Best of our wild blogs: 4 Feb 15

2 Feb (Sat): World Wetlands Day - Wetlands for our Future
from wild shores of singapore

Bukit Brown status - snapshot February 2015
from Rojak Librarian

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URA seeks opportunities to develop underground space in Singapore

Wong Siew Ying Channel NewsAsia 3 Feb 15;

SINGAPORE: The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is looking for more opportunities to develop underground space in land-scarce Singapore. In an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia, its chief planner and deputy chief executive officer Lim Eng Hwee said that building underground is a new frontier for Singapore and presents “almost unlimited potential”.

Some of the major underground projects that have been undertaken in Singapore include the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System, the Jurong Rock Caverns and an ammunition facility at Mandai.

Q: What are URA’s plans with regard to building underground?

A: Our approach of building a compact city is most logical in our context. We build high density, high rise especially where we are near MRT stations. It provides convenience, it makes sure our infrastructure is put to very good use, it makes a lot of financial sense, then we try to create space by reclaiming as much as we think it is necessary, but there is a limit.

So now we are starting to look at underground space. At some point when land becomes so dear, we would have no choice, which is the case of Japan, when you have no option. So underground is the default option, but as you do more of it, you find ways of managing the issues, a clever way of managing the cost and a clever way of making it a bit more optimal. The potential is huge but we have to find ways to overcome these challenges and we are trying to do it partly learning by doing.

The ammunition storage at Mandai is not just a creating a storage place and freeing up a piece of land. Storing ammunition above ground sterilises almost a huge area around the ammunition storage area. By doing that you free up a lot of land.

So going ahead, we are looking at what are the opportunities to likewise free up land and free up constraints as a result of some of these facilities above ground, by moving them underground. Take a highway for example. If you put a highway underground, straightaway, your noise problem would disappear, you don't see the traffic and your whole environment becomes better.

There are many of these opportunities. We are not the only one thinking along those lines. When we talk to our colleagues in other cities, they are also doing the same thing. Japan in particular - they are very short of land. So most of these utilitarian infrastructure, mostly are underground now. So we are also learning from them to see how we can do more of this.

Q: With limited resources in Singapore, how do you strike a balance between planning to allow for economic growth, and social and environmental considerations?

A: The approach that Singapore has taken all these years is a very pragmatic and disciplined approach, which is important. I think in most other cities, they call this a sustainable approach. In our context, it is actually out of no choice, we are just this island, so we have to make sure that whatever we do today does not compromise our potential in the future.

So we have taken the approach of thinking long-term, anticipating the needs of the future before we decide what to do now. I think that approach has served us quite well and I think going ahead, we will continue to embrace that very important principle. So to balance economic needs between growth and quality of life, these are the important considerations that are built into the long-term planning process.

We think holistically. In 50 years’ time - what do we need to continue to provide a decent housing option for our people, high density, waterfront or whatever? What is the land required to allow us to build towns in a way that will provide a good quality of living? What is the land that is needed for infrastructure supporting the community, which will change over time?

For example, we do monitor the need for land to support our education and school sites; that requirement changes over time. When you have a young and growing population, you need more schools, when you change from morning and afternoon sessions to single session, your requirement almost doubles overnight, so a lot of these policies will have land implications.

In anticipating long-term needs, we have to consider all these factors, looking at the population profile, the changing needs over time and try to anticipate what are the requirements.

Q: Singapore already offers a good quality of life to residents. Going forward, how can we continue to differentiate ourselves amid rising competition from global cities?

A: We will see Singapore becoming a little bit more urbanised, but I think some of the ingredients that we have successfully implemented over the years will remain. Even though we may be slightly more urbanised, I think we may even see more greenery in Singapore. We hope to ensure that we will have a very efficient transportation network, it's not just public transportation, roads and so on but really the whole mobility system in Singapore, we hope to bring it to the next level.

In terms of the mode of transport, the aim is to make public transport the default choice mode for most people. It would be so convenient and so comfortable that you would not think twice about using it. It becomes your default mode if you have to travel a certain distance.

So our colleagues at the Land Transport Authority are working very hard to try to double our rail network within the next 10 years or so. We are also starting to look at, on a micro, detailed level, how we can provide a more seamless connectivity for pedestrians, from a station walking to your final destination, connecting between buildings, linking where you live to your neighbourhood amenities, whether it is schools or shops or community facilities and so on.

So, essentially, you will find that in future, taking public transport and walking will be very pleasant and comfortable. We are also now trying to make cycling a possible alternative. Another very significant project is the rail corridor which is the former KTM rail line, an almost completely uninterrupted 25km stretch weaving through from the north to the heart of the city in the south.

This opens up another major opportunity for us to create something that is very significant and I personally believe most Singaporeans would be very proud of and identify with. Through projects like that, even as we continue to develop and grow, we can continue to ensure that we have a very good quality of living in terms of greenery, in terms of green coverage.

- CNA/ms

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Singapore as a garden, not a forest

Christian Razukas, The Jakarta Post 2 Feb 15;

A new book from NUS Press offers a compelling — and entertaining — view of Singapore’s environment, offering stories of tiger attacks and trade wars — as well the botany and ecology a reader needs to understand more than 200 years of continual, and sometimes disastrous, change on the island.

Today, Singapore is called the “Garden City”, and about 56 percent of the city-state is covered in greenery, according to Timothy F. Barnard, the National University of Singapore historian who edited the book, titled Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore.

Speaking at the Singapore Writer’s Festival — which drew more than 19,600 people to more than 250 events — Barnard described how the Garden City idea can be seen in the Yellow Flame Trees and American Rain Trees that surround Changi International Airport.

“Just look at the return trip from the airport — and the trees. It’s ‘home’,” Barnard says. “But all those trees are not native. All were chosen because they would grow fast,” which, he adds, was a perfect solution for bureaucrats, willing to sacrifice biodiversity to make the island a pleasant place for its 5 million residents.

“Singapore has been made into a garden city,” Barnard says, “but not a forest.”

The book’s premise is that the people of Singapore have wrought huge change, for good and ill, on the island’s ecology.

As the chapter on Singapore’s natural history explains, when Sir Stanford Raffles arrived in 1818, migrant Chinese farmers were clearing the island’s primary forest to develop gambier and pepper plantations, which they abandoned after about 20 to 30 years, when the soil was depleted of nutrients.

The farmers went on to clear new areas for cultivation and within 50 years, about 90 percent of Singapore’s forest was gone — leaving only scrub, elephant grass and hard-to-eradicate lalang grass.

Speaking at a seminar at the festival, Barnard described the grim situation. “In 1880, there were a lot of articles in the newspaper [...] that were talking about how bleak everything was. The rest of Singapore was so horrific that you wanted to go to a park and see greenery and pretty flowers and managed things.”

Appalled colonial administrators encouraged Nathaniel Cantley, who ran the emerging Singapore Botanic Gardens, to create parks, to expand into research and create the island’s first forest reserves.

Cantley’s successor Henry N. Ridley expanded the garden’s economic duties. He promoted the cultivation of rubber trees (sometimes carrying seeds in his pocket to give to planters). Rubber enriched planters and, along with other measures, beat back the scrub and regreened the island, to the benefit of residents.

Meanwhile, the book’s authors note that under the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), Singapore has grown even more green — by fiat.

“Nature has flourished,” Barnard writes. “But it has also been contained, disciplined and manipulated to a point that conservation and state control have become one and the same. Nature has become a human construct.”

As an example, take Cynthia Chou’s chapter on agriculture. She writes that as late as the 1980s, Singaporean farmers, working in the kampung, provided most of the island’s food, including almost 100 percent of its chicken, ducks and eggs and 50 percent of its leafy vegetables.

Soon thereafter, however, the development-minded government sacrificed food self-sufficiency for economic productivity, choosing to import food and to convert farmland into housing and high-end agricultural parks.

Barnard also critically examines the PAP’s policies, especially the Garden City program, launched in 1967, that saw the state back massive tree-planting and park-expansion programs, physically restructuring the city to accommodate the greenery.

Written without academic or scientific jargon, the writers — comprising three professors, two local history teachers, a geographer, an independent scholar, an archivist and the director of the Singapore Botanical Gardens — draw on unique primary resources to tease out an unexpectedly enjoyable work.

The authors’ arguments on state control of the environment are clear, as are arguments that the environmental destruction of the 18th century stemmed from Singapore’s entrance into the global economy.

Gambier and pepper were cultivated for international sale (much like palm oil is today), while the island’s internationally vilified wildlife trade was fueled by Western desires such as Frank Buck, the big game importer from Bring ‘Em Back Alive, and women, who wanted exotic bird feathers for their hats.

Equally clear is how racism drove the destruction: The colonial government took as given that frequent tiger attacks in the mid-18th century were due to “filthy” Chinese living at the edge of civilization, rather than due to colonial permit policies that made it profitable for farmers to cut down even more primary forest, which in turn brought more people into contact with tigers.

Academics will appreciate how the book’s authors connect politics and the environment; general readers can gain a deeper understanding of how monocrop agriculture, colonialism, racism and public policy influence our management of nature.

The book owes much to Barnard, who wrote or co-wrote three chapters. He is no stranger to Indonesia: Barnard studied at the University of Riau in 1986 and returned to teach there in 1991.

A pleasant surprise is Barnard’s choice to open each of the book’s nine chapters with a well-selected primary source, ranging from reports dug out of archives, 18th century newspaper articles and the story of the hapless beached whale whose skeleton was once the centerpiece of the Raffles Museum.

Barnard writes cogently and with flair. Take, for example, his chapter on Singapore’s “man-eating tigers”, which presents bizarre characters, such as a freelance French Canadian tiger hunter and sharpshooter who threaded his beard through a gold ring and used dead Chinese as bait; and Neil Carnie, a Singaporean who left the civil service, teaming up with a former Malay police sergeant major to hunt the great cats.

When asked in an interview if the Singaporean approach to greening the environment might work in Jakarta, Barnard had a caveat.

“It’s a combination of all those things — development of green spaces, parks, development of roadside trees and planting dedicated areas of trees [and] working with the Bogor Botanical Gardens,” Barnard said. “But you would also need it to be of importance to government officials in Indonesia. They’ve got ‘other things’ to worry about.”

Official buy-in is key, he says


The writer attended the Singapore Writer’s Festival as a guest

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In search of roadkill

Carolyn Khew The Straits Times 3 Feb 15;

NUS research assistant Mary-Ruth Low has been cruising along roads near forested areas on her motorbike to document roadkill involving animals such as snakes and monitor lizards.

On two days last month, 26-year-old Mary-Ruth Low cruised along leafy roads near forested areas on her Yamaha motorbike.

Ms Low, a research assistant at the National University of Singapore (NUS), was not out on joy rides but going around at a speed of 25kmh to look for animals - dead ones to be precise.

This may seem like a gory task, but it is part of a one-year study that Ms Low started last month to get a sense of how many reptiles and amphibians die due to collisions with oncoming vehicles.

Once every two weeks, she and two others visit 10 sites, including Old Upper Thomson Road and Mandai Lake Road, to look for animal carcasses. The areas chosen include those where roadkill is said to be found most frequently.

Armed with a handheld GPS (global positioning system) device, a ruler and a point-and-shoot camera, Ms Low takes pictures of dead animals and records the precise locations where they are found.

She does not usually pick up the animal carcasses. But if she comes across a rare species, she will hand it over to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum for research purposes.

Asked what made her start this study, Ms Low, who does research at NUS on the spatial ecology of reptiles, said there is hardly any documenting of roadkill involving animals such as snakes and monitor lizards.

This was even though "being ground-dwelling and slow-moving creatures, they are most prone to deaths by oncoming traffic".

"The data is out there but no one is really looking," she said. "Hopefully, we can establish baseline data which can be used for future reference."

Mr Louis Ng, chief executive of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), said animals may be on the roads to bask or roost at roadside vegetation.

"Land-clearing for developments pushes native wildlife to use urban corridors, leading to increased chances of human-wildlife interactions," he added.

Last year, Acres received 26 calls from members of the public about roadkill involving animals such as macaques, turtles and snakes. There have been at least five such calls so far this year.

When asked, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said it received 2,198 notices of feedback last year on dead animals sighted, regardless whether they were killed on the roads or otherwise. In 2013, the figure was 2,324.

"NEA clears such animal carcasses that it comes across as part of its scheduled cleaning rounds or in response to public feedback, in the interest of public health," said an NEA spokesman, who added that the agency is responsible for clearing animal carcasses in public areas, except estates maintained by the town councils.

Wildlife experts have suggested building "road calming measures" such as speed bumps and animal crossing signs near roadkill-prone areas to minimise such occurrences.

At Mandai Lake Road, signs are placed along both sides of the road leading to the Singapore Zoo to warn motorists of possible animals ahead.

In some instances, rarer wildlife such as pangolins, leopard cats and the critically endangered Banded Leaf Monkey have fallen prey to oncoming traffic.

Mr Nick Baker, who is helping in Ms Low's study, started his own recording of roadkill incidents along Old Upper Thomson Road since he moved to the area in 2012.

Mr Baker, a member of the Vertebrate Study Group of the Nature Society (Singapore), said the road is a hot spot as it used to be part of the Grand Prix circuit in the 1960s.

"Inconsiderate drivers use the road to show off their fast cars," he said. "Many other drivers are simply not observant enough to see animals on the road."

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Malaysia: Rising sea levels to lead to inundated coasts in future

PATRICK LEE The Star 4 Feb 15;

PETALING JAYA: If you thought that the devastating floods which struck the east coast of the peninsula recently was bad, things will get worse in the coming decades, said a research organisation.

The National Hydraulic Research Institute (Nahrim) said many of our coastlines were being affected by rising sea levels, with numerous parts of the country expected to be underwater by the end of the century.

Data by Nahrim showed that sea levels have been rising by between 0.2mm and 4.4mm every year since 2010 due to climate change.

Nahrim director-general Datuk Ahmad Jamalluddin Shaaban said this may lead to inundated coasts and affect more than eight million people, at today’s count.

“The areas that will experience the highest sea level rise are the Kedah and Kelantan coasts, Sungai Sarawak Estuary and the east coast of Sabah, by between 0.4 and 1.1m,” he told The Star.

He said that Malaysia was very susceptible to rising sea levels and that this would be especially critical at its low-lying areas, such as river mouths.

Tawau would be the hardest-hit nationwide, with its sea levels projected to be 1.064m higher by the year 2100 than they were today.

Kudat, Lahad Datu, Tawau, Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu were seeing sea levels rising by 3mm, 3.5mm, 3.6mm, 4.1mm and 4.4mm each year, respectively.

Ahmad said higher sea levels could lead to changes in wave speed and height, which may increase the rate of coastal erosion.

“Worst still, the sediment type along Malaysian coastlines comprises sand, clay and silt which are easily eroded by strong currents and waves,” he said.

Existing coastal structures, he said, may be swamped by waves especially during heavy rain at high tide.

Ahmad said that some 31% of Malaysians in the peninsula lived within the coastal zone, an area ranging 5km inland from the sea’s edge.

Some 55% of the area, he said, was also occupied by important industries, including agriculture, construction and fisheries.

Ports were also going to be affected by the rise in sea levels.

Harbours in Penang, Perak, Selangor and most of those in Sabah were projected to have sea levels higher than 50cm by 2100, compared to 2010.

Aside from the loss of land and destruction of coastal structures, Ahmad also expected communities to suffer relocation and lives lost as the changes increasingly take place.

Worse still, Ahmad said Malaysians could not avoid this phenomenon as the rise in sea levels was a global issue and inevitable.

“Adapting to climate change and employing disaster risk management are very important to minimise our vulnerability,” he said.

Ahmad said Nahrim was working with various government agencies to prepare the country for the phenomenon.

He said millions of ringgit was spent each year to build coastal protection systems.

Johor coastal villagers’ anxiety level rises with each passing year
The Star 4 Feb 15;

BATU PAHAT: When Mohd Izwan Rusli was a child, the Malacca Straits would overflow and flood villages near here once each year.

Today, the 26-year-old orang asli fisherman sees the sea creep up to coastal homes at least twice every month.

“The water comes up to the danger level. Up to here,” Mohd Izwan said, pointing at the wooden floorboards of a river mouth platform, about a metre above the low tide mark on the beach.

“This is normal now. The sea is getting higher,” he said.

Aminah Minal, who catches fish for a living, said some islands near here could no longer be reached by foot during low tide.

“When I was younger, we could swim to Sialu Island easily but now, we have to take a boat,” the 51-year-old said of the island which is just over a kilometre away from the main shoreline.

She added that even without rain, the sea would bring floods up to people’s homes, forcing many to move further inland for safety.

Coming in from his boat, her husband Paiman Zainal, 55, agreed, saying fishermen were finding it difficult to read sea conditions these days.

“It is rising in a very sudden way. Not just that; the winds have also changed with the seasons and floods coming earlier than before.

“We can’t even tell when the winds are going to come,” he said, shaking his head.

Kampung Lapangan Terbang village chief Mohd Mian, 46, said the sea swamped about 20 to 30ha of coconut plantations here a few years back.

A coastal barrier has since been put up there.

“This never happened before. The sea hasn’t reached our village yet but I don’t know what would happen if that stone wall wasn’t there,” he said.

Kampung Segenting fisherman Tan Kee Chye, 35, said people here were not worried about the rising sea level although it was about 15cm higher than it was some 20 years ago.

“Even if it goes up by another 15cm, we’re not scared,” he said, looking at the concrete foundations that supported his village.

He also said that his village was on ground that was higher than the other areas.

“If the water comes up to us, then all of Batu Pahat will be gone,” he said with a laugh.

‘East coast to experience more sea-related issues’
The Star 4 Feb 15;

PETALING JAYA: The east coast of Peninsular Malaysia will experience more sea-related problems than the west coast due to the stronger waves there during the monsoon season, according to experts.

“Also, the east coast coastline is highly prone to erosion because it is mostly sandy beaches,” said Universiti Malaysia Terengganu’s Dr Edlic Sathiamurthy.

He said higher sea levels would also mean higher high tides.

“A 50cm rise would be serious when we take into account its effect on tidal range and wave energy,” he said.

And as the high tides grew higher, he said, this would in turn result in more flooding and greater coastal erosion.

The west coast on the other hand faced weaker storms and waves and was naturally protected due to its geographical position and mangrove areas, said National University of Malaysia’s Prof Dr Joy Jacqueline Pereira.

However, Prof Pereira said more places could be flooded whenever there was a new moon phenomenon, which was when the moon was closest to the Earth and caused higher high tides.

“If the sea level was to go higher and there’s a new moon phenomenon, we can expect more areas to be inundated,” she said.

This was noted as one of the factors that led to the massive flooding on the east coast of the peninsula recently.

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Malaysia: Recent flooding is not likely to affect insurers - Fitch Ratings

New Straits Times 3 Feb 15;

KUALA LUMPUR: The recent heavy flooding in Malaysia is not expected to affect the country's insurers or excessively strain their financial performance, says Fitch Ratings.

“The Malaysian insurance industry maintains a strong level of capitalisation, and existing capital buffers should be sufficient to cushion any losses without having a significant credit impact,”said Thomas Ng, its insurance analyst

The government has estimated that direct flood losses in the five affected states could total up to RM2 billion (US$560million).

However, the economic losses associated with the natural disaster are likely to be much higher than the insured losses.

“This will be due in part to the low insurance penetration rate in Malaysia and the areas affected in particular.”

The non-life insurance penetration rate was around 1.7 per cent in 2013, according to Swiss Re, and is likely to be even lower in the suburban districts which were most significantly damaged.

“Flood damages are not automatically covered in standard comprehensive motor and fire insurance policies in Malaysia, which should also lower the potential insured losses.“

Flood claims are still ongoing, and there is still scope for brokers and adjusters to upwardly adjust loss figures -- considering the significant damage to public infrastructure and economic activity in East Coast states including the key rubber, oil palm and agriculture sectors.

Ng said credit impact is low as history indicates that such claims from seasonal floods are likely to be manageable for the industry.

Furthermore, Fitch expects insurers have purchased reinsurance coverage to protect themselves against adverse catastrophe losses.

“More importantly, Malaysian insurers are protected by a regulatory capital adequacy ratio of about 250 per cent as of end-June 2014, which is almost double the regulatory minimum required of 130 per cent.

“Notably, insurers tend to maintain risk-based capital ratios in excess of internal target capital levels.”

The sector's strong capital levels are an important factor in positioning for relatively robust growth.

He said the prospects for premium growth remain relatively strong, underpinned by low penetration rates, a growing middle class and heightened insurance awareness in areas with faster urbanisation.

“As the sector grows, insurers will need to enhance their risk management practices and modelling to better assess natural disaster risks, as underscored by the recent flooding.“

Growing urbanisation and weather uncertainty related to climate change is likely to raise the risks to insurers from flooding over the medium and long term.

According to the rating agency, detailed mapping of flood-prone zones, and better assessment of the probabilities and impact from meteorological data, will help insurers to price flood risk better, provide flood coverage and mitigate adverse flood losses.

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Indonesia: Conservationists v chainsaws -- the RSPB's battle to save the Harapan rainforest

In 2007 an RSPB-led group bought up a series of logged-out Indonesian forests to bring them back from the brink. But in a country that’s losing trees faster than any other and where farmers are desperate for land, it’s an uphill effort
Colm O'Molloy The Guardian 3 Feb 15;

Brad Sanders, an American forestry manager in Jambi province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, stood with members of his Harapan rainforest team, sharpening bamboo poles in anticipation of an attack.

A stout, elderly ex-military officer who worked as a camp security guard asked Sanders’ advice on that morning in October 2012. “What should we do if they come into the camp and try to hurt us? Try to swing their machetes or shoot us, pak [sir]?”

Sanders responded that they should stand behind the line of police who had made the day’s drive from the provincial capital, the people with guns and uniforms. “But pak,” the guard said, “they will be the first to run.”

Indonesia is no stranger to conflict over its shrinking forests. But this fight does not involve the usual players. Harapan, a rainforest the size of greater London whose name means ‘hope’, is majority-owned and managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Founded by a group of Victorian women protesting the use of rare bird feathers in ladies hats, this household name in British conservation now defends endangered habitats across Europe and further afield in both Indonesia and Sierra Leone.

Harapan came about in 2007 after an RSPB-led group decided to buy up a series of logged-out forests. Their mission: to bring Sumatra’s last dry lowland rainforest back from the brink.

Harapan is damaged, but still very much alive. An estimated 30 Sumatran tigers live here. There are only 300 left in the wild. The forest is home to over 260 species of birds, many of them endangered. RSPB hidden cameras, intended to study tigers, have even photographed little-known tribes hunting deep in the jungle.

But in recent years, Harapan has become mired in conflicts with migrant farmers. Satellite data shows that since 2007, Harapan has lost at least four times as much forest as it has replanted with trees. By early 2012, increasingly organised groups were cutting into the forest at a rate of one square mile per month. In 2013, this slowed to a quarter square mile per month, due to enforcement efforts and high rainfall which makes land clearance difficult.

There is a lot at stake at Harapan. Indonesia, one of the world’s great rainforest nations, is losing trees at a rate faster than any other country. Half its forests disappeared between 1985 and 2007, eaten up by the ever-expanding palm and acacia plantations that feed global demand for palm oil and paper.

But in Southeast Asia’s largest economy the hunger for forests reaches far beyond big business. Unprecedented growth has brought increased competition for land. Up to 50 million landless farmers vie with corporate giants and conservation projects alike for ever scarcer forests and the fertile earth they shelter.

Powerful companies control around 70% of Indonesia’s agricultural land and forests. National parks and forests earmarked for conservation make up most of the rest. Little remains for small-scale farmers.

Migrant farmers from overcrowded Java cut trees and set fires to clear land for cash crops like palm, rubber and rice. This brings them into inevitable conflict with forest managers.

Many of these migrants have been in Sumatra for generations. Up to 15 million of them were coaxed from overcrowded Java during the administration of president Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for 31 years after seizing power in a 1966 coup.

But many more are newcomers. Ruthless frontiersmen and well-connected local speculators lure them with the promise of cheap land, selling bogus land rights in poorly guarded forests and plantations. Since 2000, the number of settler families living within Harapan’s boundaries has grown from 12 to 3,000.

The week before Sanders and his team were standing guard at the Harapan camp, police had arrested 11 settlers within the forest. They claimed to be members of Serikat Petani Indonesia (SPI), a national movement of landless farmers and member of the global peasant movement, Vía Campesina.

The arrests took place at an SPI settlement within the forest known as Sei Jerat, located less than 32km (20 miles) along rough muddy trails from the Harapan camp. Police heard the sound of chainsaws, caught a group of men cutting deeper into the forest, and packed them off to a jail in Jambi.

Shortly afterwards, police sent word that settlers planned to retaliate for the arrests with an attack on Harapan’s headquarters. It was the latest escalation in the fight for Harapan and the reason why Sanders and his men were keeping watch that October morning.

But the threatened assault never came. Faced with the possibility of conflict, police released the prisoners on the eve of the promised attack, along with their chainsaws. The 40 officers that had gathered to defend the camp went home.

Harapan employs around 60 unarmed forest guards at any given time. They use satellite imagery, analysed 7,000 miles away by a Dutch company called SARvision, to track changes to the forest from month to month. Using this intelligence, teams of forest guards investigate the changes on the ground. More often than not, it is farmers cutting down trees and setting fires to clear land for crops.

But despite their technological edge, Harapan has been unable to keep the encroachment at bay. Forest police seldom move to enforce forest law in Harapan. It is easy to understand why.

In April 2012, a group of farmers kidnapped two Harapan guards and held them overnight. They demanded the release of six men arrested for cutting down trees the day before. Police gave in to the demands and released the six men, along with their confiscated chainsaws. The two Harapan guards were released. This set a precedent that would determine the outcome to subsequent standoffs within the forest.

Tensions within Harapan reached their peak in December 2012. Forest police moved in to destroy houses built by SPI affiliated farmers within the forest. A house owned by an influential local SPI leader known as Sukiran was set alight and burned to the ground. Police withdrew when a crowd of 300 or so men confronted them with knives, machetes and wooden clubs.

Three months after the standoff that October morning, a handful of paramilitary police officers, known as BRIMOB, sat around on metal cots at a Harapan guard post. They wore t-shirts and camouflage basketball vests with pictures of commandos in body armour and slogans in English that read ‘terrorist buster’ and ‘Indonesian Special Police.’ They stood and slung their automatic rifles as Sanders arrived for a visit.

Their guard post was a makeshift pondok, or wooden house, surrounded by a five-foot deep moat with crisscross lines of barbed wire at the bottom. A list of previous groups of officers to rotate through the post was scrawled in black paint on the outside of the house. In the middle distance, across barricades and a stretch of tree stumps and charred scrub, pale yellow SPI flags flew against a blue-gray sky over the settlement at Sei Jerat.

Sei Jerat is reached by motorbike along rough winding trails through vast areas of cleared forest. There, one morning in late December 2012, the farmer known as Sukiran sat in front of a small wooden house with a tin roof. He drank hot sweet tea with a group of SPI lieutenants as his wife prepared food inside.

“We are going to stand” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “If Harapan once again tries to remove us, we will fight. We have nowhere to go. This is where we belong.”

Six months later, on July 4th 2013, Sukiran was arrested and imprisoned in connection with the kidnappings that took place in April 2012.

Negotiations with some settler communities living within the forest have the potential to bear fruit. Harapan recently proposed a ‘collaboration zone’ made up of the forest’s most encroached areas. Under the plan, settlers could remain for an agreed period in return for a 30% share of proceeds from the sale of their crops. They would also have to move towards livelihoods that don’t harm the forest.

Tim Stowe, the RSPB’s international director, said in a statement: “There are few conservation issues as vital or as challenging as safeguarding rainforests. Harapan rainforest in Sumatra accounts for a quarter of this type of forest left in the world. Thankfully, the situation has moved on considerably since 2012 and the rate of illegal encroachment has slowed.

“But across Indonesia and, indeed, across the tropics, clearance is still a massive issue threatening these great forests’ future. Given this imperative, the RSPB is proud to work with our BirdLife International partners to conserve one of the world’s richest wildlife habitats.”

Over time, Harapan aims to become the leading centre of knowledge on how to bring damaged forest ecosystems back to health. Tropical rainforests develop over thousands of years. It is not yet known how long it takes to fully restore a damaged rainforest to health, or if it is possible at all.

There is little doubt that the forests that make up Harapan would have been completely destroyed by now was it not for the efforts of the RSPB and its partners to protect and restore them.

Despite ongoing losses to encroachment, Harapan still has a relatively large percentage of forest cover within its boundaries. Much of the surrounding forests have been completely decimated and replaced by palm plantations.

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Vietnam: Upstream dams blamed for shrinking Mekong Delta

Chi Nhan Thanh Nien News 3 Feb 15;

HO CHI MINH CITY - Vietnam may lose 40 percent of the Mekong Delta to rising sea levels in the next century, officials and experts said during a conference held Monday and Tuesday in Ho Chi Minh City.

Those losses could be even worse if nations along the river continue to aggressively pursue plans to dam the river.

“There has never been a time when the Mekong Delta faces so many challenges, including the negative impacts of climate change and sea level rise, as well as pressure from unsustainable socio-economic development,” Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Nguyen Minh Quang said at the Mekong Delta Forum.

“The future is uncertain… We need a roadmap with different scenarios for the region’s development, including projections on the possible impact of climate change and upstream development plan," he said.

Professor Dao Xuan Hoc of the Water Resources University also said that human interventions to the flow of the Mekong River are taking their toll.

“Vietnam's downstream communities have already suffered from damage caused by salinization and erosion brought on by upstream dams,” he said at Monday's conference in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Mekong River, which is second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity, flows for over 4,800 km (3,045 miles) through six countries, and supports over 80 million people.

China has built seven dams along the upstream Mekong and has planned or is building 20 others.

Laos and Cambodia have plans for another 11, including the US$3.8-billion Xayaburi, which Laos began building in 2012.

During the recent forum, Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai underscored the delta's importance to the development of the whole of southern Vietnam and the country as a whole.

“The Mekong Delta supports 27 percent of Vietnam's GDP, 90 percent of its rice exports and 60 percent of fishery exports. However, the region is facing enormous challenges related to water resources, salinization and other negative impacts of climate change.”

Experts have warned that climate change could raise temperature by 2-3 degrees Celsius and sea level by one meter in Vietnam by the year 2100.

In addition to the loss of nearly half the Mekong Delta, experts predict warn that climate change could permanently reclaim 11 percent of the Red River Delta and 20 percent of Ho Chi Minh City.

Victoria Kwakwa, the World Bank Country Director to Vietnam, stressed the importance of specific concrete actions, including strengthening coordination among local agencies and authorities in the Mekong Delta.

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World’s governments are failing on protected areas for nature

IUCN 3 Feb 15;

A new study has found that while governments are making progress in expanding Protected Area networks, these are failing to provide adequate coverage for nature.

In 2010, the world’s governments committed to conserving 17% of land and 10% of sea by 2020, particularly those places of particular importance for nature. With five years to go to achieve this target, new research by 40 authors from 26 institutions led by IUCN member BirdLife International shows that the current Protected Areas system is still failing to cover all key sites, species and ecosystems.

“We carried out the most comprehensive analysis to date of how well Protected Areas cover nature. We analysed nearly 12,000 important sites, over 1,000 terrestrial and marine ecological regions and over 25,000 species of animals and plants, including the first assessment for marine species,” said Dr Stuart Butchart, BirdLife International’s Head of Science and lead author of the paper. “The analysis also revealed that only one-fifth of key sites for nature are completely covered by protected areas, with one-third lacking any protection.”

Furthermore, less than half of mammals, amphibians, mangroves and various marine groups have a sufficient proportion of their distributions covered by the current Protected Area network to be adequately conserved. Threatened species in these groups, plus birds and corals, are even less well covered. Achieving adequate coverage of nature to meet globally adopted targets would require twice the area of land as found in the current global Protected Area network.

“Challengingly, the largest increases in land needing to be set aside for conservation are located in poorer countries of the world, which makes considerations of the benefits from conservation especially relevant,” said co-author Dr Neil Burgess, Head of Science at the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

“Achieving this level of growth in protected lands and seas will require greater recognition and increased establishment of indigenous and community-conserved areas, private reserves, land trusts, and sustainably managed areas that provide conservation outcomes,” said Dr Thomas Brooks, Head of Science and Knowledge at IUCN.

“This study should be a wake-up call to governments and other conservationists across the world. Meeting the target will require accelerated recognition and designation of effective conservation areas that are much better targeted towards important sites for nature,” said Dr Stuart Butchart.

The paper, Shortfalls and Solutions for Meeting National and Global Conservation Area Targets, was published in the journal Conservation Letters and is freely available here:

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India looks set to harvest bumper wheat crop in 2015

Mayank Bhardwaj Reuters Yahoo News 3 Feb 15;

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India looks likely to harvest a bumper wheat crop this year, its eighth in a row to exceed demand, possibly encouraging the government to allow exports from overflowing grain bins.

A slow start to the planting season and a less than expected rise in the price at which the government will buy new-season wheat from farmers had raised some apprehension about a drop in output.

But as the weather turned favourable, planting gradually picked up the usual pace.

"Every single trend suggests that we are heading for a harvest as big as last year," Indu Sharma, chief of the state-run Directorate of Wheat Research, told Reuters.

But Sharma and her colleagues are keeping an eye out for any sudden rise in temperatures in February and March, as dry weather could damage the crop.

The crop has to now been unscathed apart from some minor fungus which was "highly localised", Sharma said.

Indian farmers grow only one wheat crop a year. Planting starts in October, with harvests from April. Wheat acreage hovers between 29 million and 31 million hectares.

The area planted with wheat is 3 percent lower than the previous year, according to provisional data from the farm ministry which updates its numbers as it gathers more information.

The reduction in area was "marginal and well within the range", said Farm Commissioner J.S. Sandhu, who oversees crop planting.

"The last few spells of rains, intermittent fog followed by sunshine and no large-scale pest infestation indicate a big crop size, at least as big as the 2014 harvest," Sandhu said.

In 2014, India, the world’s biggest wheat producer after China, harvested a record 95.91 million tonnes, bumping up stocks to three times the target.

To make room for the new harvest, the government could allow exports.

But trade experts say India has narrowly missed an opportunity to export wheat as global prices have again nosed down and rival European supplies have become cheaper.

Benchmark prices in Chicago (WH5) on Monday hit a four-month low of $4.92-1/4 a bushel.

"The price dynamics changed swiftly and India failed to take a quick call on exports. Now French wheat is available at $210-$215, (free on board) against Indian wheat which is priced at $275 a tonne," said Tajinder Narang, a New Delhi-based trade analyst who advises many big global traders.

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Birth control access key means of reaching climate goals: experts

Laurie Goering PlanetArk 4 Feb 15;

In Pakistan, where just a third of married women use contraception, half of all pregnancies - 4.2 million each year - are unintended, according to the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau.

At the same time, the rising population in Pakistan - and elsewhere around the world - is creating more climate-changing emissions and putting more people in the path of extreme weather, food and water shortages, and other climate change pressures.

That suggests that giving more women who want it access to birth control to limit their family size - in both rich and poor countries - could be a hugely effective way to curb climate change and to build greater resilience to its impacts, according to population and climate change researchers and policy experts.

"We're not talking about population control. We're talking about giving people the choice to limit their family size and all the good things that go on from that" such as better health and education, said Baroness Jennny Tonge, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, during an event at the UK Parliament Monday on linking population and climate issues.

Bringing together two politically contentious concerns - climate change and managing population growth - in an effort to build effective policy has been far from easy.

"They're both sensitive and it's difficult to make headway on either, much less both together," admitted Jason Bremner, a demographer and associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau.

Still, an international coalition of experts on climate change, family planning and development aid are now pushing for universal access to family planning to be recognized as a part of "climate-compatible development" and included in new U.N.-backed Sustainable Development Goals set to be agreed in September.

Some countries, such as Ethiopia, already have included family planning among the activities they want to undertake on climate change, using international climate finance, according to an analysis by the London-based Population and Sustainability Network.

"They themselves identified population as a factor making it more difficult for them to adapt. We in the north are worried about, 'Is it fair to make this connection?' when people in the south are already making it," said Karen Newman, coordinator of the network.

Population growth has an impact on climate-related pressures as diverse as land availability, access to water, deforestation and migration, which often occurs "to coastal areas where vulnerability to climate change is very high", said Newman, a sexual and reproductive health and rights expert.

Family planning could potentially find a funding source in the Green Climate Fund, which was established as part of U.N.-led climate talks and which will later this year and early next begin its first distributions of about $10 billion in funds donated to help poor countries adapt to climate change impacts or adopt a lower-emission development path.

Money is key because "we can make all the policies in the world but if there isn't financing for both (climate change and birth control), neither are going to get any better", Bremner said.

But he admitted he had "not a lot" of confidence family planning projects would be supported by the climate fund, which faces a huge range of demands on its resources.

(Editing by Tim Pearce)

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