In northeastern Borneo, 18,500 hectares of rainforest that were previously damaged by fires and intensive logging are currently recovering. The restoration has been carried out in various ways depending on the level of damage, ranging from natural regeneration to the planting of a diverse range of local tree species to mimic the original forest's structure and biodiversity.
”From a research perspective, this project is unique. We can track how the ecosystem recovers over time and compare everything from carbon storage and biodiversity to economic and cultural values. We also compare it with both undisturbed rainforest and other types of land use, such as oil palm and eucalyptus plantations," says Ulrik Ilstedt, a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) who leads the research.
The project began in 1998, and the restoration was carried out by the local governmental organization Yayasan Sabah with funding from IKEA. Researchers from SLU, together with colleagues from Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), Australia, and the USA, have scientifically evaluated the measures and their effects.
A living laboratory for rainforest restoration
The restoration is now complete, and the organization is transitioning into a research station – a living laboratory for rainforest restoration. Infrastructure and knowledge are in place, including well-trained staff with expertise in species identification and fieldwork in research. There is also a nursery and several ongoing field experiments.
“Now we want even more people to benefit from this – both locally and globally. We want to open more opportunities for research and for more people to use the knowledge we have gained over these 25 years," says Ulrik Ilstedt.
Following a restored rainforest over such a long period is unique. Most restoration projects are evaluated only after three or four years, if ever. In this project, many of the results have emerged only in recent years, after more than 20 years.
“The planted trees reach their greatest growth and function only after 20 years, but it may take another 20 years before the forest is entirely similar to the original, despite the restoration happening much faster," says Ulrik Ilstedt.