Birds eye view of the Royal Belum Hill Dipterocarp Forest (SKChong_SasyazHoldings)

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.

(Photo: A bird’s eye view of the protected primary hill and lowland rainforest of the Royal Belum State Park, 2003. Pic by SK Chong/Sasyaz Holdings)


DRIVE 20 minutes south of Mersing, Johor, and you reach the town of Jemaluang. The quiet town has no obvious appeal. Most cars zip down main street and out of town in two minutes.

In the 1960s and 1970s however, Jemaluang was bustling with loggers.

An elderly man, leaning against my car when I visited the town in June, described a time when “truck after truck” thronged the Jemaluang main street, “carrying logs so large a truck could take only four”.

Those days are long gone. The town where more than a hundred logging outfits once pursued their fortunes in the 1970s now houses only one.

The good old days

At 3pm, men in their 50s sit by a large tree in the town centre and chit-chat for hours.

Oil palm smallholder Ng It How has lived almost 60 years in Jemaluang. He remembers how, decades ago, the town was surrounded by thick forests. The air was fresh, the river clear, and the weather mild. 

“Last time, you could see forests everywhere. Now, you go a few miles out and it’s all bald,” Ng told me.

“Now, it’s either very hot or very cold, and we think it’s because the forests are no more.”

Forest giants

As the forests were cleared, the river turned silty and shallow. Fishes reduced. Then the elephants came.

It used to be hard to spot elephants, said Ng. But now, “they come almost daily.”

Other men, mostly owners of orchards or oil palm estates, chipped in. They spoke of elephants – up to 30 at a time – appearing by dusk, roaming into town, and barging through oil palm estates, toppling rows of oil palms.

Some men said the elephants should be shot. But Ng disagreed – the elephants “didn’t mean it, they have no place to eat or go,” he said.

The men did agree on one point: too much forest had been cut.

It was not a statement I had expected from residents of a once major logging hub.

A deep delve

To evaluate that statement, however, requires an in-depth examination of the dynamics of forest use – a complex issue that concerns the environment, economy, health, social welfare and politics.

How much logging is ‘too much’?

Logging feeds a multi-billion timber industry in Malaysia and opens land for development.

But who decides how much to log, where and when? What measures and legislation rein in any damage logging does to the environment and society?

And can systems be improved to conserve forests and develop the country too?

About the series

To get the answers, Macaranga embarked on this In-Depth series, Forest Files, to examine forestry dynamics in Peninsular Malaysia.

We focus on the peninsula for two reasons:

Firstly, Peninsular Malaysia has different forestry legislation and operations than East Malaysia.

Secondly, official land-use data shows that between 1990 and 2019, Peninsular Malaysia lost about 140,000 hectares of forest more than East Malaysia did, despite being only two-thirds the size of the latter (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Forest Loss has been higher in Peninsular Malaysia than in East Malaysia (Macaranga)
Figure 1: Forest loss has been higher in Peninsular Malaysia than in East Malaysia

Our investigation, which began in February, converges on three key questions:

1. Who calls the shots on forest use?

2. What motivates these decision-makers? and

3. Are there effective checks and balances to align forestry decisions with sustainability principles and broad national interests?

Assessing change

In this part, we take a bird’s eye view of forest change in Peninsular Malaysia and how its forest area keeps shrinking despite decades of sustainable forestry policies.

Most people concerned with the environment see logging in a bad light. Few realise that Malaysia has been guided by a national policy of sustainable forestry since the late 1970s.

Deforestation in Malaysia, particularly in the Peninsular, peaked in the 1960s – 1970s when large swaths of virgin forests, some of the oldest on Earth, were cleared.

Free for all

In that peak period, yearly timber production in the Peninsular jumped five-fold from 2 million cubic metres in the early 1960s to about 10 million cubic metres by the end of that period.

Logging cleared almost 2.5 million hectares of forests – an area larger than three times that of the state of Selangor.

Most of the lowland forests – the easiest to access – were logged bare.

The unbridled logging far exceeded the quota allotted in the Second Malaysia Plan (1971 – 1975) and looked set to deplete the country’s future timber supply.

Enough is enough

The Malaysian federal government responded to the threat by advocating sustainable forestry in the form of the National Forestry Policy.

Launched in 1978, the key strategy of the National Forestry Policy was to reclassify a broad swath of forests as permanent reserve forests (PRFs).

By 1990, 78% of Peninsular Malaysia’s forests were gazetted as PRFs (Figure 2).


Forest area in Peninsular Malaysia 1950-2019
Figure 2: Forest area changes in Peninsular Malaysia showed huge drops since the 1950s but decline slowed since the 1990s.

The gazetting of PRFs is critical because PRFs are managed to ensure renewable timber stock for perpetuity. Within PRFs, about 61% are classified as ‘production forests’ to produce timber; the rest is protected (Figure 3).

A diagram showing the breakdown of forest classifications and area in Peninsular Malaysia (Macaranga)
Figure 3: Forest area in Peninsular Malaysia according to classification, 2019.

Specifically, in PRFs, only selected trees above certain sizes are logged; roads are kept minimal; and logged sites are rested for 25 – 30 years for regeneration. Clear-cutting is prohibited in PRFs.

States are also allocated an annual quota of logging area set by the National Land Council, a national committee consisting of Menteris Besar and chaired by the Prime Minister.

This logging quota, called the annual allowable coupe, allows each state to log up to one-thirtieth (1/30) of its production PRFs, so that each site can be rested for 30 years after logging.

National Forestry Act

The principles of sustainable forestry in the National Forestry Policy was enacted into legislation by the federal government with the National Forestry Act 1984.

The policy and legislation, coupled with the depletion of easy-to-reach lowland forests, led to the gradual easing of logging pressure in Peninsular Malaysia.

Log production in Peninsular Malaysia dropped from 9.5 million cubic meters in the 1970s to about 3.9 million cubic meters in 2019.

Map of Forest Area in Peninsular Malaysia (DFPM) 2019
Figure 4: Map of forested area in Peninsular Malaysia, 2019. ("Forestry Statistics Peninsular Malaysia 2019", Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia)

However, there is a difference between forest area on paper (Figure 4) and forest area on the ground.

It is important to note that forestry data in Malaysia is based on legal classification of the land rather than what is physically on the land itself.

That means any land classified as ‘permanent reserve forest’ would add to the forest cover tally even if the area is – to take an extreme example – barren.

Conversely, an area with agricultural status would not count as forest even if it is full of trees.

Mapping forests

So how does one reconcile the paper and on-the-ground differences?

A popular method used by activists and journalists is via third-party analyses of satellite imaging, such as that provided by online platform Global Forest Watch.

This method tracks changes in forest area by applying computer algorithms to separate forests from non-forests in satellite images.

Such analyses reveal what is physically on the ground, though with margins of error that are decreasing as technology improves.

Satellite version

Satellite data showed that Peninsular Malaysia lost 725,613 hectares of primary forest between 2001-2019, Global Forest Watch project manager Mikaela Weisse told Macaranga.

That is an area just 10% smaller than Selangor.

In comparison, official data showed a loss of about 130,000 hectares of forest in the same period.

The difference is a jarring margin of nearly 600,000 hectares.

However, both records revealed that sustainable forestry as practiced in Peninsular Malaysia has not stopped extensive deforestation.

How does one make sense of a loss of 130,000 hectares? Or even 725,613 hectares? Was it too much or was it necessary and in line with Malaysia’s vision for ‘enough’ forest cover?

An aspirational but shaky pledge

In 1992, then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced that Malaysia would “ensure that at least 50% of our land area will remain permanently under forest cover.”

That statement is aspirational and sets a goal that far exceeds comparable targets in international treaties (e.g., Aichi Target 11 aimed for 17% protected land area).

Mahathir and subsequent Malaysian governments often repeat the statement, calling it a pledge to the world.

As recently as August, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, the federal ministry which oversees forestry, wrote Macaranga that “the Malaysian Government is committed to keeping at least 50 percent of its land area under forests and tree cover in line with its commitment made” in 1992.

A pledge, not law

But this pledge is not bound by law. The 50% threshold is not inked into any legislation or land policies (e.g., the National Forestry Act 1984 or National Forestry Policy).

More importantly, the pledge was made by the federal government which has no power over forests. The Federal Constitution (PDF link) makes it clear that state governments are the sole authority over land and forests.

Government officers told Macaranga that state government officials, who only learned of the national undertaking after Mahathir announced it, had never agreed to any commitment at the time.

Getting closer

In the nearly three decades after the pledge was made, Malaysia’s forest cover inches towards the cliff edge of the pledge: 57% in 1990 to 54% in 2019.

This ‘54%’ is a note of pride to forestry officers, conservationists, forest researchers and politicians who spoke to Macaranga. They acknowledged the gargantuan task of keeping forests against the need for more land for development.

Grippin Anak Akeng, the deputy director of the Pahang State Forestry Department, said he feels that it is “impossible” to increase forest area in Malaysia, and the best we could do is to maintain what is left.

Not easy

But will we lose more forest?

“Well, you already know the answer. It’s not easy to retain 50% forest cover,” said Dato’ Lim Kee Leng, former deputy director-general of the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia. (Macaranga spoke with Lim in May; he retired in July.)

“You either have forests or development,” said Lim.

If it comes down to choosing between forests or development, who decides?

The decision makers

In Peninsular Malaysia, forestry agencies and forestry matters fall under the purview of the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources.

The federal Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia and state forestry departments assist the state governments in forestry matters; their counterparts in East Malaysia are the Sabah Forestry Department and Forest Department Sarawak.

However, the federal government’s role in these matters is largely that of a researcher, technical support, and advisor, the Ministry told Macaranga in a written reply.

The federal government can, however, enact and amend laws pertaining to forests and forestry, such as the National Forestry Act 1984.

At state level

But federal forestry laws do not apply within states until they are adopted by individual state legislative assemblies and enacted as state laws. States can also make amendments.

Consequently, no two states in Malaysia have the same forestry law.

For example, Selangor legislated in 2011 that public consultation is mandatory before the excision of an area from PRFs ; this requirement is absent from the National Forestry Act and other state laws.

Free to change

State governments may change the legal status and intended purpose of any forest.

PRFs can have their status switched to private land or agricultural land, and vice-versa. Such changes are effective once published in a government publication called the gazette.

State governments have used their authority over forests to both expand PRFs and to excise them (Table 1).

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

Because state governments wield ultimate authority over land and forest, they could contravene national or federal policies, if they see it fit to do so.

For example, states have often breached the logging quota, or the annual allowable coupe, allotted to them by the National Land Council.

Every state in Malaysia is allotted yearly limits of forest reserves that can be logged, called the annual allowable coupe (AAC). Such limits facilitate sustainable forestry.

The AAC is set by the National Land Council, which comprises the Menteri Besar from each state and at least one federal minister, and is chaired by the Prime Minister. The AAC is thus a decision by the country’s highest administration and is planned in conjunction with every 5-year Malaysia Plan.

At state level, state forestry departments oversee logging. Yet, state forestry departments have allowed logging that breached the AAC, reportedly under the order of their state governments.

Such breach incurs “no penalty” for the state, a senior state forestry officer said. But state forestry officers who must explain the numbers to federal seniors “memang kena lah,” said the state forestry officer. “Panas telinga.” (Basically, state officers will be given a telling off.)

When Dato Dr Wan Razali W.M., former deputy Director-General of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia, looked at the statistics of states breaching the AAC (graph below), he remarked: “Ya, these are famous. Every 5 years you plan (the AAC), you exceed it, so what? Nobody gets fined. Nobody gets demoted.”

Annual allowable coupe and actual logging in selected Malaysian states (Macaranga)

While acknowledging that federal-state relationships complicate forestry matters, the situation “is not that bad,” said Lim, former deputy director-general of the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia.

 “If it’s that bad, we wouldn’t have 54% forest cover.”

 Lim has a point: Malaysia ranks well in the region in terms of forest cover.

According to Bruno Cammaert, Forestry Officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Malaysia has the 5th largest area of tropical forest in the Asia-Pacific region.

Relatively good

Within that group of top five countries, Malaysia has the second highest percentage of land forested.

Malaysia’s relatively high forest cover “doesn’t come by accident,” said Lim. “It involves a lot of negotiation and persuasion to the state government to gazette [PRFs].”

Official forest area data suggests however, that future increases in forest cover area would be limited and excision more likely.

[Edited by SL Wong. First posted on 26 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.

This is the first of a four-part In-Depth Forest Files feature on forest dynamics in Peninsular Malaysia. Next in Part 2 : When state governments excise PRFs.

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.

10 thoughts on “Forest Loss: Under Whose Watch?”

  1. Hi Yao-Hua.

    I read with interest your article on the Malaysian forest loss. The part about the federal-state relationship is especially well written.

    However, I would like to point out that perhaps it is unfair to compare the primary forest loss data from Global Forest Watch with the official data, given that the former is strictly about primary forest based on satellite data while the latter is based on the legal classification of the land. Appreciate if you can share with the readers the definition of primary forest used by Global Forest Watch and their methodology of identifying primary forest.

    Lastly, have you considered that primary forest loss data might not be the best indicator of deforestation (i.e. permanent removal of trees to make room for something besides forest)? This is because sustainable forest management practices (e.g. selective logging and forest rehabilitation) might have been conducted in these logged areas, so primary forest loss might not necessarily lead to deforestation.


    1. Hi Win Sim, thank you very much for your comment. I’m happy you asked about comparing forest change data between Forestry Department’s land use classification and GFW’s satellite image analyses. I try my best to answer ya.
      1. How does GFW measure ‘primary forest’?
      The answer can be found on their website, and they cite Turubanova et al. 2018 for the methodology (for those who wish to get into the details!).
      For the purpose of their data, GFW defines primary forest as “mature natural humid tropical forest cover that has not been completely cleared and regrown in recent history.” Such forests have canopy that is tall with multiple layers, so a very complex and ‘rough/variable’ surface when seen from the top – a type of surface that reflects and scatters light a lot more than simpler canopies (like an oil palm estate’s). Of course they apply algorithms to analyse it all, and they say the technology is good enough to different between mature forests from forests younger than 50 years old.
      The Turubanova et al. 2018 paper even says that their analyses even account for the natural differences in reflectance among forests in Brazil, Indonesia and Congo.

      2. Okay, that’s primary forest. How then does GFW measure primary forest loss?
      Mikaela Weisse from GFW actually walked me through this in our email exchange. What they do is to start with a map of primary forest cover in 2001 -this is their baseline. Then every year they track how much tree cover is lost within this 2001 baseline area to get the ‘remaining primary forest cover’. They assume that any tree cover lost within the 2001 area is effectively primary forest lost, and that there isn’t yearly increases in primary forest.
      I should add that by tree cover, they mean woody vegetation greater than 5 meters in height, with a canopy density of 30% or greater (when looking at a satellite image where each pixel is 30m X 30m on the ground).

      Hope I score at least a B+ for my answer above. I will address your second question in another comment later. Got to work on the finishing bits of Part 2 now.

    2. Hi Win Sim, sorry it took me forever to respond to the 2nd part of your question. In the meantime however, Mikaela from GFW looked over our comments on this page and checked that I haven’t been misleading readers 🙂

      Is primary forest loss the best indicator of deforestation? I don’t think there will be consensus on that because there are a zillion ways to perceive deforestation so one can always pick an indicator that works for their purpose (or in the favour of their argument).
      I’d say that it’s more useful to know what each indicator means so that we don’t confuse ourselves and the conclusions we draw.
      Primary forest loss tells us how much of mature forests we have lost, and that’s important because these forests hold the most carbon stock. Rehabilitation can promote regrowth, but is sustainable forestry as we practice here (30 years cycle) enough to regenerate all the biomass that was logged? I looked into the literature on this and even asked FRIM about it, and the answer isn’t conclusive.

  2. This is a really useful and timely report explaining the basics and up to date information. I found figure 1 particularly interesting. However as this only shows the censused data, would you be able to add a third bar to each of of the three areas showing what that satellite tells you in terms of forest cover?
    or at least give me an idea what you think actual forest cover is in the three areas and in Malaysia as a whole at the moment?
    And, reading your reply to Win Sim’s question, I am surmising that this definition of forest cover mean primary forest plus any secondary that has regrown to over 5 meters in height? I agree that while it would be ideal to preserve primary forest, secondary forest is also very valuable and much better than no forests or plantations.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Natalie, thanks for your encouragement. Happy you found our stories useful. More to come!

      I ran through the numbers on GFW dashboard quickly and present them here. I don’t think official and satellite data can be compared directly, but within each dataset, there is continuity in methods so I think there’s more confidence in comparing the trends between them (both show declines) than in comparing their absolute numbers.

      1. Thanks YH, really useful. Just to clarify, would rubber plantations show up in either classification as the trees could be tall enough and look like forest.

        1. Hi Natalie, let me check with GFW and confirm. But my understanding would be no, rubber plantations wouldn’t qualify as primary forest in GFW’s dataset because plantations (regardless of their height) would lack the canopy complexity that a primary forest has and the satellite images can pick up the difference in the reflectance (I’m using this term loosely) from the canopy.
          BUT in terms of tree cover, rubber plantations above 5m height would count in GFW’s dataset. But the GFW figures I show in this graph refer to primary forest, not total tree cover.

          Actually, in official forestry dataset, rubber plantations which have an agricultural status – or any status other than ‘forest’ – wouldn’t count as forest too. BUT forest plantations that plant timber latex clone (Hevea) for timber purposes…these retain their classification as forest, so they are included in the official forest cover tally.

  3. Hey Macaranga! Im re-reading your forest files and some questions popped in my mind if you dont mind me asking 😅
    1. Since clear cutting is banned in PRFs, does this mean forest plantations dont clear cut natural forests to replace them with other trees? Since 4% prf is for forest plantations right?
    2. When you say forest plantations, is there any other plantation besides timber latex clones? The ones that are considered under the PRFs i mean. I understand that regular rubber plantations or dusuns would be considered as agriculture land under stateland to develop right?
    3. Sounds like tree cover is not a precise indicator for forest loss 😅 how now brown cow since thats the statement proudly thrown around to defend our forestry sector…..

    1. Hi Natasha, thanks for reading and for your questions.

      1. Clear-cutting isn’t practiced in PRF for logging, but it is done to convert natural forest to forest plantations. That’s one of the criticism raised by environmental NGOs against forest plantations in Malaysia. There have also been instances (e.g., in Johor) where PRFs meant for forest plantations were partially cleared and converted into oil palm to generate cash flow for the forest plantation project. Since we published Forest Files, I have also found other instances where clear-felling happened in PRFs before they were degazetted … I hope these were rare exceptions.

      2. There are more species than just timber latex clones. There were 8 species/varieties listed in 2005/2006, but that list has since expanded and continue to expand. Species mentioned (2017 – Forest plantation guidebook): Acacia mangium, Batai (Paraserianthes falcataria), Binuang (Octomels sumatrana), Rubber (Hevea), Jati (Tectona grandis), Jelutong* (Dyera costulata), Kapur* (Dryobalanops aromatica) Khaya (african mohagany; Khaya ivorensis, Khaya senegalensis), Kelempayan (Neolamarckia cadamba), Meranti saranga punai* (Shorea parvifolia), Meranti temak nipis* (Shorea roxburghii), Meranti tembaga* (Shorea leprosula), Merawan siput jantan* (Hopea odorata), Sentang (Azadirachta excels), Sesendok* (Endospermum malaccense) [*are quality timber species suggested by JPSM for longer term strategy; the others are suggested by Malaysia Timber Industry Board for faster yield.]
      And recently, I see Eucalyptus being tested by Kelantan and got approval from MPIC to include in forest plantations. Then there’s also Paulownia, another exotic tree. On MTIB website ( the ‘eucalyptus’ and ‘paulownia’ aren’t even written in Capitals as the rest.

      3. “Tree cover” as reported on Global Forest Watch platform can include rubber and oil palm plantations. Even “forest” as used by Malaysian officials refer to land status/classification, not explicitly what’s on the land. Global Forest Watch reports “primary forest cover” since 2001, so that can be used if you want to look at NATURAL FOREST only – but our officials do not refer to Global Forest Watch data.

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