Your Excellencies, Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen delighted to see so many of you here today. Recognize a number of faces from the reception I held two years ago to support BirdLife's campaign to save the albatross from extinction. That battle continues and I am doing my best to ensure that public awareness of the plight of this magnificent bird is maintained.
Indeed, earlier this morning a remarkable man, John Ridgway, arrived at Tower Bridge having sailed with his wife, Marie Christine, and a small crew from their home in northern Scotland to the Southern Ocean, following the circumpolar track of the Wandering Albatross. John and Marie Christine have engaged with all sorts of different audiences at each landfall, and generated remarkable publicity. The celebrations begin in earnest tomorrow and I only wish I could be there, but instead I have sent an open letter of support which I hope just might do a little bit to help.
Today we are here to raise awareness of another of BirdLife's campaigns.
As many of you here will know, the lowland rainforests of Sumatra in Indonesia are threatened with almost complete clearance, with catastrophic consequences for the region's diverse and unique biodiversity. The causes are timber production, clear-cutting to provide pulp fibre for paper mills and clearance for oil palm and timber plantations.
The figures are pretty horrifying: Sumatran lowland rainforests occupied around 16 million hectares in 1900, but were reduced to 5.6 million by 1985 and to 2.2 million by 1997. Clearance has continued since then, and some observers have suggested that as little as 800,000 hectares remain.
It is little surprise that the World Bank has predicted that virtually all lowland rainforest will have been cleared within the next decade unless there are immediate and fundamental changes in policies and management.
The rainforest is, of course, home to a remarkable variety of animal and bird life, and as surely as the habitat disappears so does the wildlife it supports. Wherever in the world this happens it is desperate, but the non-swampy lowland rainforests of Sumatra are regarded as amongst the richest, most biologically diverse forests on Earth.
BirdLife research has revealed that 70 per cent of Asia‘s Red-listed birds are threatened because of moist tropical lowland rainforest loss. Nowhere is this more acute than in Sumatra where 106 species of forest birds are threatened. And the real damage has been done in the last few years. The number of species threatened in 1994 was just 17 and in 1999, 44 – so in only four years the figure has nearly trebled.
But it is not just birdlife that is suffering. It is thought that the Sumatran Rhino now numbers less than 100 individuals, and other species at risk include the Asian Elephant, Sumatran Tiger, and Tapir one of my favourite creatures. I find it almost inconceivable to imagine a world without these magnificent creatures. And apart from anything else, I do not want my grandchildren to accuse me of not doing anything about the situation, when in fact we could.
And no-one here needs me to tell them that deforestation can have global consequences, too. Without the forests to absorb carbon dioxide and to retain water, the impact on the wider environment is monumental. Only last month we witnessed mud slides and flooding in Haiti and the Dominican Republic which cost thousands of lives. Many are pointing the finger of blame at the deforestation which has taken place there.
When the forests go so do one of the most efficient systems of water conservation, with severe consequences for rural and urban waters supplies, let alone fisheries and agricultural irrigation. And, of course, the very act of clearing by burning releases hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, just one more contribution to global warming, which leaves parts of South East Asia enveloped in a smoky, unhealthy haze, which does nothing for human health, quality of life or tourism.
That is why I could not be more pleased to support BirdLife's Sumatra project to acquire the logging concession to rehabilitate and conserve a 60,000 - 80,000 hectare block of lowland rainforest in Sumatra. This is one of the most innovative attempts to preserve a large and highly biologically-valuable area of forest outside the formal protection system. The area of forest concerned is already allocated for logging so we know that without this initiative it would end up being cleared for agriculture or pulp plantations. Indeed, it is one of the last remaining areas of such rainforest left in Sumatra.
The vision for this project is to restore and maintain this forest area in perpetuity for the benefit of people, birds and wider biodiversity. Of equal importance, it will serve as a model for sustainable tropical rainforest management in Indonesia and worldwide. And I am a great believer in the ‘Seeing is Believing' principle – that is, take people to see for themselves a novel and innovative solution.
The process will begin with a 20-year ‘resting' period with research, forest management and rehabilitation, and only the most limited use of forestry resources. After the ‘resting' period, the plan is that BirdLife will exploit the forest resources through non-destructive means such as eco-tourism and, eventually, the aim is to allow managed timber and non-timber extraction in selected areas.
This way BirdLife can ensure the financial sustainability of the reserve and, above all, preserve the livelihoods of local people, whose culture and heritage is as important a natural asset as the wildlife and bio-diversity the forest supports. Hopefully, the project will show the world that there is another, truly sustainable method of having a successful forest enterprise. And the world needs as many of these examples as possible.
As you are all prospective purchasers, I just thought that you might like to hear a little more about what you will be buying! Bird surveys have revealed an extraordinarily rich diversity of lowland rainforest species in this area of forest: 211 bird species have been recorded, of which 202 are forest dependent species. Of these, 46 species are threatened and declining: such as Ferruginous Partridge, Crestless Fireback and Crested Fireback, Malaysian Honeyguide, White-crowned Hornbill, Large Frogmouth, Wallace's Hawk Eagle and Storm's Stork.
But it is not just the bird life that is so remarkable. The area supports 32 species of mammals, some as rare as the Sumatran Tiger, with no more than 20 animals, the Malaysian Tapir and the Sun Bear. There are strong populations of Agile Gibbon and Siamang, Silvered Leaf Monkey, Banded Langur, Flying Lemurs and Leopard Cat. And there is even a small number of Asian Elephants in the western part of the concession. The only major animal missing is the Sumatran Rhino, but the species is very secretive and everyone is rather hoping that one or two might emerge at some point…
When Mike Rands of BirdLife told me of this project some 12 months ago, I said that I would be more than happy to offer any help that I could. What particularly attracted me to it was its innovation and the fact that the BirdLife Partnership was promoting it.
This group has enormous experience and expertise managing nature reserves with professionalism and efficiency, both of which will be called upon to run this concession. Of particular importance, it has knowledge on the ground of the forest conservation and management issues in Sumatra and good working relationships with local government, society and companies.
Like so many of the best initiatives, this one is based on partnership, not least with the Indonesian Government and to whom, through His Excellency Dr Sudarsono, I do want to offer my most heartfelt congratulations for recognizing the global importance of their forests and for being prepared to think of new ways of preserving them. You are giving a lead to the rest of the world.
Finally, I would also like to acknowledge the role played by the British Government through the Department for International Development, which I know has supported BirdLife and given valuable technical advice. Particularly delighted to see Mr Elliot Morley here today from our own Department for the Environment.
Of course, this project is on a massive scale and it will require the support of many organizations and individuals if it is to be the success that it must be. I know that BirdLife would like to pay particular tribute to the coalition of BirdLife national Partner organizations in Europe and Asia, but Graham Wynne and Mike Rands would be the first to say that a great deal more help is needed to save this unique area of forest in perpetuity.
That, of course, is why you are all here today and so I do, finally, want to thank all of you. I happen to believe that an entire flock of chickens from the last century are coming home to roost in so many different areas: we saw it in Haiti, we are seeing it with global warming and with the decline in fish stocks and, of course, the plight of the albatross. It is only through initiatives like this that we can begin to make a difference.
When mistakes were made in the past that generation did not always understand the consequences of what was been done. We no longer have that excuse. We know exactly what we are doing. We know the damage we are causing and time is running out fast. I, for one, do not want to find myself in a situation where our grandchildren can accuse us of not doing something to prevent a totally avoidable catastrophe from happening.
Thanks to BirdLife and the Indonesian Government we have a chance to arrest at least one avoidable catastrophe and I really could not be more pleased to be lending it my fullest support.