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Economy of Borneo’s rainforest

November 2019: Infrastructure plans for creating a Pan-Borneo Highway are placing the region’s biodiversity at risk. Recent findings suggest that there are greater economic benefits in maintaining biodiversity and supporting emerging bio-economies than in depletion of natural resources.


In light of population growth and industrial development, the Malaysian government is progressing with its plans to create a Pan-Borneo Highway. New evidence suggests that the Highway may severely degrade tropical forests and sensitive ecosystems. The report finds that bridges or underpasses to allow wildlife to move and migrate would be ineffective. The road route runs through Borneo’s remaining primary forests which could result in increased pressures from loggers, poachers, farmers, and oil plantations; thus, threatening the region’s biodiversity. The report coincides with findings of the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC), arguing that maintaining biodiversity may provide greater economic benefits than depleting Borneo’s natural resources. The SBC suggests that focussing on bio-technology to create a bio-economy could shift the economic focus from resource usage to knowledge use and generation in areas with rich ecosystems.  

Implications & Opportunities

Shifting the economic focus towards a bio-economy could allow Borneo – for example - to become a knowledge hub for modern antibiotics research and development. Natural products are substances found in nature that exhibit desirable properties such as activity against infectious microbes and the development of drugs inhibiting Ebola, Chikungunya, Zika, and Hepatitis E. Such research could also tap into the growing market for cancer drugs which is currently valued at $6.49 bn. Additional opportunities could lie in exploring bio-renewables, or engage with the market for microalgae. Cultivated microalgae could be used and exported as animal feed or as source for producing sugars and oil for fuels and industrial chemicals. The report highlights the key role of public and private companies and calls for the integration of local communities to generate local expertise.


The findings of the reports should be seen within the context of Borneo and strategic recommendations may require adaptation prior to their application in other contexts.


Sloan, S., Campbell, M. J., Alamgir, M., Lechner, A. M., Engert, J., & Laurance, W. F. (2019). Trans-national conservation and infrastructure development in the Heart of Borneo. PLOS ONE, 14(9), e0221947. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0221947 

Sarawak Biodiversity Centre. (2019). Agricultural and tree biodiversity research in Malaysia. Retrieved from

Forbes. (2019). There is More Money in the Borneo Rainforest’s Biodiversity than in its Deforestation. Retrieved from

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Adele Wiliams

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The views expressed in these external research papers are those of the authors and do not represent an official position of CISL, the University of Cambridge, or any of its individual business partners or clients.