The primary forests have long gone from the surroundings of Teluk Bakung village on the outskirts of Pontianak, the capital of Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province. This was evident when I arrived in the region in late November 2016, as part of a field visit. We saw how most villagers have abandoned the difficult peatlands agriculture to work on large oil palm plantations and their own oil palm fields. Others have opted to invest in lucrative edible bird nest production. But they do so against a backdrop of confusing land-use management: forest estate and administrative boundary demarcation is incomplete, and community interest groups and authorities debate over the historical allocation of plantation concessions. Public data sets show a wide variety of land and forest uses in the area, including reserves. But in reality, virtually all of the land is increasingly being devoted to oil palm production.
Last week, the Telegraph newspaper in the United Kingdom reported that snow in the Himalayas was melting because of religious activity on the Indian subcontinent. The report, based on research by American and Indian scientists, found that burning of wood for cremations and incense sticks for religious ceremonies and marriages leads to emissions of black carbon and other compounds. This, in turn, accelerates the melting of ice and snow-covered surfaces.
There is a growing body of research looking at how black carbon is accelerating snow and glacial melting. A scientific paper published in India early this year associated forest fires and other biomass burning to the accelerated melting of one of the Himalayan glaciers. Scientists have even implicated black carbon emission from increased industrial activity in Europe for the retreat of glaciers in the Alps in the mid-19th century.
Last weekend a small group of us decided to drive the 8 hours or so to the Khonin Nuga (pronounced Honing Nuk) research station, northwest of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. We had a standing invitation to visit the site for years from Professor Michael Mühlenberg of Georg-August University in Göttingen, Germany, and Professor R. Samiya of National University, Ulaanbaatar – who together run the station. The route took us through the town of Zuun Kharaa, the vodka-producing capital of Mongolia, and off towards the dark-green forested mountains of the western Khentii. We saw Mongolia’s largest bird, the Black Vulture, and also the respected and graceful Demoiselle Cranes picking up grasshoppers among the wind-blown solid waste around the town. We were going to spend the night in the research station, discuss with Prof. Mühlenberg the possibility of using the site as a training center within the forest landscapes project we are preparing, and find time to explore the taiga forest and steppe by horse. And then we were going to do the bumpy ride home again.
Instead, we found ourselves facing a major forest fire. (Continue reading after the jump)