Dec 242009

This article appeared in The Star papers here in Malaysia, July 7 2009.  I was interviewed by Cheng Li, an old friend of mine.  Scroll down to para, with red font.

Tuesday July 7, 2009

Sanctuaries sacrificed


Despite what they stand for, Permanent Reserved Forests are being cleared for rubber plantations.

RUBBER trees – which dominated the Malaysian landscape a century ago only to be replaced with oil palms in the 1980s – are making a comeback. And this time they will not only yield latex but also wood, to make up for the shortfall of timber from forests.

Which all sounds like an excellent idea except that natural forests are being stripped bare for the plantations. Instead of being grown on idle land as intended, rubber trees are sprouting in Permanent Reserved Forests (PRF).

This alarming new trend appears to be widespread in Kelantan but forest reserves in Selangor and Johor have not been spared. The Star recently reported on the decimation of the Sungai Jelok forest reserve in Selangor and the Sungai Mas forest in Johor for rubber estates, while the Johor State Assembly has heard that 37,881ha of Terosot forest reserve will suffer the same fate.

Timber yields: Latex timber clone seedlings being prepared for planting.

This boom in rubber estates is driven by the Government’s move to expand timber plantations of latex timber clones (LTC), sentang, teak, African mahogony, kelempayang, batai, binuang and Acacia. LTC, which can yield latex in the fifth year (intensively in the ninth) and timber after 15 years, is the favoured species.

Forestry Department reports show large expansions of forest plantations in recent years – from 83,464ha in 2006 to 108,512ha in 2008. Figures culled from Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports show 16,207ha of LTC plantations were planned this year alone, while 11,497ha were approved last year – and all are in Permanent Reserved Forests.

But figures could well be higher, Worldwide Fund for Nature Malaysia (WWF) chief technical officer Surin Suksuwan believes, as only plantations with larger areas will require EIAs. “When plans to expand timber plantations first came up some years ago, the key question was where they would get the land. Now, our greatest fear has been confirmed.”

Permanent Reserved Forests form the bulk of the forest cover of Peninsular Malaysia, at 4,815,529ha or 36.5% of the land area. As the name indicates, these are forests to be kept in perpetuity. Yes, they are largely “timber production forest” meant for logging but under sustainable forestry management, they are supposed to be “selectively logged” – this means only big trees of stipulated sizes are cut while smaller trees are left behind to mature, to be logged 30 years down the road.

“But what we are seeing today is wholesale clearing of PRF and massive conversion to plantations,” says Suksuwan.

Forest Plantation Development, a government-owned company that monitors and funds the industry, has guidelines that disallow plantations on PRF. “Before giving the loan, we will check the land status to ensure that it is alienated land, state land or land given for forest plantations,” says chief executive officer Zaini Ithnin A. Razak.

When showed a list of plantations located within forest reserves, Zaini says none are financed by his firm, which means that these projects fall outside its restrictive safeguards.

Severed spine

When natural forests give way to single-species tree farms, the forest’s ecology will begin to unravel. “Clear-felling natural forests and planting rubber trees inside forest reserves will impact many species that rely on these forests, many of which have endemic species,” says forestry researcher Lim Teck Wyn.

Although EIAs state that the PRF to be planted with rubber clones are logged and degraded, WWF believes that reasonably intact forest with considerable biodiversity are being cleared. In Kelantan, most of the affected reserves host endangered wildlife and even endemic species, and some are water catchment areas.

All gone: The Rantau Panjang forest reserve in Selangor, once planted with Acasia, is being turned into a rubber clone plantation.

Wildlife officials say Lebir and Relai forest reserves are important green links for Taman Negara, and converting them to plantations will lead to more “human-wildlife conflict” involving elephants and tigers entering plantations and villages.

According to WWF and several forestry consultants, all of the PRF earmarked for rubber clone plantations sit within the Central Forest Spine, a network of forest running the length of the peninsula. The Town and Country Planning Department had identified the contiguity of this swathe of forest as vital for supporting wildlife and ecosystem functions such as watershed protection, soil erosion control and climate regulation.

“The loss of these forest reserves will mean failure of the Central Forest Spine plan,” says one wildlife official.

Loss of these forests will also damper tiger conservation efforts for these PRF are all within the three tiger refuges identified in the National Tiger Action Plan as crucial for the survival of the big cat. “All the forest reserves are important tiger habitats and likely to be important for other wildlife as well,” says WWF’s Suksuwan.

Tree farms or forests?

The irony is that these forest plantations are still categorised as PRF, although being planted with a single tree species, they are nothing like natural forests. This labelling has severe repercussion: Forestry Department figures will not show a decline in forest cover despite massive tracts of natural forest being turned into neatly planted rows of rubber saplings.

Also, the converted area is not degazetted and replaced with a similar-sized tract of forest, as legally required when alienating PRF for agriculture or development. What this means in the long term is further shrinkages of our natural forest cover but on paper, all looks well as PRF figures remain unchanged.

This quandary, says researcher Lim, stems from the Forestry Act which does not say specifically that PRF has to be natural forests. “Under the Act, most PRF are classified as ‘timber production forest’ under ‘sustained yield’. This can be interpreted to mean that a forest that is clear-felled and then replanted with rubber trees, will provide ‘sustained yield’, thereby justifying the conversion into plantations.”

Lim says plantations can be validated in certain circumstances, such as in a severely degraded forest, but even then, it is advisable to plant a mix of native species to mimic a natural forest rather than monoculture.

Environmental consultant Dr Sanath Kumaran points out that monoculture or single-species plantations come with a host of problems: clear-felling to harvest the logs will lead to soil erosion, susceptibility to fires, and low biodiversity.

In global talks on forestry management, Malaysia has always lobbied for rubber estates to be included as tree cover but conservationists disagree.

“Forest plantations cannot be compared with natural forests, which preserve biodiversity, carbon stock and the water cycle. We are not weighing the ecological functions of natural forests and instead, systematically turning them into forest plantations,” says forestry consultant Andrew Ng.

He finds the assertion that plantations are sited only on logged or degraded forest a poor excuse. “These areas can always be rehabilitated. And how degraded must a forest be before it can be converted, and how is it assessed? A degraded forest might lack biodiversity but it still provides connectivity between fragmented forests.”

Doubts over sustainability

The claim that only degraded areas are used for plantations further begs a question: why is there so much “degraded forest” available for conversion if, as Malaysian forestry agencies have been telling the world, we practise sustainable forestry management? Far from what is claimed, the reality on the ground is an entirely different picture.

“Our PRF are being pecked away like a piece of bread thrown to a flock of chickens,” says one forestry consultant. “Forests are logged until degraded and not allowed to regenerate, thus providing the excuse to convert them into rubber plantations. This pattern has been going on. It is a convenient way to legitimise the act of clear-cutting natural forests, and turning PRF into forest plantations.”

The threat is not only from rubber clone plantations. Despite governmental assurances that oil palms will only be cultivated on idle or degraded land, EIA reports show that estates will come up in these forest reserves in Kelantan: Batu Papan (2,000ha), Gunung Setong Selatan and Balah (4,307ha), Sungai Betis (2,626ha), Sungai Terah and Limau Kasturi (3,513ha), as well as Sokor Taku and Sungai Sator (808ha).

In Pahang, 2,142ha of Cereh forest reserve near Kuantan will be planted with oil palm.

Despite all that is said about sustainable forestry management, biodiversity and environmental considerations seem to be ignored when states make decisions with regard to converting forests to other land use, says environmental consultant Dylan Ong. Although the Department of Environment requires a detailed EIA for any logging of over 500ha, Ong has yet to see one done in clearings for rubber clone plantations.

“Also, PRF are classed as Environmentally Sensitive Areas Rank Two in the National Physical Plan whereby no development or agriculture is allowed. So all latex timber clone projects in forest reserves should not have been approved,” he says.

History repeated: Before independence, vast tracts of jungles were cleared for rubber estates. Now, the trend is being repeated.

Pointing out the widespread conversion of forests into plantations, Ong says if the trend continues, our natural forest coverage will dwindle.

“The National Forestry Council should respond to this expansion of forest plantations within PRF,” he adds.

Indeed, if the matter is not addressed, more forest reserves risk being lost what with the Government planning to have 375,000ha of such tree farms by 2020. On paper, 44.4% of Peninsular Malaysia is still forested. But what kind of forests will these be in future?

Will they still be intact forests which can harbour wild species and provide a host of ecological services, or will they be merely forest plantations – or more accurately, tree farms?

Until press time, the Forestry Department director-general is not available for an interview.

Originally published in The Star on Tuesday July 7, 2009