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Report on International Conference on Wetland Forest, Brunei


The International Conference on Wetland Forest recently held in Brunei looked into various issues regarding the wetlands and came up with recommendations. 


International conference promotes wetland forest conservation in Brunei, region

Bandar Seri Begawan, Negara Brunei Darussalam - The International Conference on Wetland Forests held in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam from 21-23 March 2012 was attended by more than 150 participants from over 10 countries. The meeting produced a set of recommendations promoting wetland conservation throughout the region especially for Brunei. The Brunei government was urged to join the Ramsar Convention, the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership and invited to become a member of Wetlands International.
At the meeting concepts and problems were discussed, such as ecosystem services and its values to human society, land-use impacts on wetlands, peatland degradation, the importance of mangrove forest and their conservation.
One of the many conclusions is that the excellent state of Brunei’s peat, freshwater and mangrove swamp forests stands out in the region.  This provides opportunities for sustainable development options in various economic sectors, including the emerging international carbon trade. They also provide an interesting site for international research in terms of genetic and species biodiversity.
Need for strengthened regional and international collaboration
The need for strengthened regional and international collaboration was stressed throughout the conference, including calls for Brunei Darussalam to join the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar 1971), the East Asia Australasian Flyway Partnership and to become a member of Wetlands International. In addition, the conference called for greater collaboration and information flow between the economic, finance, corporate, science, conservation and policy sectors. 
It was proposed that Brunei Darussalam could play a key role in the ASEAN region (such as through the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy) having some of the best remaining examples of primary peat swamp forests which provides an excellent opportunity for intact peat dome studies on all aspects of ecology, hydrology, biodiversity, soil sciences and carbon flux, as well as the range of benefits that can be derived from sustainably managed peatorests for people and the environment.
Ecosystem services and values
Participants learned about the concept of ecosystem services and their values to human society. They learned about the legal framework for wetland forest protection in Brunei Darussalam, and the interest of the country to identify and develop green economy opportunities. The Heart of Borneo initiative provides a very important framework for conserving the biodiversity values of the region’s wetland forests.
Land-use impacts
The meeting heard about the significant land use changes that have happened throughout Southeast Asia and their impacts on the wetland forest ecosystems, including mangroves, peat swamp forests and riparian and freshwater swamp forests. While on the one hand the conversion and degradation of these valuable systems is continuing - there is an increasing awareness of their values and the need for sustainable management, evidenced by many pilot studies on wetland forest management and the growing number of rehabilitation studies and projects. 
These have shown that it is not very easy to re-establish the original forests, and rehabilitation requires significant investment, research and trials.  A compounding factor is that the re-establishment of appropriate conditions for regrowth of forests as well as propagation, natural dispersal and planting of indigenous species for rehabilitation is often very difficult. In all cases it is always better to prevent the degradation in the first place and ensure that the remaining wetland forests are protected and not subjected to short-term development pressures.
Importance of mangrove forests
egarding mangrove swamp forest values, their great importance as a breeding and nursery area for fish was stressed, providing the resource base for the important fisheries in the region. Many other values and uses have been mentioned, including their importance as a carbon store (Blue Carbon) and their value in disaster risk reduction and coastal protection against storms, tsunamis and erosion. A key example of long-term sustainable management is provided by the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve in Malaysia, where charcoal has been produced for over a century, involving a well-planned rotation system and standard procedures and investments in forest regeneration.  In Indonesia, sustainable coastal development and conservation has been promoted through a Green Coast development approach. This involves shifting of coastal settlements inland for improved security, development and maintaining of a Green Belt of productive mangroves and restoration of unproductive aquaculture ponds using silvo-fisheries techniques. Some of these projects have already attracted international carbon financing.  
The mangrove-mudflat habitat provides key feeding and staging areas for migratory waterbirds that annually fulfill the amazing phenomenon of migration from as far as Alaska and the Russian Far East through South-east Asia to Australia and New Zealand. This puts a responsibility on the countries in these flyways to cooperate on the protection of these key areas.
Involvement of local communities and stakeholders
A key element for success of rehabilitation and sustainable management projects is the involvement of local communities and stakeholders. An example is the Bio-rights approach which involves the provision of interest-free micro-credits to local communities who, in return, are required to contribute community activities for environmental management, conservation and/or rehabilitation.
Status and degradation of peatlands in Southeast Asia
Regarding peat swamp forests, serious concerns were raised on their status and degradation in Southeast Asia. The wide spread conversion and drainage of peat swamp forests has led to some of the largest environmental problems that this region is experiencing, including regular and massive peat fires that cause huge transboundary smoke haze clouds which impact public health and many economic sectors. In some years economic losses linked to these fires have reached over 10 billion dollars.  
The meeting learned, however, that the worst may still be to come. Subsidence of drained peatlands through compaction and peat carbon oxidation will in many cases be to levels at which further gravity drainage becomes impossible. This impact is inevitable and a matter of decades - not centuries as is sometimes claimed. This means that agricultural drainage on most tropical peatlands is therefore fundamentally unsustainable, as pump drainage is not economically feasible due to high rainfall in the region. Current land-uses, including extensive peat land areas occupied by oil palm and pulp wood plantations, may thus lead in the next 25-50 years to major and extensive flooding or land loss along major coastal stretches and thus to significant social and economic impacts in many coastal areas of the South-east Asian region.  
In this regard the excellent state of Brunei’s peat, freshwater and mangrove swamp forests stands out and augurs well for sustainable development options in various economic sectors, including the emerging international carbon trade. They also provide an interesting site for international research in terms of genetic and species biodiversity.
Much information was exchanged by the conference participants on the urgent needs as well as options for landscape-scale restoration measures in order to safeguard the peatland carbon store, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and protect or reinstate other valuable ecosystem services. The focus of restoration studies should be on the rehabilitation of hydrology, reinstatement of forest cover, fire control and the full involvement of local communities at every stage in the process. Rehabilitation involves the restoration of both social as well as natural capital. The challenges are immense but so are the opportunities.
 Participants learned that there is overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change and that we may be facing much higher sea level rise than so far predicted, especially when the melting of land ice is taken into account. It is therefore essential to reduce emissions and recapture carbon from the atmosphere, and forest and peatland rehabilitation are very promising and cost effective measures to do this. In addition to existing and recently developed mechanisms such as REDD+ it is necessary to develop other options to support wetland rehabilitation and emission reduction as well as other financial mechanisms with the involvement of private sector.
About the conference
The conference was co-hosted by the Forestry Department of the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources of Brunei Darussalam and Wetlands International. The Conference started with the inspiring words of Yang Berbahagia Datuk Paduka (Dr) Ir. Hj. Keizrul Bin Abdullah from Wetlands International and Yang Berhormat Pehin Haji Yahya, Minister of Industry and Primary Resources, Brunei Darussalam. This was followed by a very creative and artful cultural event and an exhibition of beautiful pictures of wetland forests of Brunei Darussalam.
Recommendations from the conference:
Countries in Southeast Asia are encouraged to redouble their efforts to conserve and sustainably manage wetland resources in the region taking into account the following actions:
1.      Roles and values of wetland forests in relation to the global agenda
·                     Improve recognition of the full range of benefits that wetland forests provide for humankind through Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA)  activities for all relevant stakeholders
·                     Recognise in legislation the full breadth of ecosystem services delivered by wetland forests, including through the mechanism of strategic and environmental impact assessment
·                                 Improve quantification of the valuable provisioning, regulatory, support and cultural ecosystem services provided by wetland forests, using both economic and non-economic methodologies     Develop, support and implement conservation programmes for wetland forests, such as the biodiversity-focused Heart of Borneo and the Coral Triangle Initiatives and extend the scope of these programmes with projects that focus on other ecosystem services, such as the roles in the water cycle and mitigation of climate change.          Create awareness of the broad range of values that wetland forests provide;Establish institutional mechanisms to support on the ground measures for maintaining, enhancing and restoring the values of wetland forests through participation in and/or membership of international treaties, organisations, networks and programmes including:
-            the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands 
-            ASEAN Peatland Management Initiative
-            UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserves
-            the East-Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership
-            Wetlands International
2.      Opportunities in conserving wetland forest values
·                     Build capacity to ensure expertise is available to carry out measures to maintain, enhance and restore the values of wetland forests and ensure participation of local communities and civil society;
·                     Ensure sufficient funding is available for long-term conservation and rehabilitation of wetland forests. Consider a combination of market instruments, government funding, incorporation of conservation in government budget planning, carbon financing (mangroves and peat swamp), Corporate Social Responsibility programmes (CSR), ecotourism, payments for ecosystem services;
·                     Implement activities to maintain, enhance and restore the values of wetland forests
-          Restoration of physical conditions and hydrology
-          Reforestation (both natural regeneration and planting) using indigenous species
-          Research to develop effective planting and regeneration schemes
-          Ensure appropriate involvement of local communities and other stakeholders;
·                      Enhance targeted long-term research on wetlands in the region including the following top priorities:
-                      Undertake periodic assessments and inventories of wetlands and prepare regular status reports
-                      Assess further the nature, functioning and socio economic values and biodiversity
-                      Enhance understanding of wetland hydrology and impact of drainage and degradation
-                      Document best practices and approaches for wetland Management, rehabilitation and conservation
-                      Undertake studied of Carbon storage and emissions and climate change impacts on wetlands.
-                      Develop approaches for wetland management in relation to catchments and water resources
·                     Development on peat that requires or causes drainage should be avoided - in view of the many environmental consequences such as subsidence, flooding and greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity and the related long-term social and economic impacts.
3. Strengthening networking and collaboration
·         Collaboration between conservation, economic, financial, corporate, science and policy sectors (which all have an interest in or even depend on ecosystem services) needs to result in innovative and effective ways to achieve nature inclusive planning-, development- and management decision making.
·         Address current wetland management issues, including the following top priorities:
-                      Enhance fire prevention and control in peatlands
-                      Avoid conflicts over land use and different sector priorities by better stakeholder coordination and integrated management plans
-                      Provide guidance on appropriate methods for water management and infrastructure (e.g. roads, pipelines, housing, etc.) 
-                      The need for an ecosystem approach in the rehabilitation of degraded wetland forests 
-                      The opportunities for sustainable livelihoods related to wetland systems;
·         Develop integrated management plans for key wetland systems involving all relevant sectors, including:
-                      Establishment of appropriate planning or coordination mechanisms and allocation of necessary resources and mechanisms for implementation
-                      Integrate the views and needs of different sectors including the full range of government departments, research institutions, private sector bodies and local communities
-                      Identify and implement special mechanisms to resolve transboundary management issues;
·         Improve networking, collaboration and information exchange on key wetland issues at country and international levels including enhanced participation in existing national, regional and global mechanisms such as
o        the ASEAN Peatland Management Initiative and implementation of the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy
o        the Important Bird Area (IBA) and Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) programmes;
o        the Asian Waterbird Census. (AWC)
o        the site networks of the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership
In addition, some recommendations were formulated specifically for the consideration of Brunei Darussalam:
·         Brunei can both derive benefit from and contribute to international agreements, initiatives, networks and organizations in the field of wetland forest biodiversity and ecosystem conservation, with a link to Green Economy. It is therefore recommended that Brunei accede to the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar 1971), join the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership, become a member of Wetlands International and strengthen its action to implement the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy; in particular develop a National Action Plan on Peatlands (NAP);
·         Recognising the high quality of most of the wetlands in western Brunei and taking into account earlier and ongoing studies by local and international institutions - develop an integrated research, management and conservation program for the wetlands of Belait District/Belait river  catchment including:
o        Establishment by the Brunei government of an appropriate institutional mechanism to enable development and implementation of an integrated management plan;
o        Invite national and international collaboration to improve the understanding of the ecosystem functions and values and to address the current management concerns, especially related to fire, subsidence, peatland degradation and water resource management;
·         Noting that drainage, sand extraction and infrastructure development (including ongoing and planned road construction) are already impacting and will be further leading to peatland degradation and fires in the Badas peat dome, it is recommended that further sand extraction in the Badas dome (South of the bypass road) is restricted; further road development ceased and remaining forest protected. To prevent further degradation it is recommended to develop and implement an active fire prevention plan including avoidance of further drainage and restoration of the damaged sections of the dome, including hydrological restoration and reforestation.
·         The government of Brunei Darussalam is furthermore encouraged to:
o        Carry out economic valuation of its wetland forests
o        Develop appropriate wetland eco-tourism as a sustainable development alternative
o        Develop capacity for wetland management in all sectors relevant to the wise use of wetland forests of Brunei, involving training courses such as those arranged under the ASEAN Peatland Forest Project / ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy
o        Explore options for carbon financing for management of mangrove and peat swamp forests.
·         Request that the Government of Brunei Darussalam will bring the above recommendations to the attention of appropriate institutions and the countries in the ASEAN region.
The International Conference on Forest Wetlands was organized with financial support from the Brunei Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources, Wetlands International, Permian Global and Global Environment Center.

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