heath, and montane forests, all characteristerised by poor substrates. They have modified leaves in the form of pitchers filled with water into which insects fall and are digested. Among the four or five species of pitcher plants living in the peat swamp, the most common is Nepenthes bicalcarata, which has two daggers pointing down beneath the lid.
Other highly recognisable plants are the sealing wax palms, with their brilliant red leaf bases, and the large aroid lilies.
Heath forestsare also called kerangas, which is the name given by the Ibans (local tribe) for the areas (excluding peat swamps) where the soil is so poor that hill rice cannot grow. They formed on the beaches exposed, near the coast, by the falling sea level about a million years ago and, further inland, by the uplift of the land mass some seven million years ago. Over time, the sand has been covered by a thick layer of organic matter, allowing vegetation to develop. Heath forests are extremely fragile, once the organic layer is removed, no forest can regenerate and only sand remains. The barren stretches of white sand by the coast near Tutong were once covered by a kerangas forest, which was destroyed by fire one hundred years ago.
On remnant inland terraces which are surrounded by peat swamps, the forest is dominated by the majestic conifer Agathis borneensis (tulong). Because tulong timber is extremely valuable (four times more expensive than meranti), plots of unlogged tulong trees are rare on Borneo.
In general, however, kerangas forests have mostly short trees and a low diversity in species. Not only is the soil poor but it cannot hold water and the trees are often subjected to periods of drought.
The kerangas forest nonetheless has peculiar attractions, like the insectivorous sundews (Drosera) with tiny rosettes of leaves bearing glandular hairs, pitcher plants, and "ant plants" (Myrmecodia) with inflated stems inhabited by black ants
Mixed dipterocarp forests
Mixed dipterocarp forestsare the most common in Borneo. In Brunei Darussalam, they represent 56 percent of the primary forests (33 percent of the country 's area). The forest takes its name from the plant family (dipterocarps) which dominates the forest. The family (470 species) occurs almost exclusively in south east Asia and most of its members, like meranti and kapur, are of great commercial importance for the timber industry.
Mixed dipterocarp forests develop on well-drained ground from the lowlands up to 800 metres above sea level. It is a luxuriant, tall and dense evergreen forest with a large diversity of species and life forms, and a distinct multi-layered structure. The tallest trees (emergents) protrude above the canopy at 50 metres or more. The majority of their roots, however, do not penetrate more than 50 centimetres into the ground and the trees are supported, at their base, by impressive tall structures (buttresses) extending up to six metres from the trunk.
Although dipterocarps can make up to 80 percent of the canopy, the forest is rich in species (300 species per hectare is not uncommon), among which the rare Borneo ironwood.
Less than two percent of the sunlight reaches the forest floor where a variety of elegant palms can be found. Other plants avoid the low light conditions either by living higher in the canopy, resting on the trees (epiphytes), like the bird's nest fern and many orchids, or by climbing on the tree trunks, like the rattan palm, the strangling fig, and other lianas.
Because the soil is poor, competition for nutrients among plants of the forest is as intense as that for space and light. Only the superficial layer of the soil contains the nutrients necessary for plant growth, mostly in the form of decomposing plant material and they are generally taken up by the plants before they can penetrate further into the soil. The nutrient storage of the forest lies in the trees and not in the soil; when a tree is removed by human activities, the forest has lost forever the nutrients it contained.
Animal life in the forest is rich but not easily detected. Birds (e.g., hornbills) and monkeys (e.g., Bornean gibbons and macaques) are well hidden in the foliage and more often heard than seen. Animals such as the mousedeer, barking deer, bearded pig, flying squirrel, lori, tarsier, pangolin and pit viper are only active at night.
Montane forestsbegin to be recognisable around 800 metres above sea level. There is no sudden transformation from the mixed dipterocarp forest but a gradual change in character. The appearance of tree ferns amongst the high stature trees is the first indication of the transition. As the altitude increases, the climate becomes cooler, wetter and tree height and diametre decrease. At the higher altitudes, trees are merely 1.5 metres tall.
The forest has a unique atmosphere created by the drift of clouds and the profusion of hanging mosses, liverworts, orchids, and ferns that cover the trunks and branches of the trees. At higher elevations, even the ground is covered with epiphytes, plants that normally grow high in the trees at lower elevations.
Species from families associated with the temperate regions of the world are common, e.g., Quercus and Lithocarpus from the oak family, Rhododendrum and Vaccinium from the heath family.
Many plants have small thick leaves which decompose slowly when dead, especially at these lower temperatures. As a result, the organic litter accumulates, releasing little of its nutrients, and plant growth is slow.
Pitcher plants are well adapted to these conditions and abound on the forest floor, on shrubs, or even in the crown of trees.
Guardians of the forest
Ultimately, what will determine the long term harmonious conservation of the forests of the world and their wildlife is only in part the laws and regulations, which can be modified in time or disobeyed, but, in large, the economic circumstances prevailing in the countries involved, the appreciation of the people who live next to the forest for its beauty and resources, and their active desire to preserve it.
Thanks to revenues from oil and natural gas exploitation, Brunei Darussalam hasn't had a need yet to exploit its forest resources on a large scale.
Of the primary forests, 28 percent are fully protected, either as protection forest (areas designated to preserve soil and water quality) or conservation forests (including the national park; areas chosen to serve ecotourism, scientific, and educational interests). Another 43 percent are designated as "production forests", which allows for low levels of selective extraction of timber for commercial purposes. The remaining 29 percent are multi-purpose state land.
Presently, more than 50 percent of the country's domestic demand in sawntimber is met by controlled logging.
Ecotourism and recreation
Strongly committed to developing ecotourism as a non-destructive utilisation of the forest resources, the Forestry Department has opened to visitors, young and old alike, areas of the forest which were in the past accessible only by long and dangerous expeditions.
The first national park of Brunei Darussalam is located in Temburong and covers 10 percent of the land (50 000 hectares). It has extensive facilities, including a 7 km long board walk (one of the longest in the world), camp sites, shelter huts, and a canopy walk that takes the visitors to the tree crowns, at a height of 60 metres. A second, forthcoming, national park includes Tasik Merimbum and large areas of diperocarp and swamp forests.
There are five existing parks and recreational forests (0.3 percent of the land): at Sungai Liang, Luagan Lalak, Bukit Shahbandar, Berakas, Peradayan, and others planned, at Subok Hill, Bukit Teraja, and Selirong.
Research and education
Scientists are still a long way from understanding how rainforests work, how diverse they are and how much they could offer to mankind. Because of the quality and diversity of its forests, Brunei has become an international site for research.
The University of Brunei Darussalam has established a site for teaching and research in the heart of the rainforest, at the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre and has set up projects throughout the country.
The Forestry Department has ongoing projects to collect and catalogue, in herbarium, all the plant species in the country (many yet unknown) and to establish an arboretum of selected groups of forest plants, like rattan, palms, bamboos, wild fruit trees, timber trees, and endangered species.
The Brunei Museum is recording the traditional knowledge of indigenous people on the use of forest products as food, medicine, clothing, and building materials, in order to preserve it for future generations.
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