Keeping our forests alive for our use

Sonia Randhawa

12:28pm Thu Sep 5th, 2002

Timber has been a massive revenue earner for Malaysia. In 1992, it formed upwards of 10 percent of our annual exports. Malaysian companies, renowned internationally for their expertise, are now involved in logging operations in terrains as diverse as Papua New Guinea, Russia and Cambodia.

It’s a phenomenon viewed with shame by Malaysian environmentalists.

Last year, major forest-related environmental organisations from the Asia-Pacific met in Kuala Lumpur, at a convention known as ‘Ring of Fire’. In a press conference afterwards, they gave the prize for the most exploited region to the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

The depletion of forests in this region has been startling. Both legal and illegal loggers have flouted or side-stepped regulations, divesting this state of vast swathes of its primary rainforest. The revenue from the trade has been enormous.

Yet, Sarawak’s population is not living it up. Despite a lower than average incidence of poverty, they owned around half the number of cars and motorcycles, had two-thirds the number of telephones, and had comparatively few doctors per thousand population. Roads are poor, in some areas non-existent.

The figures also hide massive inequalities easily visible. The chief minister’s opulent residence contrasts starkly with the poverty of the interior.

Native Customary Rights (NCR), particularly pertaining to land, is still a thorny issue in Sarawak. It is an issue that cuts to the heart of debates on forestry, both nationally and internationally: the price of development.

The main obstacle faced in campaigning for forest conservation is the argument that exploitation and money obtained from timber harvesting or plantations that decimate the forests is necessary. Developing countries, such as Malaysia, need the foreign revenue to finance economic growth.

Evidence of awareness

Nevertheless, many governments, even those as poverty-stricken as the Cambodian regime (who has recently ejected a Malaysian logging company on environmental grounds), recognise the importance of conservation.

There is evidence of this awareness in Malaysia. The Eighth Malaysia Plan outlines admirable goals in terms of sustainable management of forest reserves. Malaysian laws are admirably stringent.

Yet, the damage continues. This is evident not only in the warnings of environmentalists. Reports made by the logging industry confirm this. A 1992 study by the World Bank claimed that Malaysian timber was a ‘sunset’ industry. And various news reports from both Sabah and Sarawak over the last year have shown that it is indeed flagging. The timber resources from both states have been cashed.

And still both states are poor, under-educated and lacking in basic facilities. So what went wrong?

First, the forest ‘harvesting’ was not conducted in an equitable manner. Even now, Penan families blockade the paths of timber companies and palm oil developers are still greedy for land, but unwilling to share the benefits or discuss alternative methods of use.

The [comparatively] poor and powerless were evicted to make way for logging companies, protected by the police and the army, often supplemented by a private army of thugs. Profits rolled in, and were diverted to the pockets of executives, to politicians and to the cities. Little was or is seen by the people who have paid the highest costs for the timber windfall.

Secondly, timber harvesting was equivalent to asset-stripping. Rather than viewing the forests as a long-term asset, they were viewed as one-off plunder. This did not even make economic sense.

According to one report conducted in Peru, the timber harvested from one hectare of rainforest yielded US$1,000 (RM3,800). This compares with a value of over US$6,000 (RM18,000) from the harvest of fruit and rubber available from an unlogged hectare.

However, forests are not only lost to timber companies. Often they are the vanguard for other development.

Plantation woes

Driving along any highway in Peninsular Malaysia, one is confronted with advertisements for plantation companies. The slogans run along the lines of "We green the earth". Plantations, from more traditional oil palm and rubber to the newer Acacia paper, are replacing rainforests.

Plantation companies, as the advertisements reveal, claim that this is environmentally sound. This doesn’t hold true.

Plantations are monoculture. They consist of neat, orderly rows of one type of plant. Often the plants are genetically identical. In a natural forest, the disorderly chaos of plants is in stark contrast, a thriving storehouse of genetic material.

Monoculture allows very limited diversity in species, including the animals who can adapt to the plantation environment.

Forests are also drowned to make way for dams, particularly hydroelectric dams, claimed to be a sustainable source of energy. However, the most comprehensive survey on large dams, the World Commission on Dams report, indicated that large dams are not sustainable sources of energy. They are polluting (comparing with coal-powered stations in terms of greenhouse gas pollution), destructive and dangerous.

However, there is still a trump card in the pack of those advocating current methods of ‘forest preservation’. This is the "well, they’ve done it, why can’t we?" card. It compares what remains of forests in ‘developed’ countries with what remains in developing countries. The underlying argument appears to be that only if we too destroy our forests will we be able to claw our way into the rank of ‘developed nations’.

The argument is clearly ludicrous. If your neighbour burns down her house, would you follow suit?

Sustainable logging

So what is being done now to save Malaysia’s forests?

There are measures being taken by the government. One is the creation of Permanent Forest Reserves. While proceeding slowly, more land became permanent reserves under the Seventh Malaysia Plan. Unfortunately, however, while this sounds good, it isn’t necessarily. Even if a parcel of land is labelled reserve, it can still be logged. But it has to be logged in what is termed a sustainable manner.

The sustainability of this procedure is not convincing. Widespread damage is still done to the jungles disturbed by logging. In Kedah, for example, the Consumers Association of Penang uncovered a helicopter-logging scheme over a vast tract of protected water catchment. Despite the low impact claimed, the development involves a 400km road. The environmental impact of such ‘side’ developments needs to be taken into account.

Another matter of concern is that a designated reserve may be ‘moved’. According to one academic, this has occurred to forests being studied, rendering the research conducted, sometimes over many years, almost obsolete. Due to the complex nature of rainforests, an area even a hundred metres away from the original site may have a completely different ecosystem.

However, the Malaysian government has also been trying to rationalise its research and development. In the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV and Aids, for example, it pushed for greater rights over genetic material found in forests for host countries (see yesterday’s article Indigenous peoples’ position on sustainable development.

In Madagascar, the rosy periwinkle formed the basis for two drugs, which brought in around US$160 million (RM608 million) annually to the chemical companies who were awarded the patent for the drugs. The people of Madagascar received nothing.

It is vital to ensure that the local communities and governments responsible for sustaining the forest in its diversity receive monetary benefits due to their prudence. And a startlingly small proportion of rainforest species have been examined, even among those documented as medicinal by local communities. The potential financial rewards for protecting our rainforests are huge.

So can we do the balancing act?


There is an undeniable need for the poorest in Malaysia to have greater access to the material benefits the rest of us take for granted: education, piped water, electricity.

Yet, benefits from current forestry businesses rarely reach those who need them most. This needs to be rectified. Local communities need to have a say in how forests are managed and to share in the profits from such management.

In this, the role of the government becomes an enabling one: assisting with research and development of traditional medicines; helping provide appropriate education for the sustainable use of the forest; and protecting native rights against the exploitation of big business, both local and foreign.

Current legislation needs to be enforced. Logging companies have been stripping this country of its assets for decades. They are now turning their sights elsewhere.

Unless we can enforce and improve the conditions for our own people — the native populations of the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak — it is unlikely that we or other governments will be able to impose an environmentally friendly regime upon Malaysian loggers. And our reputation for perpetrating South-South exploitation will deteriorate.


Eighth Malaysia Plan

In place of the forest, Harold Brookfield, Lesley Potter & Yvonne Byron (UN studies on critical environmental regions)

Malaysian environment alert 2001, Sahabat Alam Malaysia

Material from World Rainforest Movement, Malaysia Timber Council and various websites.

SONIA RANDHAWA is a volunteer with Save Our Sungai Selangor, a coalition of NGOs and concerned individuals [still] trying to halt the completion of the Selangor dam.