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 peat lands 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 peat lands 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 wild orangutans, listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as Endangered. 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).
We established the Tuanan Research Project in the Mawas area in 2003 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). Dr. Erin Vogel was a postdoctoral fellow working with Dr. van Schaik at the time and was an integral part of this collaboration. As part of this collaboration, UNAS, BOSF, and the University of Zurich created the Tuanan Biological Field Station project. Dr. Vogel continued to work together with UNAS and Zurich to promote training of Indonesian and international biology students working on their thesis projects at Tuanan, but at a small scale.
In June 2011, Dr. Vogel was hired as an Assistant Professor at Rutgers. At her initiative, an MOU was signed between UNAS and Rutgers to establish a program of scholarly exchange, specifically, between the Department of Biology at UNAS in Indonesia 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 swamp 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.
There are three major issues that contribute to this shortage of opportunities for Indonesian scientists. First, funding for research and education is extremely limited in Indonesia. In 2011, the government of Indonesia spent less than 1% of their total budget on research. Students who wish to pursue advanced undergraduate, master’s, or doctoral degrees in the biological sciences within the Indonesian university system require financial support for research, living expenses, and tuition.
These funds are not readily available and thus the majority of students do not have the opportunity to pursue careers in the biological sciences without the support from foreign researchers. Second, in general, research capacity in Indonesia is limited which results partially from a lack of opportunity for Indonesian faculty to obtain high-level scientific training. Indonesian faculty are faced with intense teaching loads, extremely limited research funding, and few resources that are pertinent to writing grant proposals and scientific papers (e.g. few journal subscriptions to conduct literature searches). Thus, the opportunities that Indonesian faculty can provide for their students are limited.
This leads to these students being less competitive for international scientific training and research opportunities, further prolonging this cycle. Finally, while several excellent research facilities that are equipped with advanced equipment for hormone, genetic, and nutritional analyses exist in Indonesia (Bogor Agricultural University, Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI)), students lack opportunities and funding for training in these laboratories. Thus, Indonesian students would benefit from the opportunity to train in foreign laboratories in advanced techniques that they can bring back to their scientific community within Indonesia. In addition, some techniques (e.g. stable isotope analyses) are not currently available in Indonesia. Training in these areas would facilitate the establishment of such facilities within Indonesia in the future.
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. Our goals mirror those of USAID: to “increase the quality of education, both basic and tertiary” and to “deepen the scientific base of knowledge of issues that Indonesia is geographically and historically situated to lead.” USAID funds would provide the opportunity for underprivileged Indonesian undergraduate, master’s, doctoral, and post-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.
History – proHABITAT