With support from the New Colombo Plan (NCP) scheme, I took 10 University of Newcastle undergrads to Indonesian Borneo earlier this month. The NCP is a great innovation that sponsors Australian uni students to travel overseas and learn more of the culture of our neighbouring countries. Fourteen days of intensive travel on this exotic island gave us insights into the alcohol-free Islamic culture, the indigenous Dayak culture and the business of forest reclamation and animal habitat loss.
We visited open-cut coal mines, animal rescue transit centres and boated into the national park to see orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, gibbons, macaques, and lemurs.
A life-changing experience for us all. We were able to reflect on the ecological impact of the rapid changes due to the expansion of palm oil plantations. Palm oil is an economically important industry that provides employment in regions where there are few other alternatives for income, but it has come at a cost. It is estimated that more than 100,000 orang-utans have been lost this century alone due to extensive deforestation.
It’s been a similar story in Australia since 1788 with the clearing of forests and release of apex predators, the fox, dog and cat, which devastated our small marsupials. Based on my experience of organising conferences on best practice mined land rehabilitation over the past eight years, I was impressed by the strict regulations imposed by Jakarta on the two open-cut coalmines we visited. Forest regrowth in the mined areas was happening quickly, and the requirement of planting 625 trees per hectare, of which 40 per cent had to be local trees, has re-established diversity. The tropical soils are rich in sulphites and, when exposed to air, make the water in the voids very acidic. Such water cannot be released into the waterways until it has been neutralised. The use of constructed swampy forest wetlands on a massive scale was proving to be efficacious in achieving this mandated increase in pH. Perhaps this should be tried at Neath to deal with the acid water coming down the creek from the Greta seam coal chitter tailings?
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