A new road snakes through a permanent reserve forest bloc in Johor which was last logged in the 1970s. (Composite pic by YH Law)

Excision – The Main Threat to Forests in Peninsular Malaysia

#FORESTFILES: PART 2

Decades ago, rampant logging looked set to decimate forests in Malaysia. That is no longer the case but a less familiar force is driving forest change – one over which state governments have full control. This is Part 2 of the Forest Files series.

THE 1970s were the golden age of logging in Peninsular Malaysia, veteran loggers told Macaranga.

Then the federal government came up with the National Forestry Policy in 1978 and the National Forestry Act in 1984 to promote sustainable forestry in the country.

(Photo: A new road snakes through a permanent reserve forest bloc in Johor which was last logged in the 1970s. Composite pic by YH Law.)

As a result, most forests in Peninsular Malaysia were gradually reclassified as permanent reserve forests (PRFs).

PRFs serve primarily as renewable sources of timber and are managed by each state’s forestry department according to sustainable practices.

These practices include logging only selected trees and resting forest blocs up to 30 years after logging.

Goh Chee Yew started logging in the 70s and now runs a sawmill in Terengganu. He said the 1970s were when timber players “could easily make money but not big money” because “logs were cheap and easily available.”

Another veteran logger in Johor, Dato Seri Chow Wai Yeong, said the 1970s “was so wonderful. You just get a [logging] licence and cut all. Very easy to do.”

On good weather days, “I produced 20-30 lorries of logs a day. Now it’s only 1 or 2 lorries a day.”

Maximising timber

Dato Dr Wan Razali W.M., former deputy Director-General of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia became a forester in the 1970s.

The only goal that mattered then was maximum timber production, he recalls.

“In those years, we didn’t talk about climate change, biodiversity or erosion. Nobody was complaining about the environment. But if you didn’t produce what you should, you might not last [in your job].”

Such excessive logging gave loggers a nasty reputation. They were seen as destroyers of rainforests, always eager to sacrifice the future of our children for a quick profit.

Change in direction

But with the advent of sustainable forestry and permanent reserve forests (PRFs), ‘easy’ logging came to an end in the 1980s.

Chow, the veteran logger in Johor, told me logging is “very difficult” now.

“Got to follow all the rules, like cannot damage the river, the roads must be built according to plan. Very difficult,” he said. “If you are not skilled, you can’t do it.”

Another logger whom I followed in mid-June into his 60-hectare bloc in Mersing, explained that they take only a few large trees per hectare, minimise collateral damage, and save the smaller trees.

He said the business of sustainable logging is very risky, akin to “trekking over rivers and mountains.”

But if done right, he asserted that there will always be good forests in the future.

I wanted to see evidence of such practices. So, in June, I followed a logger to his logging site in a PRF in Johor.

En route, we drove through a bloc of PRF on a muddy road not much wider than a jeep.

My logger guide explained that this bloc was last logged in the early 1970s – before sustainable logging was compulsory in PRFs – by operators who used light machinery, took only the most valuable timber and left much of the site untouched.

The undergrowth was dense and the trees tall. Although I did not see giant trees of the sort found in virgin forest, I did not see any signs of logging damage either. (See main photo)

It works

What I saw suggests that sustainable forestry practices in Peninsular Malaysia can conserve forests, at least as far as the evidence of a few decades has shown.

It is too early to tell if sustainable forestry can conserve forests for perpetuity, as the National Forestry Policy envisions.

Most forest researchers and conservationists to whom Macaranga spoke agreed that rigorous sustainable logging methods in Malaysia can allow for logged forests to regenerate well.

Macaranga spoke to more than a dozen forestry stakeholders in reporting for Forest Files. They include conservationists, researchers, foresters, loggers, and residents who live near forests.

While the majority agreed that sustainable forestry in principle can conserve forests – and is definitely better than clear-cutting – they emphasised that the outcome depends on effective execution of sustainable forestry practices.

A minority of our sources – conservationists and researchers, in particular – argued that all forms of logging hurt the environment and should be stopped. One even suggested a paradigm shift to reduce or avoid using timber and look for alternatives.

Furthermore, there are third-party certification schemes that use market forces to promote sustainable forestry.

Throughout Malaysia, including Sabah and Sarawak, the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) acts as the national governing body that oversees the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS).

The MTCC was established in 1998 and is a company limited by guarantee and independent of government.

Sustainability certificates

MTCC promotes the certification of forestry and timber products in Malaysia that meet international standards of sustainable practices.

In 2009, the MTCS was endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), the largest forest certification programme worldwide.

Because the certificates grant access to premium markets like the European Union (EU), the scheme encourages sustainable forestry in Malaysia, conservationists and foresters told Macaranga.

For the last 4 years (2016 – 2019), timber exports to the EU fetched higher sales per volume than other regions (Figure 1).

Timber Export values from Peninsular Malaysia for the years 2016-2019
Figure 1: Export volume and sales of major timber products from Peninsular Malaysia.

It appears then that within PRFs, a combination of legal and market forces can facilitate sustainable logging and conserve the forests.

PRFs promote sustainable forestry but are not without controversies, and one of the biggest of these would be forest plantations.

These are state-sanctioned monoculture estates of fast-growing trees (e.g., Acacia) cultivated inside PRFs.

Such plantations, which amounted to 120,408 hectares in Peninsular Malaysia in 2019, involves clear-cutting natural forests to plant neat rows of one species of trees.

Environmental groups like Sahabat Alam Malaysia contest that forest plantations damage the integrity and functions of the forest and surrounding environment.

For now, forest plantations make up only 2.5% of PRFs in Peninsular Malaysia. But major expansions have been planned.

The Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia Annual Report 2017 showed that a total of 399,861 hectares of land was either established forest plantations or designated for plantations.

In 2019, when only established plantations were reported, that number fell to 120,408 hectares, suggesting that almost 280,000 hectares of forest plantations are in the works.

Notably, a RM500 million fund was proposed in Budget 2021 to develop forest plantations.

What then of forests outside of PRFs?

There, the National Forestry Act does not apply. That means that outside of PRFs, forests can be legally clear-cut.

As of 2019, PRFs make up about 85.5% (4.9 million hectares) of forests in Peninsular Malaysia; protected parks (e.g., Taman Negara) and wildlife reserves make up another 10.3% (589,569 hectares).

The remaining 4.2% (240,968 hectares) of forest sits on state land for development purposes. (Figure 2)

A diagram showing the breakdown of forest classifications and area in Peninsular Malaysia (Macaranga)
Figure 2: Forest area & classification in Peninsular Malaysia, 2019

This might indicate that most forests in Peninsular Malaysia are safe from unsustainable logging and clear-cutting.

But this is far from the reality because the PRF is a classification that can be stripped from or given to any piece of land at any time.

And only one party can do that – state governments.

Authority over land

In Malaysia, the Federal Constitution (PDF link) grants state governments sole authority over land.

The exceptions are the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan, where land authority is vested in the federal government.

What’s more, excising an area from a PRF in Peninsular Malaysia involves just one simple step: the state government publishes the excision in a gazette, an official government notice.

Adding PRFs

Conversely, state governments can add areas to PRFs by the same process. In the peninsula, these procedures are outlined in the National Forestry Act.

State governments often excise or expand PRFs (Table 1).

PRF land could be excised and reclassified as state land or private land, neither of whose management needs to apply sustainable forestry principles. The opposite happens in PRF expansions.

Forest area in Peninsular Malaysia 1990 vs 2019 (Macaranga)
Table 1: States have often excised and expanded permanent reserve forests.

To illustrate the possible consequences – environmental, economic, and social – of excising forests from PRFs, Macaranga examined the result of two recent PRF excisions in Johor.

Case Study: A 17,532 hectare excision in Johor

The Jemaluang PRF and the Tenggaroh PRF, gazetted in 1923 and 1951 respectively, sat along the northeastern coast of Johor.

In 2015, both PRFs amounting to 17,532 hectares, were excised by the Johor government.

The land was transferred into private ownership with agricultural status, according to environmental impact assessment (EIA) documents sighted by Macaranga.

A 5% limit

At the time, all of Johor’s PRFs had the MTCS forest management certification.

The certification allows only a 5% limit on forest conversion. The excised Jemaluang and Tenggaroh PRFs had exceeded the threshold.

After the excision, the forest certification audit team concluded that the Johor State Forestry Department had failed to present specific evidence to explain the excision and showed no progress to correct the violation.

As a result, the auditing body suspended Johor’s forest management certification in January 2016.

Perfectly legal

To be clear, the excision of Jemaluang and Tenggaroh PRFs was legal and entirely within the rights of the Johor government.

But “certification isn’t about legality only, it’s about sustainability,” said Siti Syaliza Mustapha, senior manager of forest management at MTCC.

She added that excising forests would undermine the commitment for long-term management of forests and is clearly not sustainable.

State foresters

However, state-level forestry officers, whose job it is to oversee sustainable forestry practices in their respective states, including certification, are caught in the middle.

“The [state] forestry department had no control over [the excision],” said Siti. “They can’t do anything, and they are very upset that they lost the certificate.”

“It wasn’t because of them not complying [with] the requirement but it’s because the state decided to degazette beyond the allowed limit.”

How it works

Dato’ Lim Kee Leng, retired deputy Director-General of the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia, told Macaranga that state-level foresters are federal officers but seconded to state governments and notably, are paid by the latter.

Foresters advise their respective state governments on regulations related to sustainable forestry management.

Some officers told Macaranga that they would always try to dissuade state governments from excising forests. But when the state government insists on excision, the forestry office must accept it.

“The final decision [on PRF status] is still with the political masters,” said Lim. “[We] just advise and follow orders.”

Replacing PRFs

All is not necessarily lost though. When states excise any parts of a PRF, they should try to replace it with a similar area, according to the National Forestry Act.

However, this is not compulsory. Nor does the Act mention a time frame or quality of the replacement area.

Replacing a PRF that has been excised is an increasingly difficult exercise.

Grippin Anak Akeng, deputy director of the Pahang State Forestry Department, says that the quality of the replacement area is “an unwritten requirement, but as a forestry custodian, we have to put that as one of the requirements.”

He conceded however, that for excision if “at this point of time, we cannot find the exact [same type of forest] to replace…In some way we can compromise [between area and quality] because the first and most important [thing] is we can get the area.”

But even the area criterion is not always met.

Dato Wan Razali W.M., former deputy Director-General of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia, recalls state forestry officers who struggled to find replacements for excised PRFs.

“You can give 1,001 reasons for not replacing a degazetted area with a new area,” he said.

“We don't talk about quality yet. You can [pick] a desert to replace a forest area that has a lot of potential, because you are just putting the quantity not quality."

He further lamented the loss of mangrove forests which “you cannot create”.

When the Jemaluang and Tenggaroh PRFs were excised in 2015, the Johor government had a running list of more than 80,000 hectares of PRFs to be gazetted since 2007; by 2019, about 74,000 hectares remained on the list.

And since 2015, Johor has had a net loss of 7,000 hectares of PRFs.

Taken together, these numbers suggest that neither of the Jemaluang or Tenggaroh excisions have been replaced.

The current and past directors of the Johor state forestry department did not answer questions from Macaranga.

Datuk Khaled Nordin, who was Johor Menteri Besar between 2013 – 2018, told Macaranga that he does not remember the details of the excision and recommended we ask the current state government.

Plantations

So, what happened to the two excised PRFs? Their fate is clear from EIA documents and satellite images.

In Tenggaroh, at least 5,252 hectares were approved for an oil palm plantation run by Nadi Mesra Sdn Bhd and more than 900 hectares have been clear-cut since 2018.

As of August 2020, the same company is applying to develop oil palm on another 2,245.3 hectares in the same excised forest.

Oil palm has also replaced trees in the Jemaluang excised forest. As of January 2019, at least 2,000 hectares of forest were clear-cut and converted into a plantation run by AA Sawit Sdn Bhd. (Figure 3)

A series of photos showing how 2,190 hectares of forest in the Jemaluang forest reserve were converted into oil palm from 2016 to 2017.
Figure 3: The Jemaluang permanent reserve forest, Johor, before and after its excision in 2015. (Images from Global Forest Watch)

These cleared forests might have harboured large animals like elephants, tigers and tapirs, according to both sites’ EIA documents.

As a result of the excision and clear-cutting, residents in the nearby town of Jemaluang are now at their wits-end, with herds of up to 30 elephants roaming into town and damaging farms and plantations.

Some residents are asking for the cleared forests to be replanted.

Federal master plan

Aside from impacting local wildlife and communities, the excision and subsequent clearing of the Jemaluang PRF has also contradicted the federal government’s master plan for forest connectivity.

The National Physical Plan is the federal government’s highest-level directive for land use planning in the country.

In 2010, the National Physical Plan 2 introduced the Central Forest Spine, a strategy to conserve biodiversity and limit unsustainable development by connecting the largest remaining tracts of forests in Peninsular Malaysia (Map 1).

A map showing the distribution of forest areas in Peninsular Malaysia incorporated in the Central Forest Spine plan.
Map 1: Central Forest Spine, a network of forests and proposed ecological linkages. Text in black boxes were added by Macaranga. (National Physical Plan 3)

The former Jemaluang PRF was part of the Central Forest Spine master plan.

This master plan had identified an ecological corridor called ‘SL04’ which aimed to connect the forest complexes of Endau-Rompin and Jemaluang, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources told Macaranga in a written reply.

The Ministry, which oversees forestry, also said that the federal government through the Ministry continues to “engage closely with the state governments through various platforms in the management and conservation of our forest.”

Ramifications

But now, the Jemaluang PRF has been excised and almost half of it cleared and planted with oil palm.

What ramifications does this have on the Central Forest Spine, SL04 and the National Physical Plan?

Neither the Ministry nor Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia answered that question.

In the same basket

Other states have lost forest certifications too.

Kelantan lost its certification in 2016 due to the conversion of natural forests to forest plantations in ways that violated the certification.

Kedah lost its certification in 2019, though the exact reason is not known because the public summary report of Kedah’s audit is not available yet.

Johor however, applied anew for the certification and was awarded it in July 2020.

But this time, the certification only covered 285,293 hectares of PRFs in the state, a significant drop from the 321,841 hectares prior to 2015.

Economic consequence

It is not only forestry officers who are concerned about the loss of certification. The loss of certification hurts loggers too.

Amin Mokhtar, the Chairman of the Kedah Timber Association, told Macaranga that logs without certificates are sold at US$150 (RM420) less per tonne.

Siti, senior manager of forest management at the Malaysian Timber Certification Council, said after the three states lost their certificates, she has heard timber companies “complaining that costs have increased because they now have to source [logs] from other states with certification”.

Certification matters

She added that logging associations are “really pleading for us to help them to get their forests re-certified because they aren’t able to sell their [uncertified] timber.”

This was confirmed by Goh Chee Yew, Chairman of Malaysia Wood Industries Association, and the Malaysian Timber Association.

But “we are so powerless” in effecting change in forest management at the state level, said Goh, a 40-year timber industry veteran.

“In terms of regulation, we keep asking questions during dialogues with the forestry departments and state governments.”

“But because forest matters are all under the state government … it’s so complicated…[and] sensitive.”

[Edited by SL Wong. First posted on 27 November.]

  1. Talib, I. 2015. Overview of Forestry Sector in Malaysia. International Journal of Sciences 4: 73-78.
  2. Kathirithamby-Wells, J. 2005. Nature and Nation: Forests and Development in Peninsular Malaysia. NiAS Press.
  3. Forestry Malaysia Annual Reports. Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia.
  4. National Forestry Act 1984.

*If you wish to have a copy of documents mentioned in story but which are not listed above, please email editorial@macaranga.org

Next in Part 3: What drives the decision-making in land-use change?

This is the second 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?

How much forest loss is too much? And are the drivers of this loss the same as in the past? In Forest Files, Macaranga examines the dynamics and mechanics of forest-use changes in Malaysia. Our four-part In-Depth series focuses on Peninsular Malaysia, where more forests were lost in the last 30 years than in East Malaysia.

In Part 1, we look at how much forest we actually have, forest-use policies, and forestry decision-makers. In Part 2, we consider a key driver of forest loss – excision from permanent reserve forests. Part 3 asks what drives decision-makers and we end with Part 4 on how citizens could influence forest-use.

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.
Comments are welcomed but shall be moderated. Do not use language that is foul, slanderous, violent or that may violate laws. Personal attacks will not be tolerated.

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