#LADANGHUTAN2

Fixing Forest Plantations, Part 3: For Wood, Water, and Wildlife

Despite foresters and planters promising tight regulations in Perak, locals are protesting one of the biggest forest plantations in the state over fears of water security and wildlife attacks.

Writer: YH Law; Editor: SL Wong

Published: 11 July 2024

Part 1 | Part 2

(Omar Pandak (right) telling fellow villagers of Kampung Bukit Chermin about the forest plantations coming to Kledang Saiong forest reserve in Perak. | Pic by YH Law)

#LADANGHUTAN2

Fixing Forest Plantations, Part 3: For Wood, Water, and Wildlife

Despite foresters and planters promising tight regulations in Perak, locals are protesting one of the biggest forest plantations in the state over fears of water security and wildlife attacks.

Writer: YH Law
Editor: SL Wong

Published: 11 July 2024

Part 1Part 2 

(Omar Pandak (right) telling fellow villagers of Kampung Bukit Chermin about the forest plantations coming to Kledang Saiong forest reserve in Perak. | Pic by YH Law)

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

THIS HAS been a year of bloody losses for Mat Jupari Aziz. By April, he has lost 8 cows to a predator(s). He has been rearing cattle for nearly a decade in Kampung Rambai Tujuh, a village 10 km northwest of Ipoh, Perak. These are his first troubles with wildlife.

Then the predator struck again. On the afternoon of 22 June, hours before Mat spoke with Macaranga, the 55-year-old found a cow and its calf lying crippled in their pen. The predator had severed their spines but left them to die. Mat slaughtered the cow and calf and put some meat as bait in a metal cage trap. That was the second attempt by Mat and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) to catch the culprit. It was a panther, said the rangers.

It is not the panther’s fault, says Mat. He blames the logging in the Kledang Saiong forest reserve, just 500 m away from his farm.

“The loggers used to take just a little [timber]. Now it’s way too much. We can see the trails of the trucks and bulldozers from the highway,” says Mat, referring to the North-South Expressway that cuts the reserve into two.

“The animals [in the forest] are struggling to find food. They are forced to come into the village for food.”

Mat has a lot more to worry about. The Perak government has earmarked about 7,420 ha in the northern section of the Kledang Saiong for forest plantations. These projects would clear natural forest to replant with fast-growing monoculture trees for timber. Last December, the federal Department of Environment approved the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report of a 4,280ha forest plantation there. It will be one of the largest forest plantations in the state.

Mat and others in Kampung Rambai Tujuh are protesting forest plantations. They see forest plantations as harbingers of floods and dead animals – wild and domestic. A resident of another Orang Asli village nearby complains that forest plantations will destroy the rattan, palms, and herbs they collect from the forest.

“All these troubles are due to logging without planning,” says Mat. “They are clearing Kledang Saiong [forest reserve] on a large scale.”

However, satellite images show that while logging has been intensive, massive clear-cutting has not started. 

The planters – a host of companies ultimately owned by or associated with Lotus KFM Berhad – are likely working on other requirements set by the Perak Forestry Department. Lotus KFM is a wheat flour miller and trader that has divested into forest plantations since 2022.

And Perak foresters and planters would likely disagree with Mat’s criticism. They speak of tight regulations and enforcement that prioritise the environment over plantations. A planter who does not want to be involved in forest plantations in Perak said operations there are “too slow for our liking” and that “only committed planters plant in Perak”.

And so, forests earmarked for plantations have become a tussle for wood, water, and wildlife. Meanwhile, planters see opportunities in the growing global and trade emphasis on conservation. Some have begun to consider alternatives to forest plantations.

Wildlife woes

The villagers of Kampung Rambai Tujuh love their home. They plant pink ginger flowers by the roads and have small ponds with lilies beside their houses. Not a sign of plastic bottles or candy wrappers lying around. And painted on the wall of the village primary school – “We love R7” with a big red heart in the middle.

But the recent predator attacks on Mat’s cattle have made the villagers nervous. His farm is on the village’s northern edge and separated from the rest of the village by the highway. Hopefully, the predator would not cross the highway or use the tunnel beneath to enter the main village.

This farm on the northeastern edge of Kampung Rambai Tujuh sits next to the Kledang Saiong forest reserve. The cows were grazing but always alert. (YH Law)
This farm on the northeastern edge of Kampung Rambai Tujuh sits next to the Kledang Saiong forest reserve. The cows were grazing but always alert. (YH Law)

Kampung Rambai Tujuh villagers told Macaranga that they are united against forest plantations in the Kledang Saiong forest reserve. “We don’t know how many harimau there are in the forest,” says Mat, using the Malay term that could mean either panther or tiger. “They would converge on our village. Our livestock becomes the victim.”

Large predators are the other victims of forest loss. Many forest plantations replace fertile grazing areas for herbivores, which is food for panthers and tigers. When these herbivores decline, predators like tigers must roam further and longer to hunt for prey, says biodiversity consultant Dylan Ong. 

Tiger numbers would drop because the animals have less food and less time to mate. To mitigate this, Ong recommends formulating a forest plantation strategy that considers biodiversity, tigers, and the environment through transparent stakeholder consultation.

Last week, PERHILITAN caught a young male tiger about 24 km northeast of Kampung Rambai Tujuh. They have moved the tiger to a wildlife rescue centre. But how much wildlife can they move away, asks veteran environmental activist Meor Razak bin Meor Abdul Rahman. Meor is a member of NGO Sahabat Ekologi Perak and lives in Chemor on the eastern side of the Kledang Saiong forest reserve.

“The impact on wildlife is permanent,” says Meor. “There is no mitigation for that.”

PERHILITAN did not respond to our questions.

Meor also highlights that plants cannot flee like animals. He unfolds a map and points to the western edge of the forest plantation zone in Kledang Saiong. An area of 110 ha has been established there as a high conservation value forest (HCVF) for a palm species endemic to Perak called daun payung (Johannesteijsmannia perakensis). In their EIA report, the planters said they would not log this area. They also proposed transplanting other daun payung in the project site into this protected area.

“When the area around the HCVF is affected, how can we ensure the palms [inside] are not?” asks Meor.

The 4,280ha forest plantation is owned by 4 companies – Seri Tualang Sdn Bhd, Rimba Kembara Sdn Bhd, Sri Kruing Sdn Bhd, and Rimbun Cengal Sdn Bhd – which are ultimately owned by or associated with Lotus KFM Bhd. Macaranga‘s questions were not answered by Wong Yau Min, the co-owner of Seri Tualang, director of Lotus KFM, and son of Wong Sak Kuan, the owner of Lotus KFM.

Flood trauma

In the heart of Kampung Rambai Tujuh, Meor is sipping tea in the house of Naim bin Ahmad Jah. During a visit to the edge of the forest reserve that morning, the two men had concluded that planters only want to cut the forests, not to plant trees.

Villager Naim bin Ahmad Jah (right) brought Meor Razak bin Meor Abdul Rahman to a Kampung Rambai Tujuh farm next to the forest reserve. Wary of wild predators, Naim carried a machete on his motorbike. (YH Law)
Villager Naim bin Ahmad Jah (right) brought Meor Razak bin Meor Abdul Rahman to a Kampung Rambai Tujuh farm next to the forest reserve. Wary of wild predators, Naim carried a machete on his motorbike. (YH Law)

“Our village has come together to fight forest plantation,” says Naim, “because the mushibah (disasters) is more than the benefits. We can live without the project.”

The disaster the 53-year-old fears most is floods. Villagers recall many episodes of floods in the last few decades. “Our village tenggelam (drowned). My house tenggelam! All our old fruit trees died. Cempedak, rambutan. The ones you see now are new trees.”

Naim hangs family portraits of his 5 children in the living room. All but the youngest grew up “playing in floodwater,” he says. There was one particularly severe flood where “white sand covered everything” and the river changed its course. “That made us trauma. That’s why we protest, protest, protest, protest.”

Clean water and forest products

Seven kilometres north of Kampung Rambai Tujuh is the only Orang Asli village in the vicinity, Kampung Bukit Chermin. The village sits outside the western edge of the Kledang Saiong forest reserve. It is home to about 60 Temiar families.

Tok Batin Omar Pandak sits on the steps between his living room and the kitchen. He was born 48 years ago in a room at the back. For decades, loggers had harvested the forest reserve behind their village. Practising selective logging, they took only some trees. The forest remained intact.

Omar Pandak has been Tok Batin of Kampung OA Bukit Chermin for 10 years, and he is worried about the impact of forest plantations on his village's water supply. (YH Law)
Omar Pandak has been Tok Batin of Kampung OA Bukit Chermin for 10 years, and he is worried about the impact of forest plantations on his village's water supply. (YH Law)

But last year, government officials and planters visited him with news of change. They told him that large forest areas would be cleared for forest plantations.

“We don’t fully disagree [with the project], but we kurang setuju (slightly disagree),” says Omar. He reasons that since the government has approved it, they cannot do anything about it. “But because it affects the entire forest, we kurang setuju.”

His main concern is water. While the forest plantation zone has skirted around the village’s only tandak air (water intake source), Omar worries about future pollution. Previous selective logging had polluted their other tandak air or filled the streams with debris.

And when the forest is gone, his people would lose all the plants and animals they harvest now. No more rattan, bertam palm, and herbal roots to collect and sell. Far fewer squirrels and wild boars to hunt.

“The Department of Environment officer told me that our economy will improve. I ask them, ‘How improve?’ The forest products are all gone,” he laughs as he recalls the meeting. “They reply that it depends on the developer.”

Was he happy with that answer? “Sometimes I feel unhappy because they want to clear everything. The logging of old, they did not do a clean sweep. But this one, they will take everything – rattan, bertam, everything gone.

“Even the rivers would be gone. Just rocks left. I fear that children in the future won’t know where Sungai Chermin is.”

What the locals want

Meanwhile, Kampung Rambai Tujuh’s request is clear: Cancel the forest plantation projects in the Kledang Saiong forest reserve. Without forest plantations, “wildlife can continue living in the forest, and we can continue our activities on the side. Both can cari makan (make a living),” says Mat.

Neither Mat nor Naim would change their minds even if the clearing is slow and controlled. “I’m not sold. Because this is all for profit. It’s us villagers that would suffer,” says Mat.

Children and their parents enjoy football at the school field in Kampung Bendang Kering, Perak. The village sits next to the Kledang Saiong forest reserve (background) and had lost at least 3 cows to predator(s) this year, said Mat Jupari Aziz. (YH Law)
Children and their parents enjoy football at the school field in Kampung Bendang Kering, Perak. The village sits next to the Kledang Saiong forest reserve (background) and had lost at least 3 cows to predator(s) this year, said Mat Jupari Aziz. (YH Law)

As for Omar, he had attended one of Kampung Rambai Tujuh’s protests, but his village is divided. Omar’s neighbour chips in softly: “Maybe we can block them?”

Omar thinks not. “The developers had paid a premium to the government. If we protest, they could ask the government to act,” he replies. He chooses to wait. The developer had promised him that they would discuss the operations with him before they started clearing the sites.

“I’m sure they will come.”

Environmental activist Meor Razak bin Meor Abdul Rahman protests against forest plantations inside forest reserves and works closely with locals around the Kledang Saiong forest reserve. (YH Law)
Environmental activist Meor Razak bin Meor Abdul Rahman protests against forest plantations inside forest reserves and works closely with locals around the Kledang Saiong forest reserve. (YH Law)

Meor Razak, the activist in Perak, calls on the governments to protect the forests. Ideally, the Perak Chief Minister would cancel the project, says Meor. But he is realistic. “If they could reduce the project by 50%, good enough lah.”

Meor also calls on the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability to rein in forest plantations. The minister, Nik Nazmi bin Nik Ahmad, had promised to visit Kampung Rambai Tujuh in May 2023. “It’s one year now, and he hasn’t come. None of his officers came,” says Meor.

“Nik Nazmi’s portfolio requires him to go on the ground to know the weaknesses [of policies and laws.] He is right to say that land is a state matter. But as a responsible minister, he must find ways to reduce forest plantations.”

Nik Nazmi’s press secretary told Macaranga that the Minister hopes to visit Kampung Rambai Tujuh in August.

Sustainable forest plantations?

All signs suggest that Malaysia will keep adding forest plantations in the foreseeable future. The Ministry of Plantation and Commodities is providing planters with RM500 million in soft loans to develop 50,000 ha of new forest plantations by 2025, despite the moratorium. And states like Perak and Kelantan could add tens of thousands of hectares of forest plantations before they hit their quotas given by the National Land Council (of which they are a part).

The federal and state governments have taken steps to make forest plantations more sustainable. But they might need more resources to make a difference.

The Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia (FDPM) wants to review the impact of forest plantations on the society, economy, and environment in forest reserves. Their study would only be completed in 2027, they told Macaranga. By then, the Ministry of Plantation and Commodities would have added 50,000 ha of new forest plantations – likely without the insights of the review.

And the states need many more foresters to monitor sites and enforce regulations. Foresters in Perak, Pahang, and Kelantan – the states increasing forest plantations – have told Macaranga that they are forced to manage bigger areas than before. Some states are coping with drones.

New forest plantations, however, must face a fast-approaching torpedo – the EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR). This legislation will penalise companies that import into the EU timber products (not just logs) made with materials from deforested areas or degraded forests after 31 December 2020. Converting natural forests into forest plantations counts as “degradation”.

Large and medium sized companies must comply with the EUDR after 30 December 2024. The Ministry of Plantation and Commodities told Macaranga they are “gathering input and information from stakeholders to determine the next steps and way forward.”

Meanwhile, some planters are considering switching tracks. They would let the trees grow instead of clearing the natural forests or harvesting tree farms. That way, they could generate carbon credits to sell and avoid any deforestation penalty, planters in Perak and Kelantan told Macaranga.

But it takes more than growing trees to sell carbon credits. Planters must show that their effort would reduce a lot more greenhouse gases than otherwise, explains Sun Hoon Yang of carbon advisory consultancy Eco-Ideal Consulting Sdn Bhd. “There is no standard answer as each case is different.”

A part of the Lakum forest reserve in Pahang, approved for a forest plantation project. Many reserves look ecologically rich and healthy, but are deemed "degraded" by foresters and earmarked to be cleared for forest plantations. (YH Law)
A part of the Lakum forest reserve in Pahang, approved for a forest plantation project. Many reserves look ecologically rich and healthy, but are deemed "degraded" by foresters and earmarked to be cleared for forest plantations. (YH Law)

Activist Meor Razak points to a different path for sustainable forest plantations. His suggestion could let planters provide the nation with timber without cutting natural forests. Perhaps unknowingly, he is echoing the findings of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia and FDPM in 1997 when they surveyed the land for suitable forest plantation sites.

“Forest reserves should be kept for biodiversity and logged selectively. If forest plantations are planted outside reserves, that would be great!”

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

This is the final of our 3-part #LadangHutan2 series on the changes in forest plantation in Peninsular Malaysia since the moratorium began in December 2021. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

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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