People, nature and economy in today’s Heart of Borneo

Accounting for some 30% of Borneo’s land area, the Heart of Borneo (HoB) covers more than 22 million hectares of tropical rainforest across three countries: Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia (Kalimantan) and Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak). It is the largest remaining expanse of transboundary tropical forest in Southeast Asia.


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Valuing the HoB's natural capital

HoB’s treasure trove—its ‘natural capital’—is valued by people at local, national and global levels. Many aspects of this value are difficult to quantify, such as social values related to traditional knowledge and sacred sites, or the value of biodiversity and ecosystems in creating resilience to a changing climate.

However, the value of HoB’s natural capital is also directly linked with the abundant range of goods and services that its ecosystems provide to people and to economies — which are more amenable to economic valuation.

Value of the HoB's natural capital to local communities

Local people living within the HoB depend on a broad range of services provided by the area’s natural capital. For indigenous Dayak communities, over one million of whom live within the HoB, the area has provided a multitude of forest and freshwater resources over many thousands of years.

Villagers living in the HoB use areas adjacent to their villages for mixed fruit orchards, agro-forestry and swidden agriculture. Further afield, they collect fuel wood and nontimber forest products, including honey, nuts, wildlife meat, song birds and a resinous wood known as ‘gaharu’. Finally, freshwater fisheries provide a key source of protein for these communities.

Economic dependence on ecosystem goods and services

More modern sectors of Borneo’s economy, both within and outside of the HoB, depend heavily on ecosystem goods and services produced by the area as inputs into their production processes.

Industries like liquefied natural gas (LNG) in Brunei require large quantities of water for processing, most of which originates from the HoB. Hydroelectric power plants in Sarawak benefit from retained sediments and water supplied by HoB forests.

Sustainable production of palm oil requires healthy ecosystems and associated ecosystem services, including hydrological and decomposition services and nutrient cycling.

Many mining companies in the HoB rely on riverbased transport to deliver their output to market; they depend on forests’ sediment retention and erosion control functions to avoid costly dredging or even temporary shutdown. Mining also benefits from the capacity of ecosystems to detoxify pollutants.

Thanks to the above ecosystem services—as well as others like water buffers, water purification, flood prevention, pest control and climate regulation—HoB ecosystems represent an essential component underlying sectoral productivity.

However, economic activities are currently having significant impacts on the area’s natural capital and are thereby eroding its capacity to sustainably provide many of these goods and services.

Climate change is having further impacts, including sea level rise, risk of floods and fires and changes in the duration and intensity of wet and dry seasons. Together these impacts are feeding back to the sectors themselves—causing a parallel erosion of their long-term economic prospects and viability.