Urgent call to halt further forest conversions

Given the severity of the recent floods and the resulting tragedy that has befallen several states in the Peninsular Malaysia at a scale that has never been witnessed in living memory, and the increasingly adverse impacts of climate change, SAM strongly calls on all states to immediately halt further forest-to-plantation conversions in Malaysia.

Our analysis of the forestry data in the country shows as follows.

Peninsular Malaysia

From 2008 to 2013, no sharp changes could be detected to the size of forested areas and the gazetted Permanent Reserved Forest (PRF) in Peninsular Malaysia, as reported by the Annual Reports of its Forestry Department. In 2008, their figures stood at 5.8 million hectares and 4.8 million hectares, respectively. In 2013, there was only the small increase of the PRF to 4.9 million hectares.

However, behind the appearance of this statistical stability, one particular unit of forestry data in Peninsular Malaysia did in actual fact register a drastic increase during the period. This is the data pertaining to the size of ‘forest plantations’ within the PRF, where the latex timber clone and other timber trees are the trees of choice.

Indeed, the concept of ‘forest plantation’ is inherently contradictory. Forests are formed by natural vegetation and a high level of biodiversity. They perform various ecological functions, including as water catchment systems. Plantations are large monoculture farms of crops, disastrous for water catchments, ecosystems and biodiversity.

In 2008, the total size of forested areas classified as timber tree plantations was recorded at 108,512 hectares. By 2013, this figure had soared to 324,417 hectares, or 6.6 per cent of the PRF. This is a leap close to 200 per cent within a span of just five years.

Kelantan had the largest bulk of such PRF areas classified as timber tree plantations, at 162,485 hectares, or 26.0 per cent of its PRF (623,849 hectares). In fact, the website of the Kelantan State Forestry Department states that the state has designated 199,352 hectares within its PRF as the Latex Timber Clone Plantation Zone (Ladang Zon LTC), which however does not mean that the entire zone will be developed. By 2010, 115 companies had received approval from the state to establish LTC plantations on 91,030 hectares or 14.6 per cent of its PRF.

This was followed by Perak which had 56,503 hectares of its PRF areas classified as plantations or 5.6 per cent of its PRF (1.0 million hectares). Johor’s was at 45,544 hectares or 10.5 per cent of its PRF (432,209 hectares). Pahang’s figure stood at 31,831 hectares or 2.0 per cent of its PRF (1.56 million hectares). Terengganu had much less, at 3,833 hectares, or 0.7 per cent of its PRF (544,855 hectares).

Overall, the data in 2013 indicated a steep climb of 126,588 hectares from 197,829 hectares, the figure recorded in 2012. Kelantan again contributed generously to this growth, adding 57,971 hectares to its 104,514 hectares. Perak recorded another high, up to 56,503 hectares from its 1,680 hectares in 2012.

Meanwhile, in 2012, a total of 13,486 hectares of such plantations were licensed for harvesting. These took place in Kelantan (5,824 hectares), Pahang (5,183 hectares) and Johor (2,479 hectares). In 2013, a total of 6,947 hectares were licensed out for harvesting; Pahang (5,421 hectares), Kedah (889 hectares), Johor (557 hectares) and Perak (80 hectares).

In order to fully understand the implications from the data above, we wish for the Forestry Department to provide clarifications on the following matters.

What exactly does it mean when a ‘forest type’ is classified as a ‘forest plantation’? What is the extent of the forest conversion involved? How large is the size of all established timber tree plantations in the Peninsula today? Can the annual data on such areas being licensed out for harvesting be utilised to estimate the size of all established plantations, or should we refer to the figures actually listed as ‘forest plantations’, which jumped from 197,829 hectares to 324,417 hectares, between 2012 and 2013 alone?

Sabah & Sarawak

In Sabah, information on its ‘forest plantations’ can also be accessed from the Annual Reports of its Forestry Department. In 2012, Sabah possessed some 265,904 hectares of timber tree plantations, of which 130,184 hectares were located within its Forest Reserves. By 2013, the size of such plantations in the state had increased to 271,110 hectares, of which 149,507 hectares were located in its Forests Reserves. Apart from rubber, acacia, eucaplytus and dipterocarps, ‘agroforestry’ development may also permit the cultivation of oil palm, even in the Forest Reserves.

In Sarawak meanwhile, the website of its Forests Department confirms that by 2013, the state had already issued out 43 tree plantation licences over some 2,827,372 hectares under its Licence for Planted Forest (LPF) system, with plantable areas estimated at 1,595,398 hectares. Many of the LPF areas are also located within the state’s gazetted Permanent Forest Estate (PFE). By 2012, some 306,486 hectares of the LPF areas had already been cultivated. In 2013, this figure further climbed to 471,892 hectares. Out of these, 325,314 hectares were cultivated with timber trees while another 146,578 hectares were planted with oil palm. Like Sabah, oil palm cultivation may also be permitted within the LPF areas in Sarawak, including those within the PFE, for one single rotation of 25 years on no more than 20 per cent of their plantable areas.

Further questions and calls

The above shows that by 2013, forested areas as large as 324,417 hectares in Peninsula, 271,110 hectares in Sabah and 2,827,372 hectares in Sarawak have been designated for timber tree and palm oil plantation development. If Sarawak’s share is reduced to its plantable areas of 1.6 million hectares, their total size would be 2.2 million hectares, or 12.2 per cent of our 18.0 million hectares of forested areas in 2013 – slightly larger than Perak. If Sarawak’s share is further limited to areas that have been cultivated, the figure would still be as large as 1.1 million hectares, or 5.9 per cent of our forested areas – slightly smaller than Terengganu. Compounding the matter at hand is of course the fact that such losses may not even be captured by our forestry statistics accurately.

The most urgent question here is naturally, when will the expansion stop? In fact, this aggressive development of timber tree plantations by the states seems to be in line with the National Timber Industry Policy 2009 – 2020 (NATIP). Between 2006 and 2020, NATIP has targeted for the establishment of 375,000 hectares of timber tree plantations in selected sites all over the country, for which RM 180 million has been allocated as an ‘initial’ sum to assist the industry.

In light of all these, we would like to first request for the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia to provide clarification on the questions posed above.

Secondly, we believe the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities under which NATIP was launched, must also state whether it has any intention to review the policy’s express ambitions.

Thirdly, our authorities must also put an end to the misleading practice of classifying timber, rubber and oil palm plantations as forested areas.

In fact, such plantations should not even belong in our gazetted forests. However today, even the Compendium of Environment Statistics 2013 published by the Department of Statistics defines ‘forest plantation’ as an ‘area planted with trees or forest plants, whether from local or foreign species, the method of cultivation as wide open no less than 50 hectares. Forest plantations can include areas that are located within or outside the PRF’.

If we are serious about preventing future calamities, then we must halt all forest conversions.