A Response to Macaranga’s Article on Forest Management in Peninsular Malaysia

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.

3 thoughts on “A Response to Macaranga’s Article on Forest Management in Peninsular Malaysia”

  1. Thanks very much for this Surin. We appreciate the time and effort you took to write this. We craft the stories with the broad spectrum of our readers in mind and aim for as clear story-telling as possible. But feedback like this – along with all the comments our stories have received – makes our journalism not one-way but a full-on conversation. Thank you for this.

  2. Thank you, Surin for such detailed and insightful feedback. I am thrilled to read your elaboration because it reinforces that forest management is very nuanced with many different perspectives. That’s one key point I hope readers would learn from the story. And also that despite the complexities, one entity dictates the fate of forests: the state governments.

    I hope our readers and colleagues make use of our data and Surin’s suggestions to further scrutinise forestry in Malaysia and to improve on our reporting.

    You made valid arguments, many of which I had considered as I produced this story. I think that while you examine forest management more through the lens of conservation, I chose to report closer to the National Forestry Policy.

    I had a body of data that described forestry dynamics and land-use change. I wanted to use the data to examine which state managed its forests the best.

    I quickly realised I couldn’t answer that question. Which criteria would be fair to the states? There’s not a single criterion that works best, and if I use several, should I weigh each the same?

    In the end, I thought it would be fairest to evaluate the states using criteria based on the ultimate guiding document on forest management: the National Forestry Policy 1978.

    The six criteria are far from perfect. And in the end, I side-stepped any conclusion but took the easy way out by letting readers decide which state manages forests well, and which criteria they thought work.

    In response to your specific points on each criterion, I would like to add:

    Criterion 1
    I wanted to focus on forest management by forestry departments, as they are the agencies adhering to the National Forestry Policy. I excluded national and state parks outside of PRFs because these are managed by PERHILITAN and state parks departments.

    (For readers: In 2019, out of 5.7 million hectares of forests in Peninsular Malaysia, 0.59 million ha were in parks and reserves outside of PRFs.)

    Criterion 2
    The story reported net change in PRFs (i.e., accounting for all additions and removals of PRFs for each state in each year). Click here for the data.

    Criterion 3
    To me, timber revenue is an important criterion because the goal of the National Forestry Policy is to provide timber harvest – hence, revenue – for perpetuity. And also that timber revenue provides the state funds to rehabilitate forests post-logging.

    You are right that it’s not fair to equate top timber revenue with best forest management. I don’t claim so. Rather, with timber revenue figures in hand, we could better interpret state officials’ talk about the importance of timber revenue.

    Selangor’s quarrying is a good example of this. We now know how much more lucrative quarries are for the state than logging (at least in the short term). We can then debate if it’s better to have a few quarries that clear some forests but could ease logging on a wider scale, or do away with quarries and promote sustainable logging on a wider scale?

    I agree that state governments would do good to rely less on forestry revenue. That would help to stabilise and develop the state’s economy and ease the pressure off natural forests. Sadly, I haven’t been able to get reliable and comparable figures on state income and its composition.

    Criterion 4
    A complicated criterion and you have pointed out some of the issues just below the surface. I thought this was a worthwhile criterion because if timber harvest has dropped, it would suggest that our forestry has failed to regenerate forests. And the data shows that we have failed. The failure becomes glaring if we compare the 1990s to the 2010s – but for sake of uniformity, I omitted this comparison.

    Note: There is a better set of data to analyse timber quantity and quality in our forests – the National Forest Inventories done every decade or so. Sadly, I failed to acquire complete datasets on that to make meaningful comparisons.

    Your point on Kelantan illustrates that not a single criterion could be sufficient to judge forest management success. If we examine Criterion 4 in the light of Criterion 6 (primary forest loss), we’d see that Kelantan’s timber harvest isn’t as sustainable or rosy as it looks.

    You mentioned that if a state adheres to its annual allowable coupe (AAC) – the permissible logging quota within forest reserves – it’s a sign of good management. In an earlier story, we showed that most states followed their AAC in recent years. Dig further, and nuances appear, but I haven’t published these findings yet. Suffice to say that the AAC doesn’t apply to clearings inside PRFs for forest plantations; this technical difference has allowed some states to clear more forests than the AAC. So, even if a state sticks to its AAC, it’s not a clean stamp of good forest conservation as one might have expected.

    Other criteria and scorecard format
    Good suggestions! I will leave it at that…and hopefully, other journalists or groups will work on these. I considered the Score Card format at the start, then decided I don’t have the energy to do them.

  3. Interesting article. I’m delighted to see the discussion. I agree with Surin’s comments. I would add that per-capita figures would help put things into context. Also, in terms of actual management, I’d like to see details on how the various states have been managing high-conservation value areas. I read that species such as the tree Shorea kuantanensis went now extinct in Pahang. Also, how has forest connectivity been maintained and enhanced (CFS). These would help give a more robust picture.

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