Niah National Park (photo: SL Wong)

Conserving New Malaysia (Part I)

Since the Pakatan Harapan coalition took over government in Malaysia last year, political and economic reforms have dominated headlines. But what is this government doing about conservation? This is the first of a two-part look at conservation policy and legislation in Malaysia.

Related report: Conserving New Malaysia (Part II)

[These articles first appeared as a single essay in New Mandala as part of its ‘Changing Malaysia’ series.]

IT’S quite a dull Ministry actually, says Dr Xavier Jayakumar. “There’s a bit of apathy on the part of people to understand my Ministry .. because I deal with water and forest and mineral resources and land. Only the people who are involved in [related] industries and conservation are interested.”

To highlight the importance of natural resource management, the Minister of the Malaysian Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources is grabbing attention with a roar.

He has secured the backing of the army and police to help his overstretched wildlife rangers save the iconic Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni) from extinction.

Only firepower can tackle the key threat: poachers feeding into international crime syndicates. Fewer than 200 tigers are left in the wild in Peninsular Malaysia (tigers are not found in the Bornean states).

From a conservation standpoint, this level of attention is a seminal first for Malaysia’s new government. Promisingly, it is indicative of the broader leadership, engagement and reform being undertaken to ensure environmental issues are being tackled, even if there are problems in planning, execution and communication.

Launched in March, less than a year since Pakatan Harapan took over, the tiger conservation programme addresses the aforementioned general apathy, by drawing attention to the fate of a charismatic predator that is a national symbol.

The 'Save The Malayan Tiger' programme employs firepower to tackle poaching (Photo:, KATS/Perhilitan)
The ‘Save The Malayan Tiger’ programme employs firepower to tackle poaching (Photo:, KATS/Perhilitan)

Employing military tactics in the name of protection elevates the status of wildlife and other natural resources in the public imagination, an imagination in which conservation plays second fiddle to economic and developmental progress.

In addition, the programme is comprehensive, including safeguarding tiger prey populations, addressing demand for tiger parts, and uniting stakeholders, from federal agencies, state governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to local communities and the general public.

Crucially, it goes hand-in-hand with harsher laws and a separate large-scale reforestation programme that incorporates tiger habitats.

In reality, the Ministry does not even have enough funds to cover the RM44 million two-year programme—there is a shortfall of RM20 million—but the Minister has proceeded with it anyway, confident funds can be raised along the way. “Enough is enough, this has to stop,” says Dr Xavier.

Executing plans

Seeing this programme in action has the conservation community cautiously optimistic that federal government leadership will finally see the proper execution of two plans on which this programme is based.

These are the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan for Malaysia for 2008–2020 and the 2009 Central Forest Spine (CFS) Master Plan for Ecological Linkages.

The former’s goal was to double tiger numbers from 490 to 1,000; instead, the numbers have plunged by over 60%.

The latter’s goal is to redress forest fragmentation in the Central Forest Spine, referred to as the peninsula’s “most important ‘green heart’ … of critical habitats”, including for tigers.

Instead, according to forestry watchdog Hutanwatch, project execution had been faltering. Between 2010 and 2016, remote sensing analysis showed the project area actually lost 60,000 hectares of forest within linkages that were meant to be restored.

In both cases, non-profits and research groups had been doing the heavy lifting and lobbying.

Now, hope has also been raised for the implementation of the National Policy on Biological Diversity, which has seen scant movement a fifth of the way through its 2016–2025 timeline.

The Ministry affirms this as “the guiding document for all biodiversity planning and management at the federal and state level”. The policy also forms part of Malaysia’s response to international conservation convention obligations.

The guiding document for federal and state biodiversity planning and management (Photo: National Policy on Biological Diversity 2016-2025)

To implement the policy, the highest ministerial decision-making and coordinating policy implementation bodies set up by the previous regime are being retained while stakeholder and federal-state consultative platforms the policy calls for are finally being put together. The policy is also being reviewed.

So while it appears that some things are finally getting done, conservation groups are urging more comprehensive reform of the relevant legislation and institutions.

A priority should be the 35-year-old National Forestry Act, says Surin Suksuwan, environmental consultant and a member of the World Commission on Protected Areas. The Act governs the peninsular states while Sabah and Sarawak have their own enactments.

“Why isn’t forestry put under scrutiny in the same way as wildlife, even by NGOs and the public? The Forestry Act has been ‘under revision’ for too many years; likewise, the National Forestry Policy 1978, which was last revised 14 years ago.”

Forest loss and more

Between 1992 and 2014, Ministry figures show a loss of 216,000 hectares of forest cover in Peninsular Malaysia. These losses have further fragmented forest complexes, exacerbating biodiversity decline.

“Forestry laws are still very much orientated towards exploitation rather than emphasising protection,” says Suksuwan, adding that the forestry policy should set the tone for the Act.

These emphases would be on protecting wildlife habitats and other forest functions such as ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are benefits that humans gain from the natural environment and properly-functioning ecosystems, for example, water for drinking from forested water catchments. “It should also include a strong component of public participation.”

Rainforests provide ecosystem services such as hydro-power and drinking water (Photo: SK Chong/Sasyaz Holdings)

What is heartening is that the new government has specifically listed reviews of both the Act and Policy in its Mid-term Review of the 11th Malaysian Plan 2016–2020. Minister Dr Xavier is looking at getting the Bill for the Act tabled in Parliament, at the latest by early next year, after stakeholder consultation.

Unlike conservation groups, however, he is also looking at the amended Act’s strengthening not just forest conservation but also the sustainable forest-industry component.

He clarifies, “Deforestation and reforestation go hand-in-hand. At present, we have 55.3% of forest cover throughout the country, so we want to keep that number intact…

“But to keep that number intact, we also need to find new avenues by which industry can move forward because the demand for tropical wood is huge outside [Malaysia]. Because of that, we are going into reforestation in the form of [forest] plantations and [will] develop an economy out of it.”

Foreign direct investment

He explains that these new initiatives are federal projects with foreign direct investment from companies “interested in putting in the money to get the system going.” Last year, exports of timber and timber-based exports earned the country an estimated RM23 billion.

Care will need to be taken to ensure these forest plantations do not lead to more deforestation, warn conservationists.

While EU-led campaigns blame tropical deforestation on oil-palm plantation expansion, environmental NGO Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) says that in the last 15 years, “the total size of forested areas targeted for pulp and paper and timber tree plantations may in fact surpass that for oil palm.”

Still, Dr Xavier emphasises the government’s commitment to maintain a minimum 50% of the country as forest, a commitment that was made at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad during his previous stint in office. This call has been echoed by several current Ministers.

One is the Minister of Primary Industries, who is struggling to battle the impact on trade of international campaigns linking palm oil and deforestation.

She has banned the conversion of government forest reserves into oil palm plantations nationwide and, in fact, announced a 2023 cap on the crop’s total cultivation area. The cultivated area is already at 89% of that cap.

Maintaining that minimum 50% forest equation is also the carbon-sink strategy of the Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change.

To fund the no-deforestation commitment in order to mitigate climate change, she is seeking international results-based financing through REDD Plus (the UN Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). contd…

In Part 2, the government grapples with the tricky maxim of Malaysian federalism, that “land is a state matter”.

(Main photo: SL Wong)