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Earth's ecosystem on the verge of collapse

Since the 1980s, coconut planters in many villages in the Talaud Islands Regency, North Sulawesi are familiar with the use of pesticides to eradicate the sexava locust. This locust preys on coconut leaves and flowers in North Sulawesi and North Maluku, so viciously that pesticides must be sprayed from helicopters. Unfortunately, the locusts persisted but the poison-unresistant animals were eliminated instead, like the Red-and-blue Lory (Eos histrio talautensis), an endemic subspecies and one of sexava locust’s predators.

Until now, locusts survive and remain vicious even though the pesticide dose has been doubled and injected to holes drilled in coconut tree trunks[i] instead of spraying. All efforts are in vain and the locusts seem to be growing more resistance to pesticides. Like the fruit’s choice, the farmers are trapped in a difficult situation: not using pesticides will destroy crops, or using pesticides that contaminate produce.

In the remotes between South Sulawesi and Southeast Sulawesi, the ancient lakes Matano, Mahalona and Towuti are hidden. Being in the middle of nowhere does not close the undeniable fame of these three lakes. The waters are inhabited by freshwater biota that will not be found in other parts of the world, even in any rivers and lakes on the island of Sulawesi. Because of its aesthetics, many shrimp and fish species endemic to these three lakes are the target of freshwater aquarium hobbyists from all over the world. The water health in these three lakes is very dependent on the thick forests that cover the surrounding hills, both those with the status of conservation areas and protected forests.

In the villages surrounding the three lakes since the early decade of 2000’s, farmers of Sorowako District have started to grow pepper on their fields. The impressive results have others following in their footsteps, but not only the locals who are interested in planting. Outsiders, driven by the fantastic production and selling price, were involved in this spice investment.

Nuri talaud (Eos histrio talautensis). Foto: Burung Indonesia

This situation continued until they ran out of pepper growers, even though capital kept flowing in. Slowly but surely, the expansion of the plantations invaded the forest area. Many patches of forest around Lake Towuti have been turned into pepper gardens. Often, gardens are deliberately placed deep in the forest, out of sight, to avoid monitoring[ii]. Pepper invasion occurred not only in South Sulawesi, but also expanded beyond the Southeast Sulawesi’s borders. More and more forest areas are converted into spice-monoculture gardens. Forest damage was also exacerbated by logging which delivers logs to the many sawmills around the lakes.

The two cases above show local examples of the great crisis that is currently engulfing our earth. This is reviewed in a comprehensive report entitled Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2019 by IPBES, which describes the status of earth's biodiversity which is increasingly worrying for the sustainability of life. The document, which was synthesized from 15.000 global studies performed by 145 scientists from 50 countries for the past three years, exposed that the earth has lost more than 80 percent of its mammalian biomass as natural ecosystems are being destroyed at a rate hundreds of times faster than over the last 10 million years.

In particular, this report also stated that the 50% global expansion of the agricultural and plantation sectors is causing forest loss, including by monoculture cultivation. All of that in order to increase food production by 300 percent since 1970[iii]. Forests are cleared to open grazing for livestock, rice fields, wheat fields, corn, wine, and various commodities that spoil humans whose population continues to grow to more than 7 billion people in this millennium.

According to the report, agriculture and fisheries are the sectors that most contribute to the earth's biodiversity loss. The incredible amount of pesticides, followed by the declining of natural habitats such as forests, puts one in ten insect species at risk of extinction. It is important to note that insects, along with birds and bats, play an important role in pollination, including food-producing plants for humans. And unlike replacing soil nutrients with fertilizers or replacing natural pest predators with pesticides, this function is irreplaceable. The risk of disrupting crop pollination by insects is equivalent to a loss of US$ 577 billion due to crop failure. In order to meet our food needs, we ironically destroy the natural system that works as its foundation.

Even the oceans are not spared from systematic destruction. Only 3% of the ocean area is safe from human pressure through the fishing industry, overexploitation of marine resources, and waste. It is estimated that 100-300 million people in coastal areas will be at increased risk due to loss of protected coastal habitat. Meanwhile, only 7% of marine resources can still be used optimally because most of them have been used to their maximum limit. For the Asia Pacific region, the projections raised for biodiversity are 24-25% of mammals and birds will become extinct in lowland Southeast Asia, and ±45% probability of habitat and species loss by 2050 if there are no changes in practices towards nature and biodiversity[iv].

Spraying pesticides in a pepper garden on the shores of Lake Matano. Photo: Burung Indonesia

The destruction of ecosystems, directly and indirectly, erodes the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide (Watson 2019[v]). History records that many great civilizations on earth were destroyed, emerged and descended due to ecological crises when humans triggered it to an uncontrollable level.

In the waters of Wallacea region, which covers the islands of Sulawesi, Maluku, North Maluku and Nusa Tenggara, destructive fishing practices are becoming more common. Many of the fishermen in the waters of South Solor, Lembata, Buano Island, Labobo-Bangkurung and other coastal areas are skillful in constructing bomb to quick and easy fishing[vi]. However, this practice not only kills non-target fishes, but also destroys coral reefs where small fishes sheltering and other marine life foraging.

As a result, the aquatic ecosystem is paralyzed and fishes are evacuating because the area no longer provides food and a safe breeding ground. In the end, fishermen are the ones who bear the consequences because they have to go farther to get fish. Fish-blasting fishermen think short and keep looking for new waters to blow their handmade bombs, while fleets of large-scale fishing companies operating on the high seas harvest as much fish as their ships can transport without ever thinking about giving the marine ecosystem a break to rejuvenate.

Considering these, the report calls on world leaders very seriously by stressing that the current efforts are inadequate in stopping the crisis. Among several recommendations, world leaders are required to implement development based on sustainable and equitable principles, which are aimed at conserving the environment, improving biodiversity, and improving natural services (ecosystem services). The demand for the protection and preservation of biodiversity is a reminder of human destiny to maintain the foundations of life, namely the economy (natural resources) and culture (aesthetic, social, and religious values).

Since early 2016, the villages of Ambela, Bengel, and South Rae in the Talaud Islands Regency have participated in the Wallacea Partnership Program which launched initiatives to conserve biodiversity while simultaneously managing resources in a sustainable manner. The organic farming demonstration plots they manage are able to produce healthy food. Some are even able to package the results into commodities that are in demand in both the local and Manado markets. Residents have also stopped using pesticides and started controlling sexava naturally. For these efforts, the three villages were designated by the Regent of Talaud as Conservation Villages. The Regent was also convinced to replace the pesticide subsidy with incentives for natural pest control.

Through the same program, Nuha Village and Bantilang Village on the shores of Lake Matano have been facilitated to design their village layout based on practices passed down in generations. This local wisdom divides the village space into several functions: settlement, production and protection. The community agreement was then ratified by village regulations so that they were legally binding and could be implemented. With this village regulation in place, the communities consciously stopped the encroachment of protected forest for pepper plantations. This rule applies not only firmly and effectively to them, but also to outsiders who try to clear land in forest areas.

Land conversion to illegal mining area in Gorontalo. Photo: Burung Indonesia

On the coasts of Boano, South Solor, Lembata and several other locations in the Wallacea partnership program, fishermen are reviving environmentally friendly fishing practices by establishing village-level Marine Protected Areas (MPA). It is forbidden to fish, using any method, in the core of the MPA. In the sustainable fishing zone, fishermen are free to catch fish as long as they use environmentally friendly fishing gears. It took less than a year for the initiation to recover the coastal waters. The fishes returned abundantly, allowing easier and closer fish catches even more than when bombs and fish poisons were still in rampant. In Central Sulawesi Province, this effective model became the inspiration for the reserve for the Banggai Darat, Sea and Archipelago (locally called Dalaka) marine conservation area of 869,059.94 hectares[vii].

Leaders of countries, regions and sectors, with the authority and resources they have, are certainly able to drive meaningful changes to save biodiversity. They are also expected to adopt and replicate successful initiatives such as the three examples above. Henceforth, the protection of biodiversity should be a mandate in the development plan. The path in this direction has actually been pioneered by several pro-environment policies such as the Regional Action Plan on Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Regional Action Plan on the Sustainable Development Goals.

These commitments need to be followed up with programs that will actually save our biodiversity from destruction and unsustainable use. Because, today, the benchmark for good development is that which fertilizes, not impoverishes and degrades life support systems. Lastly, quoting Joseph Settele, co-chair of IPBES, “People shouldn't panic, but they should begin drastic change. Business as usual with small adjustments won't be enough.” Congratulations on celebrating Biodiversity Day 2019.


[iv] Furthermore, the IPBES report states that 75% of the terrestrial environment and 66% of the marine environment have experienced drastic changes due to human actions. From the issue of species, 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the next few decades both on land and at sea. In terms of food issues, since 1970 food production has increased by 300% while 23% of land has been degraded. In the issue of oceans and fisheries, in the forestry sector, although there is a decrease in forest clearance, it is estimated that 50% of the expansion of the agricultural and plantation sectors will cause forest loss, including monoculture. The high rate of urbanization (100% since 1992) concerns the increasing demand for food and the loss of food production, concerns also occur on the quality of health.
Talking about biodiversity loss, 82% of the abundance of wild mammal biomass has been destroyed, 47% of natural ecosystems have been lost, 25% of plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, 23% of the natural abundance of terrestrial species have been lost. Two-fifths of rare amphibians are threatened with extinction, one-third of coral reefs are threatened with loss, as are one-third of aquatic species. Important habitats that experienced the greatest destruction were wetlands where since 1700, as much as 83% of wetlands were drained and threatened the availability of clean water, loss of habitat for water birds, drought and even fires.
In terms of pollution, as much as 80% of wastewater discharged in waterways poisons rivers, lakes and oceans without being treated, along with 400 metric tons of heavy metals, toxins and industrial waste. Plastic waste in the oceans has increased tenfold since 1980 and threatens the lives of 86% of sea turtles, 44% of seabirds and 43% of marine mammals (the-guardian 2019).
[v] Quoted from the statement of Sir Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES at the IPBES Global Assessment Previe, May 2019
[vi] South Solor waters, East Flores Regency (NTT), Labobo-Bangkurung waters, Banggai Laut (Central Sulawesi), Boano Island waters, West Seram (Maluku), and Lembata waters (NTT)
[vii] Regional Regulation Number 10 of 2017 concerning Zoning Plans for Coastal Areas and Small Islands of Central Sulawesi Province


Authors: Adi Widyanto (Head of Conservation and Development, Burung Indonesia) Yoppie Christian (Researcher at the Center for the Study of Coastal and Ocean Resources IPB)
Adi Widyanto (Head of Conservation and Development, Burung Indonesia)
Yoppie Christian (Peneliti di Pusat Kajian Sumberdaya Pesisir dan Lautan IPB)