The Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystem (SAFE) Project is located in the rainforests of Malaysian Borneo. It stands among the world’s largest ecological experiments. The SAFE Project consists of three interconnected projects. The first of these examines ecological changes along a gradient of forest modification , scrutinising differences in how the ecosystem functions and the species that survive in a forest as it becomes lightly logged, heavily logged, fragmented and eventually converted into an oil palm plantation. The second project relies on experimentally designed forest fragments to investigate how the spatial structure of a landscape can mediate or exacerbate the ecological impacts of logging. The third project is focussed on the role of forest remnants in protecting waterways, investigating how changing the width of the riparian vegetation that shelters permanent streams impacts the quality of water emerging from forests and plantations.

The SAFE project is not the cause of deforestation in this landscape. SAFE is located in an area that has been gazetted for conversion to plantation for the last 20 years, and takes advantage of a planned and government approved oil palm conversion to make experimental changes to the forest. The SAFE Project experiment is using this independent conversion of rainforest into oil palm plantation to address important scientific questions.

The findings from this project will add to our understanding of how a tropical rainforest functions, and how that functioning changes when you place the forest under pressure from humans. This project was begun before the conversion process began so that baseline information could be collected that will allow meaningful comparisons to be drawn as the landscape is altered. It is at a large enough spatial and temporal scale that the real effects of landscape modification can be documented from individual species to a landscape level. This information will be able to be used to inform future management decisions and in the creation of best practice guidelines when land modification is proposed not only in Borneo but around the world.

In concept, this project is based on the hugely successful Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP) based in the heart of the Amazon. The BDFFP was initiated in the 1970s by Dr Tom Lovejoy to determine the minimum critical size forest fragments could be before they failed to operate as functioning tropical ecosystems. The basic concept of the SAFE Project is similar to that designed by Dr Lovejoy, building off the BDFFP experience to design the next generation of ecological experiment.

For a detailed discussion of where SAFE sits in relation to other landscape experiments, and for full details about the study context and design, read: A large-scale forest fragmentation experiment: the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems Project.