Long before climate change had become the hot issue it is today, British biogeographer Alfred Russel Wallace had foreseen the correlation between deforestation and environmental disaster.
In his book Island Life, published in 1881, he said deforestation in Sri Lanka and India “would adversely affect climate in those countries and lead to their eventual impoverishment due to soil erosion”.
Scientists attending the International Conference on Alfred Russel Wallace and Wallacea in the South Sulawesi capital city, Makassar, agreed that the same applied to Wallacea — a transitional region that sits between the Asian and Australian continental shelves.
The Wallacea region encompasses the islands of Nusa Tenggara (Lombok, Komodo, Flores and Sumba), Timor, Sulawesi, Halmahera and most of Maluku province.
The figures show that Wallace’s prediction was on target. A comprehensive conservation assessment of Sulawesi by The Nature Conservancy revealed that as of 2004, only about 20 percent of the lowland forests were in good condition, and less than 3 percent were in excellent old growth condition.
The assessment showed that for specialized habitat types such as alluvial forests, mangroves and wetlands, generally less than 5 percent remained in good condition.
According to Conservation International, Wallacea is home to more than 10,000 plant species, of which approximately 1,500 or 15 percent are endemic.
Not only does the terrestrial area have rich biodiversity of flora and fauna, but its marine area is famous for its coral reef and wide range of fish species.
Originally, most of Wallacea was forested; today, 45 percent retains some sort of forest cover, and only 15 percent can be described as being in a pristine state, or close to it.
Of Wallacea’s total area of 347,000 square kilometers, only about 20,000 square kilometers is protected. Wallacea is home to 82 threatened and six critically endangered species of terrestrial vertebrates.
Daniel Murdiyarso, senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Bogor, West Java, said that in addition to deforestation, Sulawesi had experienced changes in its land use with parts of the forest turned into oil palm plantations.
In 1998, there were 2.24 million hectares of oil palm plantations in Sulawesi — compared with 12,000 hectares recorded in 1985, he said.
Daniel said that the change in land use would affect the region faster than climate change would.
“Not only will change in land use create the gas emissions that increase climate change, but the change in land use will also change the ecosystem’s structure and function, and later change the habitat,” he said.
Daniel said the regional climate change model forecast showed that in the next 100 years, the temperature of the Wallacea region would increase by between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius and the area would become 25 percent drier.
“The temperature increase will have a significant effect on food and industrial plant productivity because the heat and drought will disrupt the growth process,” he said.
A similar view came from David Smith, director of the coral reef research unit at the University of Essex, in the United Kingdom, who said his research had recorded a decrease in the growth of coral in the past few years.
“The coral decrease affected the abundance of fishes as we found that nearly 80 percent of medium-size fish caught are young ones,” he said.
His research also showed there were several types of coral reef that managed to survive El Nino in 1998.
But if no immediate action is taken, he warned, the biodiversity of the region’s coral reef might be damaged.
“The protection of reefs within the region could help maintain reefs globally through the conservation of genetic diversity,” he said.
Scientists agreed that Wallacea was important to the world and therefore immediate conservation actions should be taken to ensure its sustainability.
Pieter Baas from Leiden University, the Netherlands, said the conservation steps should include forest conservation, sustainable logging, creation of ecotourism and the involvement of local people.
Daniel said the government should inform and improve the capacity of local people to help them deal with the impacts of climate change.
“Local people should learn safe ways to work the land. They should also learn to make added-value products and not only sell raw materials,” he said.
Jatna Supriatna, executive director of Conservation International Indonesia, said the local administrations in the Wallacea regions should be able to develop ecotourism attractions.
Meanwhile, Baas said the Indonesian government should prioritize the Wallacea region for research and conservation by fast-tracking the research permit procedure.
“In other countries, the permit for research only takes about one or two weeks,” he said.