Our story on evaluating forest management has received insightful feedback from Macaranga reader Surin Suksuwan with many suggestions for improvement. Here is his unedited commentary in full.
FIRST OF all, I would like to congratulate the Macaranga team for continuing to break new grounds in environmental journalism in Malaysia.
The article on Forest Management in Peninsular Malaysia is a commendable effort as it attempts to help the general reader make better sense of the often confusing forestry statistics and what they actually mean in more simple terms.
Already, there is a healthy amount of positive feedback received by the Macaranga team as can be seen from the Comments section.
The analytical approach employed in the article would hopefully stimulate discussion and interest of the general public to further educate themselves about forest governance and management in Malaysia.
Ideally such analyses should be conducted periodically by the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia (Jabatan Perhutanan Semenanjung Malaysia, JPSM) themselves or by the relevant ministry (currently the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, KeTSA).
Six criteria were chosen by the Macaranga team to evaluate good forest management. Most of the criteria are valid at face value, but the way in which they are assessed reveals some flaws in the thought process as well as factual gaps or inaccuracies.
This response will hopefully contribute to a more complete picture of forestry management in Peninsular Malaysia, inspire more robust journalistic efforts by the Macaranga team, and provide food for thought for the more discerning readers.
Criterion 1: Area of Permanent Reserve (sic) Forest
Permanent Reserved Forests (PRFs) are forested areas in Peninsular Malaysia that have been gazetted under the National Forestry Act 1984 (as adopted by the individual states).
PRFs are accorded a certain level of protection under the law as compared to forested areas that have no protection status at all (stateland forest or forest on alienated land). Therefore, the PRF area within a particular state is a reasonable measure of good forest management.
However, rather than using the total area in hectares within PRF, it would make more sense to use the percentage of PRF over the total land area within the state.
This is because the land area of each state in Peninsular Malaysia differs greatly, with Perlis being the smallest and Pahang being the largest.
So, it is no surprise then that Pahang came out as the state with the largest area within PRFs in Macaranga’s analysis.
If percentage of PRF cover is used instead, it is Perak that has the highest PRF cover (47% of total land area in the state) rather than Pahang (43.1%).
Furthermore, PRFs alone do not capture the full picture of forest conservation in Peninsular Malaysia.
Substantial areas are within protected areas that are non-PRFs e.g. Taman Negara NP (434,400ha), Krau Wildlife Reserve (62,395ha) and the Endau-Rompin (Johor) National Park (48,905ha).
Omitting these non-PRF but protected forests from the analysis provides an incomplete picture of the conservation efforts of the relevant states.
Criterion 2: Increase in Forest Reserves
An increase in Forest Reserves (another way of saying PRFs) seems to be a reasonable way of measuring good forest management. However, it is not clear if the Macaranga team was tracking the gross change in PRFs or net change (i.e. also taking into account excisions or losses in PRFs).
In some cases, a state may actually see a net decrease in PRF area even if new PRF were being added, as the loss in PRF may be higher than the addition.
Also, in some states there could be very little forest left outside of PRFs, in which case the total PRF area for that particular state would remain relatively stable from one year to another.
Some states may record a large increase in forest reserves in a particular year, but it could just be that they are playing catch up after many years with a relatively low percentage of PRF area.
Criterion 3: Forestry Revenue
This is the probably the most problematic criterion of the six. It is not clear what is the key message that is being communicated about forest revenue.
Does higher revenue mean better productivity and therefore better management? It is not so simple.
Some forms of revenue generation are extractive (such as quarrying) and therefore are not sustainable forms of forest production.
The main type of logging practised in Malaysia is selective logging which entails the cutting of selected trees in a given area rather than clear felling. Theoretically, over a long period time, the forest can regenerate and be logged again.
However, quarries cause permanent damage, from which the forest may never recover.
From Macaranga’s analysis, Selangor was identified as the state with the highest revenue collected per area of forest, but this was mainly due to its revenue from quarrying as there is little commercial forestry still being conducted in the state.
Another reason why forestry revenue may not be a good measure of good forest management is that different states have different proportions of forest under protection vs. production.
If a state has more forest under protection (e.g. within protection PRFs, national parks, state parks etc.) rather than production (which is the dominant functional class of PRFs), it would be expected to have a low revenue from its forestry resources, and that is not a bad thing.
The state’s ability to expand its income streams and reduce its dependency on forest revenue is a measure of its success in natural resources management as a whole.
Criterion 4: Maintaining Timber Harvest
This is also a complicated and problematic criterion.
Developed states may have other sources of revenue and therefore are less dependent on logging. Therefore, the level of timber harvesting in the state may be very low, as in the case of Selangor.
On the other hand, Kelantan is identified by Macaranga as the top performer where timber harvesting is concerned. However, the reason for this was not well explained.
Timber harvesting has increased dramatically in Kelantan because vast areas of forest within PRFs have been clear-felled (as opposed to selectively logged as explained earlier) in order to make way for timber plantations.
Clear-felling leads to the total loss of a natural forest which may then be replaced with a monoculture (usually rubber trees in the case of Kelantan, but also oil palms).
So, using this criterion without determining how the timber harvest is maintained is a flawed approach.
For each state, the annual allowable cut (i.e. the total hectarage of PRF where logging is allowed to be carried out on a yearly basis) is set at the national level under each Malaysia Plan.
Therefore, one way of measuring good forest management is to compare the actual area logged with the annual allowable cut. The closer the actual is to the target, the better the management.
Criterion 5: Certification in Sustainable Forestry
This is a good criterion as certification standards have a set of principles, criteria and indicators covering different aspects related to good management practices.
Therefore, being able to maintain forest management certification is a valid way of measuring good forest management.
In addition to tracking the progress in maintaining the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS), it would also be useful to monitor which states have managed to get their forest management units certified under the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and whether they have managed to maintain the certification.
Criterion 6: Primary Forest Cover
The underlying logic for this criterion is valid but the problem is with the use of the term “primary forest” which means different things to different people.
For most forest ecologists, primary forests are relatively undisturbed forests that retain a multi-layered canopy, amongst other considerations, while foresters use the term to mean unlogged forests.
The definition of “primary forest” used by the Global Forest Watch (the source of Macaranga’s forest cover data) is more aligned to what most forests ecologists and foresters in Malaysia would term as “natural forest”.
Therefore, it would have been very helpful if a footnote had been added to explain this nuance which does have a big impact in terms of the understanding (and acceptance) of the analysis by Malaysian readers.
IN ADDITION to the criteria chosen by Macaranga, there are other ways of measuring effectiveness in forest management including the following:
- Percentage of area classified for protection vs production within PRFs – a higher proportion under protection indicates that there is more emphasis on forest conservation over logging;
- Whether the state has amended its forestry enactment to allow for public participation before the excision of PRFs;
- Whether the state has amended its forestry enactment to add “state park” as an additional class of protection forest;
- Comparison of the annual allowable cut with actual hectares logged, projected vs. actual volumes etc.;
- Level of disclosure and amount of details captured in state annual forestry reports e.g. description of existing PRFs (size, location, protection status), excision/addition of PRFs, proposed PRFs, number of logging licences issued and other related details.
Perhaps a scorecard system can be devised with scores assigned depending on the level of achievement of key metrics including those identified above.
This would provide for a more objective and holistic way of measuring success. Such a scorecard system has been used in other sustainability initiatives, most notably ZSL’s SPOTT and WWF’s Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard both of which are updated and publicised periodically.