Forest plantations: Creating green deserts

The recent article on logging at the Sembrong Forest Reserve in Mersing, Johor highlights the alarming practice of converting forests and land for the development of forest plantations. It is disappointing to learn that the Forestry Department is allowing conversion of forests including permanent reserved forests for development of these forest plantations.

Besides Johor, several thousand acres of tree plantations are also planned and being developed in Kelantan. Among preliminary environmental impact assessments submitted for development of rubber forest plantations in Johor are the:

i. Proposed development of forest plantation on 5,000 acres land at Sembrong Forest Reserve by Hamid Sawmill Sdn Bhd.

ii. Proposed timber latex clone plantation on 5,000 acres land at Sembrong Forest Reserve by Setindan Sdn. Bhd.

iii. Proposed rubber forest plantation on about 4,409 acres (1,784.70 ha) at Labis Forest Reserve (Extension) in Mukim Sembrong by Jasa Wibawa Sdn. Bhd.

iv. Proposed rubber forest plantation in Mukim Sembrong, Mersing on 5,163.3 acres land at Labis Forest Reserve (Extension) by PPPL Plantations Sdn Bhd.

v. Proposed forest rubber plantation on 15,113 acres state land in Mukim Ulu Sg Johor, Daerah Kota Tinggi by J Biotech Sdn Bhd.

The portal of Malaysian Timber Industry Board states that in March 2005 the Cabinet had entrusted the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities to pursue the development of forest plantations in Malaysia. Under this programme, the Ministry has planned to develop 375,000 hectares of forest plantation at an annual planting rate of 25,000 hectares per year for the next 15 years.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) had voiced our objections of development of forest plantations as studies have shown that monoculture tree plantations have a two-fold impact globally through loss of biodiversity and being net emitters of carbon. A report published in Nature show that old-growth forests store carbon for centuries, whereas plantations and young forests are actually net emitters of carbon due to the disturbance of the soil and the degradation of the previous ecosystem.

There is a clear difference between the rich biodiversity of a forest and the barren life of an industrial forest plantation. A forest is a complex, self-regenerating ecological system with a wide variety of plants and animals in mutual relation. Biological diversity and forest functions are drastically lost when forest are cleared and planted with species of fast-growing trees for timber and/or latex.

Undisturbed forest soil has good structural properties which helps infiltration and increases the water holding capacity of the soil. The land clearance during the establishment of forest plantations will increase the peak flow rate of the area, thus increasing the risk of floods. Forest plantations become further ecologically diminished with each successive harvest as carbon and water holding potential is reduced.

It is perplexing why the government continues to promote the development of monoculture tree and forest plantations such as timber latex clones despite its known detrimental impacts to biodiversity, climate change and water resources.  We urge the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities, Forestry Department and the relevant authorities to reconsider the approval given for the development of all forest plantations in the country.

Letter to the Editor, 28 August 2012