What drives forest-use decisions in Peninsular Malaysia?

The quick answer: money and power.

I spent nine months this year investigating forest-use changes in Peninsular Malaysia. The project was sponsored by a grant from the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Journalism Fund and the stories — about 10,000 words across four parts — were published on Macaranga.

Here’s a condensed version written for those who prefer an 8-minute read.

Design: YHLaw

But before you dive into the story, let me explain quickly why this investigation focused on Peninsular Malaysia (also known as West Malaysia) and largely excluded Sabah and Sarawak, the two East Malaysian states on Borneo.

Because, firstly, Peninsular Malaysia has different forestry legislation and operations than Sabah and Sarawak. Secondly, official land-use data shows that between 1990 and 2019, Peninsular Malaysia lost about 140,000 hectares of forest more than East Malaysia did, despite being only two-thirds the size of the latter.

Forest loss in Peninsular Malaysia is neglected by the media compared to East Malaysia, but the magnitude is worth just as much scrutiny.

1. Malaysia has been losing forests since the 1950s

No surprise here: Malaysia has been losing forests for seven decades.

The country has 17.85 million hectares of forest covering 54% of its land. That’s an admirable statistic: Malaysia has the 5th largest area of tropical forest in the Asia-Pacific region, and the second highest forest cover percentage among that top 5, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Let’s zero in on Peninsular Malaysia. In 1950, Peninsular Malaysia had about 9.7 million hectares of forests, a vast carpet of some of the oldest forests in the world. In 2019, only 5.73 million hectares remained.

Forest loss has slowed since the 1990s

Deforestation in Peninsular Malaysia likely peaked sometime in the 60s or 70s, when loggers and developers were clearing up to 275,000 hectares yearly — about 2% of its land area. Most of the lowland forests, the easiest areas to log, were logged.

If left unchecked, such deforestation rates were certain to deplete Peninsular Malaysia’s natural timber stock.

In response, the Malaysian federal government established the National Forestry Policy in 1978 to set sustainability as the guiding principle in forest management. In 1984, the government legislated the National Forestry Act to enforce the National Forestry Policy.

Since the 1990s, forest loss rates began to slow due to various factors. The National Forestry Act, the lack of easy-to-log lowland forests, and the Prime Minister pledging in 1992 to keep at least half of the country forested — each played partial roles to rein in deforestation.

But deforestation looks set to continue. Forestry officials at the highest levels told me that they foresee more forests lost to development. They aspired to honour the 50% forest cover pledge but didn’t sound too confident about it.

What exactly is ‘forest area’? Details matter

At this point, readers who are familiar with deforestation news might be questioning my assertion that forest loss rates have slowed in Peninsular Malaysia since the 1990s.

In 2013, satellite image analyses found Malaysia topping the global charts for most forest cover lost between 2000–2012. And the same monitoring approach showed that Peninsular Malaysia lost 725,613 hectares of primary forest between 2001–2019.

In comparison, official data from the Malaysian government reported a loss of about 130,000 hectares of forest in the same period.

The key caveat here is that ‘forests’ are not one and the same. Apparently, there are “more than 300 definitions for forests,” a forestry expert told me.

In Malaysia, official forestry data records the legal classification of the land rather than what is physically on the land itself. An area that has a few trees would be counted as forest if the land title says so. Conversely, an area full of trees would be excluded from forest count if the land title doesn’t say forest.

For satellite image analyses however, computer algorithms use differences in how light bounces off surfaces to distinguish among trees, mature forests and other terrain.

The conclusion I draw is that forest area estimates based on land classification and satellite images cannot be directly compared. But both datasets show continuous forest decline in Peninsular Malaysia, albeit at different rates.

Satellite images over Johor, Malaysia show conversion of 2,190 hectares of forests into oil palm, 2016/2017. Pic: Screenshots off Global Forest Watch dashboard, compiled by YHLaw.

2. State governments hold authority over land and forest

Malaysia’s administration comprises of the federal government and thirteen state governments. The Federal Constitution says that land and forest is the sole authority of state governments. The National Forestry Act 1984 yields power to the “State Authority” with scarce mention of the federal government.

While the federal government has a ministry that oversees forestry matters, its roles are largely that of a researcher, technical support, and advisor. Even the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia, the federal agency that enforces the National Forestry Act, has its officers seconded to the states and paid by state governments.

In short, state governments have the first and final say in the fate of forests. They are the minds and hands that decide if forests stay or go.

3. Most forest conversion starts with excision

In the state governments’ authority over forests, a key element is their power to change classification of the land and thereby the legal actions possible there.

In Peninsular Malaysia, almost 86% of forests are classified as permanent reserve forests (PRF) under the National Forestry Act 1984. PRFs serve as renewable timber stock and logging must apply established sustainable forestry methods. Clear-cutting is strictly prohibited. Forestry officers and loggers told me that for every hectare, fewer than 12 trees are harvested, often far fewer.

But state governments can gazette or excise forest area from PRFs. The process appears to be simple, at least as outlined in the legislation: the State government decides which and how much area to gazette or excise, announces the change in an official document called the gazette, and the change is effective.

Once excised from PRFs, the land can be converted from forest into agricultural, industrial or residential use, and its trees cleared for farms, factories or houses.

So what might drive state governments to log, add or remove PRFs?

4. States may be motivated to convert forests for revenue

State governments in Malaysia can largely generate income only from land-based taxes and fees. Revenue from forestry activities is important for state coffers. Every year, state governments allocate PRFs blocs for logging and collect revenue from logging fees and timber royalty.

Since 2007, annual forestry revenue for each of the top four forested states in Peninsular Malaysia amounted about 40 to 100 million ringgit (about USD10 to 25 million).

For some of these states, forestry has been the second largest portion of state income for decades.

What’s puzzling though is that state governments collect far less forestry fees than what loggers make by selling the timber. State governments appear to be giving away timber and logging rights too cheaply.

Loggers argue however that the gap is much narrower. They claim that official numbers fail to reflect hidden costs incurred by loggers, e.g., undeclared payments to buy logging licenses, and infrastructure improvement in communities near logging sites.

Sometimes, even revenue from logging PRFs isn’t the most appealing income because every forest bloc is logged once every 25 years. To get recurring income from the same piece of land, state governments can convert forests into farms or factories whose operators must pay yearly to use the site. Compared to sustainable logging, this approach destroys forest but state governments might prefer the stable income.

5. Politicians may be motivated to convert forests for political leverage

In Malaysia, forest-use has always been associated with political dynamics. Since the 1980s, academic research, investigative journalism and political commentary have reported direct intervention of politicians in forestry decisions that breached sustainability principles and hurt public interest.

Because forestry decisions — logging licenses, allocation of forest blocs to log, forest gazettement or excision — are made by the state executive council, specifically the head of the state government called the Menteri Besar or Chief Minister, power in forestry is concentrated in the hands of few.

Forestry researchers and conservationists told me that state politicians in office have many incentives to use forests as bargaining chips to win support. Some of the more revealing studies were those by environmental sociologist Fadzilah Majid Cooke in the 1990s that quoted logging tycoons describing the intricate network of business and politics in forestry (Cooke, 1994).

My investigation found no evidence to suggest contemporary situations have changed since Cooke’s work. But a senior officer in the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia told me in May 2020 that political influences in forestry matters are “insignificant” now (said officer retired in July 2020).

Lorries transporting logs in June 2020, Johor, Malaysia. Pic: YHLaw

6. Ways to improve forest-use decisions

Regardless if state governments convert forests for money or political power, their authority over forests is guaranteed by law and not challenged. It will be futile, likely also impractical in financial terms, to demand state governments to keep PRFs untouched.

But we can make changes to improve forest-use decisions. Forestry experts, environmental groups and policymakers have suggested changes that can better align forest-use decisions with public interest.

Here are some of them.

Make gazettes free and easy to access

State documents called gazettes record every gazettement and excision in PRFs. These gazettes can be accessed online only with a yearly subscription of about 1,100 ringgit (USD 270). Environmental groups told me they cannot afford to subscribe.

Making gazettes free and easily available would enable independent monitoring of forest changes. Any concerned citizen could check the status of PRFs near their homes.

Compensate state governments for forest conservation

It is difficult, unfair even, to request state governments to conserve forests and give up the potential revenue if they are not compensated. Compensation can come in the form of funds disbursed by the federal government or neighbouring state governments that benefited from forest conservation (e.g., water catchment).

Make public consultation compulsory before excision

Excision from PRFs is the key step that determines if a forest is legally protected from clear-cutting or not. It is therefore crucial that when excision is considered, the state government informs the communities and stakeholders of the forest in question and seeks their opinion.

Such public consultation, when done fairly and effectively, lets all parties share perspectives. Open dialouge goes a long way to showcase the complex and diverse sides in forest-use, and make the public feel invested in their forests and their elected policymakers.

A complete list of references can be found at the end of each part in Macaranga.

Freelance science journalist in Malaysia. Stories in Macaranga, Science News, Science, BBC, Mosaic, Nikkei Asia. Loves durian. https://scienceilluminates.com

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