Looking into Taman Negara atop Bukit Awan in Jerantut. Gunung Tahan rises in the distance. (Photo: SK Chong)

What matters in forest management, and which state does it well? 

A story built on 20 years of forestry data in Peninsular Malaysia.

Producer/Writer: YH Law

Editor: SL Wong.

Produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network.

(Cover photo: From Bukit Awan to Gunung Tahan, by SK Chong)

 

 

 

 

Can you guess what this box shows?

 

It represents the official tally of forest loss in Peninsular Malaysia between 2000–2019: 245,566 hectares.

That is larger than the Klang Valley.

If you were to drive around this box at 100 km/hour, it would take you two hours.

In Malaysia, state governments rule over land and forest use.

They decide which land to keep as forest,

which forest to log sustainably,

and which to clear and develop.

 

But state governments do not manage forests the same way.

Pahang recently claimed the top spot in Peninsular Malaysia for forest conservation, according to the Chief Minister’s press secretary.

Here, state forestry departments in Peninsular Malaysia share their achievements over the last 20 years with Macaranga. These states house almost all the forests in the peninsula.

Kedah
We have "maintained forest reserve area of 341,976 hectares, and at the same time gazetted 61,089 hectares of State Park..."
Read more
Selangor
"Maintained and increased permanent reserve forest area in Selangor, in line with the state government's commitment..."
Read more
Perak
"Perak recorded the second highest area of permanent reserve forests in Peninsular Malaysia, that is 987,165 hectares..."
Read more
Terengganu
"Succeeded in keeping the Forest Management Certification (MTCS)...and achieved MS ISO 9001 : 2008 for sustainable timber..."
Read more
Pahang
Did not respond to request for information.
Negeri Sembilan
Did not respond to request for information.
Kelantan
Did not respond to request for information.
Johor
Did not respond to request for information.
Previous
Next

What matters in forest management, and which state does it well? A story built on 20 years of forestry data in Peninsular Malaysia.

Producer/Writer: YH Law; Editor: SL Wong.

Produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network.

Published: 11 August 2021

(Cover photo: From Bukit Awan to Gunung Tahan, by SK Chong)

Can you guess what this square shows?

 
 
 
 
 
It represents the official tally of forest area lost in Peninsular Malaysia between 2000—2019:  245,566 hectares.
 
 
 
 
 

That is larger than the Klang Valley.

To drive around this box at 100 km/hour, you would need two hours.

 

 

In Malaysia, state governments rule over land and forest use.

They decide which land to keep as forest,

which forest to log sustainably,

and which to clear and develop.

 

But state governments do not manage forests the same way.

 

Pahang recently claimed the top spot in Peninsular Malaysia for forest conservation, according to the press secretary of the state’s Chief Minister.

Here, state forestry departments in Peninsular Malaysia share their achievements over the last 20 years with Macaranga. These eight states house almost all the forests in the peninsula.

Kedah
We have "maintained forest reserve area of 341,976 hectares, and at the same time gazetted 61,089 hectares of State Park..."
Read more
Selangor
"Maintained and increased permanent reserve forest area in Selangor, in line with the state government's commitment..."
Read more
Perak
"Perak recorded the second highest area of permanent reserve forests in Peninsular Malaysia, that is 987,165 hectares..."
Read more
Terengganu
"Succeeded in keeping the Forest Management Certification (MTCS)...and achieved MS ISO 9001 : 2008 for sustainable timber..."
Read more
Pahang
Did not respond to request for information.
Negeri Sembilan
Did not respond to request for information.
Kelantan
Did not respond to request for information.
Johor
Did not respond to request for information.
Previous
Next

What do you think?

Which state do YOU think manages its forest well?

Answer this quiz below before you scroll further.

337

Do you know how well states in Peninsular Malaysia manage their forests?

1 / 6

1. Which state has the most permanent reserve forests?

2 / 6

2. Between 2007--2019, which state increased its forest reserves by the biggest margin?

3 / 6

3. Between 2007--2019, which state was most effective at collecting forestry revenue?

4 / 6

4. Between 2000--2019, which state maintained its timber harvest the best?

5 / 6

5. Which state has the best record in sustainable forestry certification?

6 / 6

6. Between 2000--2019, which state lost the least primary forests?

Your score is

The average score is 27%

0%

Were you surprised by some of the answers in the quiz?

We were.

We structured the quiz around six criteria of good forest management, and some states did unexpectedly well in certain criteria but terribly in others.

 

Criteria to Evaluate

Forest Management

We chose these criteria as they address both conservation and economic use of forest.

They also match the goal of Malaysia’s National Forestry Policy (PDF):

To sustainably manage forest reserves for maximum economic, environmental, and social benefits.

Read on to learn more about these criteria and how states rank according to them.

We hand you the reins of power at the end.

Forest Management Criteria
1 . 2 . 3 . 4 . 5 . 6

Go to Forest Management Criteria  1 . 2 . 3 . 4 . 5 . 6

Criterion #1:

Area of Permanent Reserve Forest

Permanent reserve forests (or just ‘forest reserves’) are a key component of forest management in Malaysia.

Forest reserves are managed by state forestry departments. They can be logged using sustainable practices.

For example, loggers can reduce roads and ecological damage by using the ‘logfisher’ method to pull logs, as seen in the video here.

Clear-felling is not allowed inside forest reserves, though there have been exceptions.

State governments alone have the authority to add, remove or reclassify forest reserves.

In Peninsular Malaysia, Pahang had the largest forest reserve area in 2019.

Here is a map of permanent reserve forests in Peninsular Malaysia and each state’s share.

Criterion #2:

Increase in Forest Reserves

State governments can add or remove forest reserves as they see fit.

The National Forestry Act 1984 says that a removal shall be replaced with another piece of land of equal area.

But only wherever possible and if the state government deems it beneficial to the national interest.

Between 2000–2019, Kedah increased its forest reserves by 10.6%, the most in Peninsular Malaysia.

But along the way, there were many – and often big – changes.

Tap on the data points for more details.

Are you interested in the forest reserve changes in a specific district?
 
Here’s an interactive map for you.

Criterion #3:

Forestry Revenue

Here, Datuk Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, the deputy Chief Minister of Kelantan, is saying in 2019 that the state could stop logging,
 
if the federal government gave the state its fair share of royalty from petroleum extracted within the state.
 

Like Kelantan, most other state governments also depend on tax revenue from extracting natural resources.

State governments often say they are forced to log or clear forests for plantations and mines because they have few other means of generating revenue.

Here, Datuk Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, the deputy Chief Minister of Kelantan, is saying in 2019 that the state could stop logging,
 
if the federal government gave the state its fair share of royalty from petroleum extracted within the state.

Like Kelantan, most other state governments also depend on tax revenue from extracting natural resources.

State governments often say they are forced to log or clear forests for plantations and mines because they have few other means of generating revenue.

And forestry revenue can be a huge sum.

Between 2007–2019, Pahang collected almost RM 1.4 billion in forestry revenue – the most in Peninsular Malaysia.

That’s expected because Pahang controls more than one-third of forests in the peninsular.

But what’s more surprising is that some states (e.g., Johor) with more forest area collect less revenue.

However, if we really want to check how well states extract cash from their forests, a better indicator would be revenue per forest area.

And that shows a very different picture.

Between 2007–2019, Selangor was the most effective state in monetising forest – RM 233 from every hectare of its forests.
However, Selangor’s feat emerged only after 2010, as yearly data shows.
 
Tap the data points for more details.

In 2010, Selangor imposed a 25-year moratorium on logging in forest reserves. So, unlike other states, Selangor derives most of its forestry revenue from non-timber products.

The main non-timber product is rocks quarried from permanent reserve forests, says Syed Mohd Adzha bin Syed Khalid from the Forest Planning and Certification section in the Selangor State Forestry Department.

He tells Macaranga that Selangor has raised the tax rates for forestry products, especially quarry rocks, leading to much higher forestry revenue since 2011.

Quarries in forest reserves are licensed and specified in areas with lower tree density and higher granite content in the ground, says Syed Mohd. The area will be first cleared and then developed into a quarry.

Logs harvested in a forest reserve in Johor, 2020. These were logged according to sustainable forestry rules.
Logs harvested in a forest reserve in Johor, 2020. These were logged according to sustainable forestry rules. (Photo: YH Law)

Criterion #4:

Maintaining Timber Harvest

The primary goal of the National Forestry Policy and the National Forestry Act 1984 is to sustain timber production for perpetuity.

The focus is permanent reserve forests – these make up over 85% of forests in Peninsular Malaysia.

Foresters and state governments want permanent reserve forests to regenerate and produce timber for many generations to come.

This goal requires disciplined logging: only trees tagged by foresters can be felled, roads kept minimum, and plots left to rest and recover for up to 30 years after logging.

Logs harvested in a forest reserve in Johor, 2020. These were logged according to sustainable forestry rules.
Logs harvested in a forest reserve in Johor, 2020. These were logged according to sustainable forestry rules. (Photo: YH Law)

How well have state governments and forestry departments maintained the productivity of their permanent reserve forests?

At a glance, timber harvest fluctuated greatly from year to year in the past two decades.

Tap data points for more details.

 

But we can get a clearer picture by comparing the averages of timber harvest over two decades, e.g., 2010–2019 against 2000–2009.

 
Furthermore, we can better gauge the productivity of permanent reserve forests by checking the timber per area of permanent reserve forests harvested.
 
This analysis reveals a worrying result.

How well have state governments and forestry departments maintained the productivity of their permanent reserve forests?

At a glance, timber harvest fluctuated greatly from year to year in the past 20 years.

Tap data points for more details.

But we can get a clearer picture by comparing the averages of timber harvest over two decades, e.g., 2010–2019 against 2000–2009.
 
Furthermore, we can better gauge the productivity of permanent reserve forests by checking the timber per area of permanent reserve forests harvested.
 
This analysis reveals a worrying result.

Most states in Peninsular Malaysia have not been able to maintain levels of timber harvest.

Only Kelantan has increased both timber harvest and forestry productivity in the 2010s compared to 2000s.
 
The Kelantan State Forestry Department did not respond to Macaranga‘s questions on its timber harvest.

While the huge drop in Selangor is due to a logging moratorium which started in 2010, other states like Perak and Johor, which continued to log, also saw declines.

This would suggest that our National Forestry Policy and sustainable forestry practices have failed to keep our natural forests as viable timber stock.

The Perak State Forestry Department did not respond to Macaranga‘s questions on its timber harvest decline.

Criterion #5:

Certification in Sustainable Forestry

To show that they are practising sustainable forestry, forestry departments in Peninsular Malaysia can apply for certification.

Standards used in Malaysia include certification by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS).

The MTCS has been endorsed by PEFC, the world’s largest forest certification system, since 2009.

PEFC-certified timber in Malaysia ready for delivery. (Photo courtesy of Malaysian Timber Certification Council)

In Peninsular Malaysia, Pahang is the only state to have an unbroken record of MTCS certification for forest management since 2001.

Since 2016, a trend has emerged where the major forested states of Kedah, Kelantan, Johor lost their forest management certifications.

Their certifications were revoked because they breached compliance with the standards.

Neither Kelantan nor Kedah responded to Macaranga‘s questions on losing their certifications.

These recent certification losses worry the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC), the body that develops and operates the MTCS.

“It indicates increasing competition for land use and a greater challenge to ensure that forest could be maintained as an important land use for socio-economic development of the states,” says Melvin Ku Kin Kin, senior executive at MTCC.

Johor for one excised forest reserves more than the 5% conversion threshold in 2015, and Kelantan zoned certified natural forests into monoculture forest plantations in the same year.

Without certification, timber businesses might lose out as they are excluded from lucrative markets like European Union countries which import only certified timber.

In the Merapoh Forest Complex, a male Rhinoceros Hornbill feeds fruits to its nestling in a tree cavity.
In the Merapoh Forest Complex, a male Rhinoceros Hornbill feeds fruits to its nestling in a tree cavity. (Photo: Izereen Mukri, Malayan Rainforest Station)

Criterion #6:

Primary Forest Cover

Primary forests are mature, ecologically healthy forests that have grown undisturbed for many decades.

These forests provide the most diverse ecosystem services: water catchment, wildlife habitats, carbon sequestration, food security.

When forests are logged or even cleared, they could regrow into primary forests given the right conditions.

But it requires time. A lot of time.

Misty tropical rainforest in Malaysia (YHLaw)
The Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex, Perak. (Photo: YH Law)
Therefore, it is sound forest management to protect primary forests.
 

Between 2001–2019, satellite imagery shows that Selangor lost 5.14% of its primary forest, the least in Peninsular Malaysia.

A look at the cumulative loss over time shows that states like Pahang and Kelantan have been losing their primary forest faster than other states.

The Kelantan State Forestry Department did not respond to Macaranga‘s questions on its 20% primary forest loss.

Tap data points for details.

 

Note however, that primary forest loss deduced via satellite imagery does not tally with forest area changes reported by forestry departments.

That is mainly because satellite images report what is visually on the ground while forestry departments record land-use.

The two sets of data paint very different pictures.

A look at the cumulative loss over time shows that states like Pahang and Kelantan have been losing their primary forest faster than other states.

The Kelantan State Forestry Department did not respond to Macaranga‘s questions on its 20% primary forest loss.

Tap data points for details.

Note however, that primary forest loss deduced via satellite imagery does not tally with forest area changes reported by forestry departments.

That is mainly because satellite images report what is visually on the ground while forestry departments record land-use.

The two sets of data paint very different pictures.

Between 2001–2019, forestry departments in Peninsular Malaysia reported total forest loss of 245,566 hectares.

In contrast, primary forest loss reported by satellite imagery is thrice that at 758,397 hectares.

What could explain this huge gap?

A potentially key component is forest plantations: estates of single-species fast-growing trees grown for timber and pulp.

Between 2007–2018, Kelantan and Pahang cleared about 180,000 hectares of forests to create such plantations.

All of these 180,000 hectares would have been flagged as forest loss in satellite imagery, but not in government records.

Tap data points for details.

A misty Sungai Yu Forest Reserve. (Video: Izereen Mukri, Malayan Rainforest Station)

We hope this exercise has helped you to appreciate the many nuances in forest management.

What happens to one forest affects societies far and wide, and generations current and future.

In Malaysia, decisions on forest management are made by state governments aided by forestry departments.

If you were a Chief Minister, which three criteria below would you use to manage your state’s forests?

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21 thoughts on “Two Decades of Forest Management – You Evaluate”

  1. A very timely look at the state of forest management, presented in a most clear and accessible way! This has helped me think more clearly about the issues around our forests.

  2. Interesting analysis on the state of forest management in P Msia using the latest available data. Differences in forest losses bet FD statistics and satellite data warrant a further look, including the definition of forest land adopted by the government.

    1. Thanks for reading, Abd Rahim. I think the government has a valid point in defining / measuring forest based on land classification/ land use. After all, a government’s role is to plan resources use for the long term, so if they designate a land as ‘forest’, and plan for it to be used as a forest, then even if it’s barren now, in 30 years time it could grow into a secondary forest that can provide many ecological services.

      1. Job well-done. I enjoyed the “interface” between the reader and the article. The findings are a bit surprising – great that hard data was used to establish the findings. On your positive response to Dato’ Dr. Abdul Rahim Nik’s comments, a hardened, retired forester had this to say: “There is no way that empty land can last one year, let alone 30 years to grow back into secondary forest. Sadly, our country is packed with opportunistic investors. That piece of land will be in no time be taken up for other developments. Reality is, we keep losing our valuable forest land.”.
        Thanks for trying to be optimistic.

        1. Hi Aimi, thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I’d agree that my argument was very optimistic, and that it isn’t supported by the consistent decline in primary forest cover estimated by satellite imagery.
          I was repeating the rationale of the policy-makers and what the forestry department told me. Whether their expectations panned out in reality in the bigger picture – especially after the Rio Summit of 1992 – I’d say the figures aren’t in their favour, but we would need to do tighter monitoring to be conclusive. For one, forestry departments have been showcasing a lot of their rehabilitation & reforestation efforts in degraded land/forests, but I don’t recall any independent report that examines the success of such effort.
          Also, we would need more data (and maps!), and reliable data at that.

  3. Thanks for much for this analysis YH. Kelantan is a very interesting case and I hope that they will be able to overcome the challenges in re-obtaining certification.
    Looking forward to continue supporting you in your efforts to present the facts and figures, and paint an unbiased picture of forestry realities in the country.

    1. Hi Siti, thanks to MTCC for always being responsive to our questions! The rapid rise of forest plantations in Kelantan is indeed…interesting and definitely warrants further examination to check how it is done and what effects it brings.

  4. Thanks for this interactive piece! I think this is a great way for the public to begin understanding the issue in Malaysia before they go more in depth and read your other pieces about this.

    I still find myself surprised that “permanent forest reserves” is not what I thought it would be ( something put in place to preserve and conserve natural resources). Instead, the primary goal seems to be to produce “sustainable logging”. And then, we also have forest plantations for this purpose.

    Q: What policies/laws do we have in place — with teeth to bite — in the country that actually prioritises the protection of primary forests (or even secondary forests) for the sake of conservation and preservation, instead of for economic gains?

    1. Hi Nat, thanks for reading.

      I’d argue that state authorities cannot be expected to leave untouched vast area of land and natural resources just to preserve them, especially when these states do not have developed economies in their cities or outside of forests to generate income. I’d agree that sustainable logging – and any other means of natural resource extraction – be allowed (encouraged even) in the framework of conservation if the extraction is truly done sustainably and proven so. In this sense, I think our National Forestry Act 1984 was heading in that direction. The Act gives the State authority (‘state government’, and in practice, the State Exco, and ultimately, the Menteri Besar) the highest power to protect forests; likewise, it also gives the same authority the power to remove this protection.

      So, which act has teeth? National Forestry Act has plenty of teeth. It’s only a question of what the wielder of power chooses to bite.

      On the other hand, there’s the National Parks Act which grants more power over management of land in national parks to the Federal ministry rather than the State. But even then, the National Parks Act says decisions are to made by State Authority “after consultation with the Minister”. Not sure if that means ‘must get permission/agreement of Minister’ or simply ‘consult’ cukup.

      1. Thanks Yao Hua! Hmm… Are there any checks and balances in place to ensure that while there are forest used to generate income, there are also forests/natural reserves that have permanent protection and cannot be revoked by the state? In other words, stronger protection for forests (for the sake of conservation/preservation) that is not subject to the whims of whichever state govt is in power then.

        If you had a say what would you hope to see? haha

        Sorry I can’t recall if this was mentioned in previous articles that you’ve written on this topic. Apologies if I’m making you repeat yourself.

        1. Hi Nat,
          I can only think of the National Parks Act giving that kind of protection you described. Under the National Forestry Act, state governments can change forest reserves in and out of production/protection.
          In Selangor, the Khalid Ibrahim government made public consultation/participation a compulsory step before degazettement of forest reserves. That was what happened with the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve. Though the Selangor government is not bound to act according to the public opinion, many conservationists applaud this step because it alerts the public and gives the public a say. The people’s power lies in the votes, kan?

          For me, I’d like public participation required nationwide, and make state gazettes free and publicly accessible. Just make these public information truly public, and let society and journalists help government monitor.

          A list of recommendations can be found here.

          1. The public may be selective in looking at the data i.e charts or graph, and people may not understand, the public poll results show that, overall it is a very good presentation, syabas!
            What’s done is done, n land use changes happen here n there, perhaps the fed n state governments can look at how to designate idle lands as reserves n even encourage alienated lands be created as reserves.

          2. Hi Kan, thanks for reading and the encouragement. Much appreciated. As for your suggestion (wish?), one’s got to ask what would drive the governments to establish more forest reserves? As for encouraging alienated land (i.e., private land) to be converted to reserves…as the system stands, if I own private land and I want to protect it, I wouldn’t make it reserves. Because the govts can change the status of the reserves anytime. If I own the land and I want to protect it, I would do it myself 🙂 !

  5. Good articles to outline most of the issues with forest management. But I don’t agree with all the criteria. One important aspect that was not included is landscape connectivity and biodiversity. Without this, it provides false pitcure. A State can have over 50% of forest cover but it likely is pointless if most of them are fragmented islands that are not connected to each other and larger landscapes. Very likely the biodiversity is low (hutan sunyi).

    1. Hi Afandi, thanks for your comment. Disagreement and discussion is very welcomed 🙂

      I agree with you that biodiversity and connectivity are important elements of forest health and ecological functioning. In fact, I would say that there are many, many more criteria to look at – take TeckWyn’s comment above and Surin’s response to start. I didn’t want to do a comprehensive list, but rather a list of criteria that is based on the National Forestry Policy (and thus provides a fair ground to evaluate the states’ performance) and for which I can get reliable, quantitative data to compare, relatively easy.

      Do we have (updated) data that allows for meaningful and objective comparison of forest connectivity in Peninsular Malaysia? There’s the Intact Forest Landscapes on Global Forest Watch…but this dataset only qualifies Taman Negara, Belum, and the Krau-Benom forest complex as Intact forest landscapes. I believe there are other datasets, but can it be (relatively) easily to translate into comparable numbers? Could be difficult to explain to general readers too.

      1. I’d be happy to get your ideas on how we can compare forest connectivity and biodiversity in forests across the Peninsular Malaysian states. Write to us! (www.macaranga.org/contact/)

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