The tropical forests of Indonesia, in particular the Sundaland region that includes the island of Borneo, are one of the world's leading biodiversity hotspots. These forests are home to over 25,000 plant, 381 mammal, 771 bird, 449 reptile, and 242 amphibian species. These rich habitats and their wildlife inhabitants are threatened by logging and monoculture agriculture, particularly crude palm oil, due to rapid population growth and industrialization both within and outside of Indonesia. One important and threatened ecosystem on the island of Borneo is the carbon-rich peat swamp forests of Central Kalimantan, which store over 69 billion tons of carbon — about 9 times the global emissions from fossil fuel in 2006. Deforestation rates continue unabated in these unprotected areas of Kalimantan and are currently estimated to be above 1.5-2% per year. Peat swamp forests also are a preferred habitat type for the endangered Bornean orangutan, and thus loss of habitat due to logging and international palm oil plantations has led to a dramatic decline in orangutan populations in this region. If the current rate of deforestation continues unabated, experts have predicted that viable, wild populations of Bornean orangutans will be extinct within the next century. While there exist major national and international efforts to halt current rates of deforestation and promote the conservation of this region, a strengthening of intellectual and physical capacity in the life sciences in Indonesia is essential for these efforts to be sustainable.
Tropical peat lands cover only about 25% of the Earth's land surface yet it is estimated that they hold as much as 80,000 million metric tons of carbon. The volume of soil carbon content found in peatlands globally is estimated at only slightly less than all of the carbon in our atmosphere today (Rieley and Page, 2005). Peat swamps serve as major carbon sinks, storing large quantities of carbon. If these areas are disturbed, they can significantly contribute to atmospheric carbon dioxide, further increasing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Sixty percent of all peatlands are found in Indonesia. The second largest area of tropical peat swamp rain forest is located within Central Kalimantan, Indonesia (Page et al., 1999). Unfortunately, over the past two decades, human development activities including draining, burning, and deforestation of pristine habitats for monocrop plantations and logging have converted these carbon-sinks into major carbon sources. Simultaneously, these activities are threatening the preferred habitats of endanged wild orangutans, For the last few decades, the alluvial plains along major rivers, including peat-swamps, have been drastically reduced as a result of human exploitation for agricultural monoculture (specifically oil palm plantations). Indonesian is currently the biggest producer of crude palm oil in the world. Unsustainable land use practices have fragmented unprotected orangutan habitats with fatal consequences for orangutans in these regions. Deforestation rates continue unabated in unprotected areas of Kalimantan and are currently estimated at above 1.5-2% per year (NSAPOC, 2009). Experts predict that without intervention and strong policies stopping further deforestation, orangutans will become extinct in the wild within a few decades (Singleton et al, 2004).
Faced with an extremely high rate of deforestation in peat-swamp habitats, the Mawas Conservation Program was established by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF). This area has been identified as an important source of global carbon storage and is estimated to provide habitat for approximately 3,000 wild orangutans (van Schaik et al, 2004). The Indonesian government intends to designate this 307,483-hectare area as a conservation area by 2013 and BOSF is developing a carbon program to directly benefit the people of Central Kalimantan (Master-Plan for the Rehabilitation and Revitalization of the Ex-Mega Rice Project Area Report, 2008). The Tuanan Orangutan Research Project (TORP) was established in the Mawas area to promote the conservation of this valuable habitat and the orangutans that reside there. A collaborative MOU was signed by Dr. Carel van Schaik (University of Zurich) with Universitas Nasional Jakarta (UNAS) and the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) to establish the Tuanan Biological Research Station in 2003. Dr. Vogel joined this group in 2005, and has been working together with UNAS and Zurich to promote training of Indonesian and international biology students conducting research at Tuanan. Today, TORP is a collaborative research partnership between Rutgers (Vogel), the University of Zurich (Dr. Maria A. van Noordwijk), and UNAS (Dr. Sri Suci Utami Atmoko, Drs. Tatang Mitra Setia). In June 2011, a new MOU was signed by Dr. Vogel and her collaborators at UNAS to establish a program of scholarly exchange between the Department of Biology at UNAS and the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers. This cooperation's purpose is to: 1) build the research partnership and the activities related to orangutan conservation efforts and biological research; 2) carry out research and management of orangutans in the Mawas Reserve and 3) promote the training of Indonesian and Rutgers university students in the biological sciences.
While the Indonesian government and Ministry of Forestry have moved forward with initiatives to promote the conservation of these endangered peat land habitats, a key challenge is posed by lack of capacity to monitor progress within Indonesia. There are a number of factors that contribute to this gap in research initiatives and monitoring, and more specifically the lack of scientific reports and publications by Indonesian scientists. For example, although there has been a tenfold increase in the number of publications on peat-swamp forests in Indonesia between 1984-2011 (up to a total of 120), only two had Indonesian lead authors and only 20% included Indonesian co-authors (Web of Science Analysis, 2012). While there are a number of Indonesian scientists leading initiatives in peat swamp forest and biodiversity conservation, the limited opportunities to publish their findings due to lack of funding and lack of resources to facilitate publishing form a major barrier to progress. One method to rectify this problem and improve the state of research and science education within Indonesia is to bring foreign and Indonesian professors together and create a partnership for education, teaching, and research training of future generations of scientists. Thus, our central goal is to create such a partnership that will increase the quality of and access to education, training, and research opportunities within Indonesia for both Indonesian and foreign students while promoting the conservation of orangutans and their critical habitats. Support from USAID provides the opportunity for underprivileged Indonesian undergraduate, master's, and doctoral, students to conduct field-based research at Tuanan and other research sites in collaboration with Rutgers doctoral students, promoting the exchange of scientific ideas and collaborations among emerging new scientists. It is this type of early collaboration that has led to the long-term collaboration among the faculty member participants of this grant.