#LADANGHUTAN

Fixing Forest Plantations, Part 1: Taking a Break

Forest plantations caused so much concern that the Malaysian National Land Council called for a pause on new projects in the peninsula. But 2.5 years into the moratorium, it is not appearing to work.

Writer: YH Law; Editor: SL Wong

Published: 9 July 2024

Part 2  | Part 3

(Planters are clearing sites in the Krau forest reserve for forest plantations. | Pic by YH Law)

#LADANGHUTAN2

Fixing Forest Plantations, Part 1: Taking a 15-year break

Forest plantations caused so much concern that the Malaysian National Land Council called for a pause on new projects in the peninsula. But 2.5 years into the moratorium, it is not appearing to work.

Writer: YH Law
Editor: SL Wong

Published: 9 July 2024

Part 2 | Part 3 

(Planters are clearing sites in the Krau forest reserve for forest plantations. | Pic by YH Law)

This is Part 1 of our 3-part #LadangHutan2 series.

IN PENINSULAR MALAYSIA, failed forest plantations ballooned into a national concern. In December 2021, the Prime Minister and state Chief Ministers in the National Land Council announced a 15-year moratorium on new forest plantations in the peninsula.

These monoculture farms of fast-growing trees took off in 2007. Since then, these projects had cleared forest reserves more than 1.3 times the size of the state of Melaka. But planters abandoned half of the sites and left them barren. Meanwhile, genuine planters regretted their investments, indigenous communities suffered, and Malaysia lost its natural forest.

The statistics worried the federal Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia (FPDM). “We view this situation seriously because it undermines the real purpose of establishing forest plantations,” FDPM told Macaranga in a statement.

Now, 2.5 years into the moratorium, the regulators have made notable corrections. They are hounding rogue planters and reviewing protocols to monitor forest plantations and enforce rules.

However, it would take much more effort to make forest plantations sustainable. Data remains outdated and incomplete. Foresters will finish a review of forest plantation impact only in 2027. At the state level, forestry departments need more staff and technology to enforce regulations.

And one could even ask: Is the moratorium working?

The Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia told Macaranga that the moratorium serves the following:

  • Review and evaluate the Forest Plantation Development Programme in permanent reserved forests
  • Completely replant areas that were cleared but not yet planted
  • Study the long-term effects of forest plantation programmes
  • Reduce losses of ecosystem services and forest reserve landscapes
  • For the federal government and the state governments to consider the objections of local communities, NGOs and Orang Asli against the development of forest plantations
  • Provide opportunities and space for state governments to ensure plantation operators are more proactive in full replanting

Forest plantations come to Krau, Pahang

In early June, Yusri bin Ahon and Rosli a/l Panjang drove into Pahang’s Krau forest reserve. The two men live in different villages next to the reserve but have banded to stop forest loss. They knew that forest plantations had been approved in the forest reserve. Trucks loaded with logs have been coming out of the reserve. 

When Macaranga showed them a satellite image of a cleared area in forest reserve Compartment 21, they decided to check the site out for themselves.

Yusri bin Ahon of Kampung Sungai Mai, Pahang, uses maps to monitor forest loss in the Krau forest reserve next to this village. (YH Law)
Yusri bin Ahon of Kampung Sungai Mai, Pahang, uses maps to monitor forest loss in the Krau forest reserve next to this village. (YH Law)

Minutes before entering the forest reserve, they passed an open lot with trucks full of logs. It was a matau, or logyard, where the forestry department measures and checks the logs harvested from the reserve. Signboards show that the logyard was accepting timber harvested from forest reserve sites approved for “development”—typically plantations.

Trucks at a logyard outside the Krau forest reserve with the timber harvested from sites cleared for forest plantations. (YH Law)
Trucks at a logyard outside the Krau forest reserve. They were carrying the timber harvested from sites cleared for forest plantations. (YH Law)

Inside the reserve, the unpaved road climbed steeply. Once Yusri felt confident that his 4WD could traverse the road safely (“This car has some issues with the coupling!”), he chatted with Rosli about how forest plantations work and their history in the Krau forest reserve.

In Peninsular Malaysia, forest plantations run in a 5-step cycle. First, state governments earmark zones for forest plantations. Then, the governments approve forest plantation projects for planters, who in turn, must meet additional requirements such as conducting environmental impact assessments. Once the governments and their state forestry departments are satisfied, they issue licenses to the planters.

Only then can the planters build roads, clear the sites, and replant with trees, which they would harvest in as little as 4 years.

An infographic that shows the 5-step process to develop forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysia. (Copyright: Macaranga Media)

In 2021, Yusri and other villagers had asked the Pahang Forestry Department about logging in the Krau forest reserve. The officials told them that logging would be selective and the harvest minimal. But the narrative changed over time.

Yusri recalls being told planters would clear “1,000 acres (400 ha) for forest plantation, then 4,000 acres (1,600 ha), and then 6,000 acres (about 2,400 ha)”. Since then, he has been working on saving the forest. 

Yusri claims that initially village leaders supported his campaign to stop the plantations but changed their minds after a meeting with government officials and developers. He needs a new strategy to win support.

A logging road snakes through the Krau forest reserve. Tall trees grow in the uncut areas in the forest. (YH Law)
A logging road snakes through the Krau forest reserve. Tall trees grow in the uncut areas in the forest. (YH Law)

Two kilometres into the reserve, the forest looks lush on both sides of the road. Swarms of termites took to the sky, their fluttering wings reflecting slivers of sunlight.

Just around a bend in Compartment 33, Yusri spotted something. “That’s a new road. It wasn’t here when we came last year.” The new road led east into a valley. Yusri continued towards Compartment 21.

Minutes later, they pulled up on a ridge. “Oi!” yells Yusri. To the east, a hill was being cleared. He surmised that the site will likely be a forest plantation, as it is too remote for farms or oil palm estates. Yusri frowned.

The Krau forest reserve is a new hotspot for forest plantations in Pahang. Since January 2022 – after the National Land Council announced the moratorium – planters have cleared 4 blocs there, totaling nearly 800 ha. That is more than had been cut in the 10 years before, according to satellite image analyses.

Satellite image of Krau forest reserve dated May 2024. Analyses show that forest loss in 2022-May 2024 has exceeded that of the previous 10 years. (Copyright: Macaranga Media)

Furthermore, Pahang has been approving many more forest plantations than it had agreed to, according to the Auditor-General’s 2023 Special Audit on Forest Management and Environmental Impact.

Pahang has too many forest plantations

Forest plantation quotas in the peninsula were set by the National Land Council, of which all the state Chief Ministers are members. In 2012, the council allocated 439,189 ha for forest plantations. Pahang received a quota of 36,030 ha.

But by December 2021, Pahang had approved about 100,000 ha of forest plantations in its forest reserves – nearly thrice its quota. Kedah, Selangor, and Negeri Sembilan had also exceeded their quotas, but none came close to Pahang’s excess.

Why did these 4 states breach their quotas? Partially because the state governments were using forest plantations to rehabilitate old mines and quarries, illegally logged areas, and degraded state land that was turned into forest reserves, according to the Special Audit report.

The Pahang Chief Minister’s office and the Pahang Forestry Department did not respond to our questions.

In 2021, the National Land Council responded to the breaches with a moratorium. In the Auditor-General’s Special Audit report, the then Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change said that the 15-year moratorium on new forest plantations applied immediately on 2 December 2021 and specifically to the 4 states that had exceeded their quotas (Pahang, Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, and Selangor). Other states could add new projects after consulting the Ministry.

However, 2.5 years later, the moratorium has not stopped new forest plantations. 

Forestry Department statistics show that in 2022, the first year of the moratorium, Kelantan licensed 10,272 ha of forest reserves to be cleared for forest plantations; Perak 452 ha. Even Pahang, perhaps the main target of the moratorium, licensed planters to clear 5,100 ha in 2022.

Doubts on the moratorium

So, why does the moratorium not seem to work?

Foresters and planters told Macaranga that the state governments had approved these forest plantations before the moratorium and that they were, therefore, “not new”. The evidence for such claims would be in the approval letters from the state government, but these are seldom made public.

When asked for the number of newly approved forest plantations, FDPM replied that they are reviewing the information with state forestry departments. They did not answer our question on which states had breached the moratorium.

Still, one could argue that state governments could disregard the moratorium because it is not legally binding. Ultimately, the Federal Constitution gives state governments and rulers authority over land and forest. 

FDPM told Macaranga that questions on the legal implications of the moratorium should be forwarded to the legislative authority, namely Parliament.

Checking Parliamentary hansards, the moratorium has indeed been mentioned in Parliament. In July 2022, Takiyuddin Hassan, the then Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, answered questions on forest plantations.

“Although the National Land Council does not bind the state governments 100%, as a moral obligation, state governments are bound because they are part of the decision-making in the Council,” said Takiyuddin.

Yusri bin Adnon visits the Krau forest reserve to monitor forest plantation sites. He thinks the forest is not a degraded forest and should not be turned into monoculture tree farms. (YH Law)
Yusri bin Adnon visits the Krau forest reserve to monitor forest plantation sites. He thinks the forest is not a degraded forest and should not be turned into monoculture tree farms. (YH Law)

However, on the ground in Pahang, Yusri, who continued driving towards Compartment 21, was less concerned if the state government’s authority trumps that of the National Land Council. As he steered his faulty 4WD ahead, he recalled his desperate search for ways to save the Krau forest reserve from massive clearing.

Yusri has found new hope in the findings of the Auditor-General’s Special Audit report and the moratorium. He sees no excuse for Pahang to further breach its quota and add forest plantations – the reserve is a healthy forest, not old mines or degraded land.

“Please share the Special Audit report with me,” he told Macaranga. He repeated this reminder twice more in the same day.


What will Yusri and Rosli find at Compartment 21? And how are governments tackling the problem of planters not replanting? Find those answers and more in Part 2.

This is Part 1 of our 3-part series #LadangHutan2 on addressing forest plantation issues. Our 2022 series on #LadangHutan forest plantations is here.

  1. Auditor-General Malaysia. 2023. Special audit on forest management and environmental impact.
  2. Rimbawatch. Forest Tracker.
  3. Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia. 2017. Garis Panduan Penubuhan Ladang Hutan.
  4. Ratnasingam J., et al. 2020. Plantation forestry in Malaysia: an evaluation of its successes and failures since the 1970. Notulae Botanicae Horti Agrobotanici Cluj-Napoca 48: 1789-1801.
  5. Sahabat Alam Malaysia. 2020. Plantations are not forests.

Some reference materials for Macaranga's forest plantation stories can found in this public folder. Data used in this story will be shared after the series is fully published.

We used 2 months to produce this 3-part series. Most of the field reporting was done in early June and the writing in late June.

We reached out to nearly 30 sources and interviewed 18 of them. They comprise planters, loggers, foresters, locals living next to affected forest reserves, government agencies, and consultants. We interviewed all sources in person except for the government agencies and consultants who requested email correspondence.

We dedicated one week to field reporting in Perak and Pahang and 2 weeks to analysing reports, data sheets and satellite images. Producing the visuals took 2 days.

Reporting expenses summed up to about RM1,100. About 80% of the cost was field reporting expenses with data purchases making up most of rest.

Our stories are free-to-read, and we rely on membership revenue to fund our work.

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