Heart of Borneo

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Brunei has offered to host, manage and run the regional centre for the Heart of Borneo programme. The proposal was made on July 24 during the first tri-lateral meeting for the project. In so doing, Brunei has shown a further commitment to the conservation agreement signed this past February by officials from Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

The Heart of Borneo (HoB) initiative is a conservation and sustainable development project that covers almost one third of the island of Borneo, which is shared by these three countries. Aside from the centre, Brunei's contribution includes 58% of the 220,000 sq km of equatorial rainforest that will make up the conservation area.

Considered to be one of the world's key centres of biological diversity, the HoB is home to a long list of different primate, bird, reptile and plant life. Scientists are frequently discovering new species. In 2006 alone, over 50 discoveries were made, underlining the need to protect this area. Even so, it has been faced with forest fires and the building of large plantations, which require large numbers of trees to be cut down.

Following the signing of the accord, the three governments are now in the process of generating national plans for implementation, which are expected to address trans-boundary issues such as tourism promotion and forest management.

The Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam announced during his birthday celebrations in mid-July that he hoped the initiative would become a catalyst for tourism co-operation, including transportation, immigration, marketing and investment. He said the HoB would set a good example for other countries to follow in their efforts to conserve tropical rainforests.

According to the Brunei tourism board, visitor numbers to the small country reached 120,000 in 2005, 160,000 in 2006 and are expected to hit 200,000 this year. The top attraction, officials from the tourism board said, is the rainforest.

Sheikh Jamaluddin, CEO of the Brunei Tourism Board, said that "by being fully involved in the Heart of Borneo programme, we can showcase [...] our pristine rainforest - a destination that still has a truly untouched land area".

Brunei's deputy minister of industry and primary resources, Dato Paduka Hj Hamdillah, told OBG, "To be successful, the initiative must be based upon practical steps that will maintain the largely forested HoB landscape for the conservation of its biodiversity, for the economic and social benefit of the communities that live in the area and for the broader benefits" for the communities and countries in the region.

The declaration will have a great impact on the countries involved. The HoB ends a Chinese company's plans to create a large palm oil plantation that would have cleared a large portion of the rainforest along Indonesia's border with Malaysia. In addition, the initiative is expected to open up economic activities and opportunities for local communities. According to the ministry of industry and primary resources, an estimated $2m will be needed each year to generate business opportunities for local communities under the HoB banner.

The government of Brunei is using the agreement as an opportunity to call for a more effective response to the challenge of potential natural disasters, which other countries in the region have experienced. The primary concerns are ensuring proper land use and infrastructure planning, which could help in managing the impact of such an event.

The Heart of Borneo initiative falls in line with the national policies of the three countries, which address issues unique to each. Through the programme, Malaysia will likely focus on eradicating the poverty mostly prevalent in central Sabah and Sarawak. Indonesia will work on reducing the severe haze in Kalimantan that occurs as a result of deforestation. The initiative could mean Brunei is able to preserve the Belait river basin, which supplies fresh, clean water to the oil and gas industry.

Of particular importance to Brunei, which is almost entirely surrounded by Malaysia, is improving border security and halting illegal logging, which takes place near its border. Hamdillah told OBG, "The Heart of Borneo initiative is about resolving trans-boundary issues such as illegal logging but of course we can't conquer this issue without Malaysia and Indonesia working with us." Through the collaboration established by the HoB initiative, the government of Brunei is hoping to establish a buffer zone along its boundary with Sarawak, Malaysia, in order to monitor the situation more effectively.

Officials from the three countries have agreed to prepare project plans specific to each country to be used in forming a framework for developing and implementing the conservation initiative.

Brunei is expected to deliver its national implementation plan by the end of the year, following two periods in which stakeholders will be encouraged to offer comments and suggestions. The plan is expected to lay out the details of Brunei's contribution to the initiative. The project implementation framework task force led by environmental advisors, ERE Consulting Group, is due to submit a interim report in September and the final report will be delivered to the steering committee in November.

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