Juggling between development and environmental conservation is difficult when it comes to forest-use. But there are ways to be more inclusive. This is Part 4 of Forest Files.
Malaysia has had decades of continuous economic and population growth since independence. In 2019, the country achieved a gross domestic production (GDP) of about RM 1.5 trillion, more than a hundred times the GDP in the 1960s. The population almost quadrupled over the same period.
However, before Malaysia industrialised in the 1980s, it exploited its natural resources, including its most accessible at that time: primary forests, some of the oldest in the world.
Millions of hectares of forests were cleared. In Peninsular Malaysia, forest cover dwindled from about 65% in the 1960s to 43.41% in 2019, a loss of about 2.8 million hectares – an area nearly the size of the states of Perak and Selangor combined. (Figure 1)
But given that Malaysia has transformed into a manufacturing- and service-oriented economy, it is questionable if clearing forests for revenue and other land use is as sensible a strategy as it was 60 years ago.
Alarmed by air and water pollution, biodiversity loss, global warming and pandemics, concerned scientists, NGOs, and citizens have been calling for the Malaysian government to treat forests as an essential part of a healthy environment and economy rather than on pure monetary terms.
Despite sustainable forestry being practised since the 1980s, extensive forest loss continues, albeit at much lower rates than before.
Even the forest certification scheme by the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) that promotes sustainable forestry practices has failed to stop extensive clear-felling, like that which happened recently in Kelantan and Johor.
For one, the certification is useful mainly to access premium markets like the European Union.
If states intend to sell most of their logs locally, they would disregard the certification, a forestry researcher told Macaranga.
And “once they lose [the] certificate, then we have no idea at all what’s going on” with changes in forest-use, said Siti Syaliza, senior manager of forest management at MTCC.
“If they are certified, then the [certification] auditors will report on what’s degazetted and [the] status of areas and we can monitor [those].”
Therefore, what more can be done to improve the monitoring of forest-use and align it with citizen concerns and broader national interests?
Obstacles to Public Participation
For this story, Macaranga spoke to more than 20 people who are involved with or affected by forest-use: politicians, loggers, forest researchers, environmental consultants, conservationists and people who live close to deforested land.
These people have different demands and visions of forests. Yet all of them expressed a wish to participate more in forest-use decision-making, rather than leaving it all to forestry departments and state governments.
The current system, however, presents many obstacles to public participation in forestry decisions.
Access to Gazettes
To start, basic and crucial information is difficult to get.
In Malaysia, changes in permanent reserve forests become official only when published in official documents called gazettes.
Notification in the gazette “does give a degree of accountability that you can’t simply excise a forest reserve and keep it secret,” said forestry consultant Lim Teck Wyn, who has been working on forest conservation in Malaysia for two decades.
To read state gazettes however, you must pay an annual subscription of RM 1,100 — a sum that conservationists and NGOs told Macaranga is beyond their financial capacity.
(Macaranga wanted to subscribe access to gazettes but the handling organisation (LawNet Malaysia) did not respond to email and telephone enquiries.)
Lim thinks that the gazette should be a public document.
To have it “hidden behind” a paywall is “deeply, deeply concerning” because it means changes in forest reserve areas and protected areas are “being kept from the public.”
“And a lot of hanky-panky goes on as a result of the public’s ignorance.”
On Paper vs. Reality
At times, there are also huge discrepancies between official records and reality.
On one occasion, retired deputy-director-general of Forest Research Institute Malaysia Dato’ Wan Razali W.M. was surveying mangrove forests in Johor for a state project.
His team visited a mangrove forest listed in the forestry records.
“We went in a speed boat and we saw what? We saw buildings in the area,” he told Macaranga.
Where’s the Forest?
His team informed the forestry officer in charge that the record was wrong and that the forest was gone.
“They said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, we are supposed to degazette it before they turn it [into buildings], but things got [delayed]’”.
Wan Razali said there were “plenty” of such undocumented changes in forestry records in other states too.
“On records, you see [an area is marked as] part of [mangrove] forest reserve, but you go to the site, you see it’s aquaculture.”
Truth is Out There
Does he trust official forestry numbers then? “The issue is that we don’t really know the truth,” he replied.
Such absent or inaccurate information complicates independent monitoring of forest-use in Malaysia.
“Forest monitoring is very opaque in Malaysia,” the team behind the open data platform Hutanwatch told Macaranga over email.
Interested groups cannot easily find consolidated maps of forest areas, said Hutanwatch.
Furthermore, local and international groups use different definitions of forests in their mapping.
“All these uncertainties make it difficult for watchdog groups, NGOs, communities & researchers that monitor forest cover, forest loss and forest degradation,” said Hutanwatch.
In response to this, Hutanwatch accepts submission of forestry information – maps, land-use changes – from anyone.
The team then compiles and analyses the submission, and makes them public online to “improve forest transparency” in Malaysia.
Dato’ Lim Kee Leng, retired deputy director-general of Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia, said that there “may be lapses here and there” with regards to gazette notices, but those could be “isolated case[s] and then blown out of proportion.”
The Forestry Department has the most accurate and updated map of forest area in Peninsular Malaysia, said Lim.
“So, to me, believe in the authority, because these [numbers] are tallied [among various government agencies].”
“You have to trust [someone]. If everybody has doubts ... then I ask you, who is correct?”
Environmental Impact Assessments
Aside from gazette notices, environmental impact assessment (EIA) documents can also furnish information about development projects that exceed certain thresholds.
But EIA documents are not always made public.
For example, projects that are listed under Schedule 1 of the Environmental Quality Act 1974 do not need to be made public.
These would include the conversion of forest areas smaller than 500 hectares into farms and the conversion of peat swamp forest areas of less than 50 hectares into other uses.
“Many developments within forest reserve areas have EIAs” which are seen only by the Department of Environment, said Balu Perumal, head of conservation at the Malaysia Nature Society (MNS).
The NGO is often invited to review and comment on EIAs, but such exclusive access “is not the best solution” to disseminate information to concerned parties, said Perumal.
“What we need” is to request that “everything to do with forest reserves, especially degazettement, must go into public domain.”
The challenge of deciding how forests are used lies in making balanced judgements on apparent conflicts: the demand for land, money and logs for development versus the need for a functioning environment.
In Malaysia, state governments alone make the difficult decisions on forest-use.
But many NGOs, researchers and the public are ready to help and play a bigger role. Here are their suggestions:
1. Make government gazettes freely available.
“That’s a very simple step which governments could do overnight at no cost,” said forestry consultant Lim Teck Wyn. “I think it will be [a] game changer.”
Not only does the public has a right to government gazettes for free, but “the public now is actually more interested,” said Lim.
Surin Suksuwan, a member of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, thinks that freely available gazettes would help educate the Malaysian public on forest-use and changes.
“They can look out for excision notices and can take appropriate action rather than scrambling around or finding out much later,” said Suksuwan, who has been working in forestry for 20 years, including on protected areas and high conservation value forests.
2. Make logging concessions long-term.
In permanent reserve forests, foresters implement sustainable forestry practices that aim to minimise logging damage.
But there are ways to further reduce logging impact.
State governments issue logging licences that are either short-term (one year) or long-term (30 years).
The duration affects how loggers perceive their allocated forests.
With a short-term licence, loggers must work fast and reap as much profit as possible, as they are vulnerable to fluctuating timber prices.
With the assurance of a long-term concession however, loggers would be more likely to sacrifice profit to protect the forest, said Goh Chee Yew, chairman of the Malaysian Timber Association.
In a short-term concession without a financial buffer, loggers have “no room, then you take the risk to take out” as many trees as allowed.
He implores state governments to select performing timber industry players and “award them regularly an area where they can work continuously and are not [affected by] the fluctuating cost.”
Retired forestry researcher Wan Razali concurs that long-term concessions would promote sustainable harvest.
Because natural tropical forest takes decades to recover from even the most careful logging, forest managers and loggers must apply a long-term plan.
Wan Razali thinks that logging concessions should be given at least two rotations of the logging cycle, i.e., 60 years or more.
3. Quantify the diverse values of forests.
“Instead of complaining about logging” you should try telling people that “forests are valuable,” said Perumal of MNS.
There is no question that forests provide critical services to humans – they capture rainfall, moderate climate, protect soil and house wildlife and plants.
The unresolved challenge is to translate these services into monetary figures that are comparable with alternative economic options.
Doing so “takes a lot of effort”, partially because it requires conservationists to venture into “areas where we aren’t trained, like measuring ecosystem services or biodiversity in value and cents,” said Perumal.
The approach of raising financial incentives to conserve biodiversity is also known as biodiversity financing.
Quantifying ecosystem services by forests is a key step to get beneficiaries to pay for them.
Take for example the Ulu Muda forest reserves in Kedah. These forests provide water for downstream industries, agriculture and the populations of neighbouring states.
“Maybe these industries would be willing to contribute funds to maintain the forests,” said Suksuwan.
(Note that during the Pakatan Harapan period, the Kedah state government was seeking federal government compensation for conserving the forests. Neighbouring beneficiary states have not offered compensation [PDF]).
In addition to payment for ecosystem services, revenue can also be generated from sustainable tourism in forests or the sustainable harvest of non-timber forest products, said Suksuwan.
“You have to package all these things together. Then maybe you can come close to having a viable alternative to forest conversion and commercial logging.”
4. Compensate states for conserving forests.
Because state governments get revenue largely from land, mining and forestry taxes, they can hardly afford to forfeit forest conversion or logging without proper financial compensation.
“The states expect to be compensated to keep the forests because they have lost revenue there, and so far the federal government has never been able to replace that lost revenue,” said Perumal.
If the federal government wishes to realise their forest conservation policies, he said, “they have to start compensating the states. They cannot simply hope for volunteerism [by the states]. It’s going to be very difficult.”
In Budget 2021 tabled on 6 November, the federal government allocated RM70 million to state governments to protect their forests. It would be done through a mechanism called ecological fiscal transfer (EFT).
This is the second time such an allocation is made. The first time was RM60 million in Budget 2019, though it is not known if and how that allocation was used.
Environmental groups welcomed the move, albeit recognising the sum as insufficient.
Matching Timber Revenue
While RM70 million is allocated for all states nationwide, individual states in Peninsular Malaysia collect upwards of RM20 million in forestry revenue a year. (Figure 2)
Amin Mokhtar, the Chairman of the Kedah Timber Association, supports the call for the federal government to disburse financial resources to states for conserving forests.
Likewise supporting this is youth group MyHutan. They said they aim to “build political will towards the implementation of laws that require the federal government to disburse money to state governments” for forest protection.
5. Amendments to the National Forestry Act 1984.
This last item on the wish list is likely the most anticipated and biggest game changer for forestry stakeholders nationwide.
Efforts to amend the National Forestry Act 1984, the federal law encompassing forestry in Peninsular Malaysia, have been ongoing for years.
The proposed amendments were to be tabled in Parliament in July, but the abrupt changes and political instability in federal and state governments have continued to see the postponement of the Bill’s tabling.
According to Dato’ Lim Kee Leng, deputy director-general of the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia who retired in July, the salient points of the proposed amendments are:
1. higher penalties for offences;
2. excision of permanent reserve forests (PRFs) only with simultaneous replacement; and
3. compulsory public consultation before PRF excisions.
That third point will greatly open the doors to public participation in forest-use changes.
Specifically, it would create an enabling provision for the state governments to conduct public hearings as one of the processes in any PRF excision proposal, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (KeTSA) told Macaranga in a written reply.
To date, Selangor is the only state in Malaysia to legislate this condition, having done so in 2011.
KeTSA will draft the public hearing procedures and is using the Selangor model as one of its references.
Forests of the Future
Some of us might see the trees as cylinders of cash and the land as fields of gold. Others might see the trees, the birds, the worms and the fishes as essential for health.
Some of us love the forests, some of us fear it. Some of us have never stepped into one, while others live and die there.
But when it comes to managing forests for the nation, personal feelings tend to give way to more entangled calculations of what forests mean in terms of cash, jobs, and votes.
Such calculations, however, would be much amiss if they are done only by a selected few – regardless of whether they are researchers, conservationists or politicians.
This is particularly so if these few live far from forests.
Ng It How has lived for almost 60 years in the town of Jemaluang on the northeastern side of Johor.
He has spent many afternoons of late with his fellow townsmen complaining about the clear-cutting of forests that stretch for ten kilometres just east of their town.
“Forests is a matter for the state government,” he said. “We can’t do anything about it. We are only residents, even the federal ministers might not have the right [to intervene] in forest matters.”
Hear My Voice
What if there were public hearings, as proposed by the amendments to the National Forestry Act?
“That would be best!” said Ng after a slight pause of disbelief.
“If there is public participation, it’s the best,” he repeated. “Because the people who stay near forests want to look at nature…if there are no trees, how could it be [called] the environment?
“If the majority disapproves, then hopefully the government won’t develop the forests.”
Edited by SL Wong.
This is the last of a four-part In-Depth Macaranga Forest Files feature on forest loss in Peninsular Malaysia. Read also Part 1: Forest loss: under whose watch, Part 2: Excision – the main threat to forests in Peninsular Malaysia, and Part 3: Revenue and power drive forest area changes.
What is a forest to you? Check out what Malaysians say and add to the Voices collection too.
Macaranga's Forest Files In-Depth series was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center’s Southeast Asia Rainforest Journalism Fund awarded to YH Law and SL Wong.
We thank the many foresters, researchers, timber trade stakeholders, lawmakers and citizens living near forests who helped us with our reporting. We also thank the six reviewers of an early draft of this series: Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, Chua Ern Teck, Nuradilla Mohamad Fauzi, Sharaad Kuttan, Theiva Lingam, and one who wishes to stay anonymous.