#LADANGHUTAN2

Fixing Forest Plantations, Part 2: Faster Replanting Needed

By 2021, at least half of forest reserve sites cleared for forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysia were not replanted. Since then, Kelantan has sped up its replanting, but Pahang remains a laggard.

Writer: YH Law; Editor: SL Wong

Published: 10 July 2024

Part 1Part 3

(Batai saplings dot a site in the Krau forest reserve that was cleared for a forest plantation. | Pic by YH Law)

#LADANGHUTAN2

Fixing Forest Plantations, Part 2: Faster Replanting Needed

By 2021, at least half of forest reserve sites cleared for forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysia were not replanted. Since then, Kelantan has sped up its replanting, but Pahang remains a laggard.

Writer: YH Law
Editor: SL Wong

Published: 10 July 2024

Part 1Part 3 

(Batai saplings dot a site in the Krau forest reserve that was cleared for a forest plantation. | Pic by YH Law)

This is Part 2 of our 3-part #LadangHutan2 series.

AFTER DRIVING 7 km into Pahang’s Krau forest reserve, local villagers Yusri bin Ahon and Rosli a/l Panjang reach Compartment 21. On their last visit a year ago, hundreds of species of trees, shrubs, and vines flourished there. Tree crowns competed for light, reaching more than 6 storeys into the sky. Now, all that is gone except for strips of forest by the streams. Their hearts sink.

The site has become a forest plantation in the making. Rows and rows of saplings one-foot (0.3 m) tall, each planted 2.4 metres apart, stretch across the open field. They appear to be batai, a tree gaining popularity in Malaysian forest plantations for its rapid and robust growth.

Yusri and Rosli look puzzlingly at the yellowish-green new growth. The two Orang Asli Jahut men do not recognise the saplings. They hurry to the side of a hill and take videos of the brown expanse below. They want natural forests entangled in a web of plants and animals, not plantations with neat rows of trees. 

But back in their villages, folks are divided over forest plantations. Some villagers were meant to join them that day for this recce, but did not turn up.

Yusri wants his people to see what they are losing. The place where their elders had gathered; the forests that gave them bamboo and palm; and the streams that fed them snails and fish. On the way to this site, he spoke non-stop, sharing stories of Orang Asli hunts and beliefs.

But at this ridge, he says little.

Yusri bin Ahon (right) and Rosli a/l Panjang were disappointed that the site in the Krau forest reserve they had visited last year has been cleared. (YH Law)
Yusri bin Ahon (right) and Rosli a/l Panjang were disappointed that the site in the Krau forest reserve they had visited last year has been cleared. (YH Law)

Forest plantations took off in Peninsular Malaysia in 2007, fueled by government support. Under the Forest Plantation Development Programme, the Ministry of Plantation and Commodities financed planters with soft loans totaling more than RM1 billion. By late 2021, state governments had licensed loggers to clear nearly 275,000 ha of forest reserves for forest plantations. Planters are required to replant within 6 months.

But the results have fallen far below the original goals. Planters have not replanted at least half of the sites. Delays range between 1 month to 14 years, according to the Auditor-General’s Special Audit on Forest Management and Environmental.

Such problems prompted the National Land Council to call for a 15-year moratorium on new forest plantations starting 2 December 2021. This moratorium would give state governments a window to enforce replanting.

It has worked partially. Since the moratorium, replanted areas have increased by 28% to almost 145,000 ha, the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia told Macaranga. However, they did not say where the replanting happened or how much more was cleared in the same period.

What have the state governments done to improve replanting?

Kelantan: Taking charge

Kelantan has led recent replanting efforts. In 2022, the state replanted 13,700 ha of forest plantations; Pahang 2,600 ha, and Perak 110 ha, according to Forestry Statistics Peninsular Malaysia 2022.

Kelantan’s improvement comes from stern action taken in the last 2 years. The state forestry department had issued letters to planters and threatened to retract (tarik balik) their land-use rights if they did not replant.

“Many of my friends and colleagues received the letters and they began replanting,” says Charlie, who has managed logging and forest plantation projects in Kelantan for years. “Else they would take their own sweet time.” Charlie requested anonymity for fear of reprisals in their project approvals.

Charlie estimates that about 80 companies received the letters. Some planters who failed to replant had had their licenses cancelled. “The government would then offer the land to corporations for replanting.” Charlie expects a lot more replanting in Kelantan over the next 2 years.

Two other loggers and planters in Kelantan also told Macaranga about the letters.

A two-year old batai plantation in Kelantan. (YH Law)
A two-year old batai plantation in Kelantan. (YH Law)

What might have prompted the Kelantan government to act? The Kelantan Forestry Department did not respond to our questions. But Charlie says, “Eventually they must do it. NGOs and media like yours are checking on them, and comparison with other states make them look bad.”

Pahang: Plenty more to replant

Over in Pahang, replanting is much slower than in Kelantan. The state replanted only about 2,600 ha in 2022.

Compared to how much forest has been cleared, this is dismal. By September 2021, the state had cleared 47,000 ha with 18,000 ha yet to be replanted, according to the Special Audit report. If Pahang stops clearing new sites today, it will still have to replant about 15,000 ha.

There is a big difference between the forest plantation statistics reported in the Special Audit report and the Forestry Statistics Peninsular Malaysia, which is published annually by the FDPM.

Compared to the Special Audit’s figure of 47,000 ha cleared in Pahang, the Forestry Department reported nearly double that at 90,000 ha licensed clearing in 2012—2022. (Planters told Macaranga that they would clear immediately upon receiving a license.)

Assuming that most licensed areas were cleared, then Pahang should have 77,000 ha to replant – more than 4-times that found by the Special Audit. The Pahang Forestry Department did not respond to our interview requests.

 

And Pahang continues to clear new sites, as Yusri and Rosli discover in the Krau forest reserve. From where he stands, Yusri thinks too much forest has already been cleared. When he learns that what he is looking at is only half of the project size, he yells in disbelief.

That forest plantation in Compartment 21 is owned by Gemilang Krai Sdn Bhd. The company’s approved project spans 8 forest compartments in the Krau forest reserve, covering 423 ha. It began clearing the sites in September last year and, by late May, had cut 200 ha. When shown photos of the site, experienced planters said it looked to be managed according to protocol.

Gemilang Krai has a loan from the Forest Plantation Development Programme, according to company registrar documents. The Cheah family, who owns the company, are well-known planters in Kelantan and Pahang, according to Charlie, the plantation manager in Kelantan.

The family also owns Kenali Ceria Sdn Bhd, another company clearing the hill in an adjacent compartment. Yusri had passed that half-bald hill en route to Compartment 21. It gave him his first heartache that morning.

Macaranga has tried to report on Pahang’s strategy to ensure replanting. However, the Pahang Forestry Department did not respond to our interview requests. Cheah Kam Hung, the owner of Gemilang Krai, declined to be interviewed. Directors and shareholders of two other forest plantation companies in the vicinity also did not respond to our questions.

Perak: “Committed planters only”

Compared to Pahang and Kelantan, Perak appears to have a tighter leash on forest plantations. Planters and foresters told Macaranga that there is little need to worry about irregular operations in Perak.

For one, Perak caps its total forest plantation area at about 32,400 ha. The Perak Forestry Department quoted this figure in a 2023 environmental impact assessment report sighted by Macaranga. This means that Perak intends to use only one-third of its 100,000ha quota allocated by the National Land Council in 2012.

A map of the areas inside forest reserves zoned for forest plantations in Perak. The areas totalled 32,375 ha. (Copyright: Macaranga Media)

The Perak Forestry Department also prohibits planters from clearing more than 100 ha at a time. Instead, they must replant every 100ha bloc before logging more. Only after the Perak Forestry Department is satisfied with the replanting can the planter proceed to clear the next bloc. Such conditions are written clearly in approval letters issued by the state government and attached to environmental impact assessment reports.

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

Macaranga has verified Perak’s protocols with Charlie and another planter. Both planters say that Perak is more concerned about conserving the environment than accelerating forest plantations. Charlie found meeting Perak’s conditions “too slow” and has stayed out of the state.

“By the time we log and replant 100 ha in Perak, we could have finished 400 ha in Kelantan,” says Charlie. “We would like to log and plant as soon as possible and at scale.” Costs go up otherwise. For one, planters pay more for fertilizers when planting schedules are stretched out.

But for the environment and forest plantation programme, it is a good thing. “The control makes sure that only committed planters [go to] Perak. You can’t just take the logs,” says Charlie.

Perak’s tighter grip manifests in the statistics. Between 2012 and 2022, the state licensed only about 11,000 ha to be cleared for forest plantations. That is much lower than Kelantan’s 89,000 ha and Pahang’s 90,000 ha in the same period.

Still, some quarters do not accept that any regulation – no matter how strict – can safeguard the environment and communities when forests are cleared.

For instance, communities next to the Kledang Saiong forest reserve disagree with the projects approved to develop more than 4,000 ha of forest plantations there. They have suffered floods for years and lost 12 cows to predator(s) in the last 8 months. They expect more hardship if the forests are cleared. “Instead of waiting for the problems to happen, better we fight to prevent them now,” one villager told Macaranga.

Local villager Omar Pandak looks at a part of the Kledang Saiong forest reserve, Perak, that has been approved for a forest plantation. (YH Law)
Local villager Omar Pandak looks at a part of the Kledang Saiong forest reserve, Perak, that has been approved for a forest plantation. (YH Law)

Neither the Perak Forestry Department nor PERHILITAN answered our questions.

Where does the future of forest plantations sit in this fight?

Company registrar documents used in this story were bought using credits remaining from a 2022 Pulitzer Centre fellowship to YH Law.

 

In Part 3, we look at how forest plantations are forcing people to choose between wood, and water and wildlife. A conflict is brewing at the Kledang Saiong forest reserve. Continue to “For Wood, Water, and Wildlife” for solutions and alternatives to forest plantations.

This is Part 2 of our 3-part #LadangHutan2 series on addressing forest plantation issues. Read Part 1 here. 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 took 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 and 2 weeks to analysing reports, data sheets and satellite images. Producing the visuals took 2 days.

Reporting expenses totalled 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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2 thoughts on “Fixing Forest Plantations, Part 2: Faster Replanting Needed”

  1. Allahuakbar!
    Very disappointing, indeed it frightens me to think of the future of our beloved rainforests….
    Looks like eventually we’re going to lose much of the wondrous rainforests that we are so happy to show the world.
    As an old timer in forestry matters I must insist we look again at the concept ofthis new practice. Looks to me we are doing away with the traditional SFM practices.
    Have pity on our great grand children. I’ll hate to hear their curses in my grave.

    1. Hi, thanks for reading! According to the quota given by the National Land Council in 2012, Peninsular Malaysia would turn 439,000 ha of our forests into forest plantations, which we can call tree plantations. That’s about 8% of P.Msia’s total forest area (5.7M ha), or 9% of the forest reserves (4.8M ha). So, it might not be as bad as you feared. But the impact of tree plantations on our country’s ecology (and the world’s carbon budget) would depend largely on where and how they run these projects. The Forestry Dept says the site must be a “degraded forest”, only then can be turned into a tree plantation. As an old timer, you might know that the criterion for “degraded forest” is that the site contains timber volume less than 153 m3/hectare. By 2012, more than half of our forests has less timber than this level! The Forestry Dept is using a standard measured during the 80s or early 90s, when our forests were much richer than now. If they use current figures, then the threshold for “degraded forest” should be much lower than 153m3/ha, and that would spare a lot of our reserves from being qualified for tree plantations.
      By the way, there’s also Part 3 that looks at Kledang Saiong forest reserve and the concerns of the locals there.

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