As a country that prides itself on its natural treasures, it is tragic that illegal logging (the harvesting, transporting, purchasing or sale of timber in violation of a country’s laws and regulations) continues to run rampant in Malaysia. In fact, we have the highest deforestation rates of any country in the world.
Former Energy and Natural Resources Minister Datuk Seri Takiyuddin Hassan said that nearly every state in the country has had problems with illegal logging activities.
It could not be denied that illegal logging activities including at certain forest reserves in the country are still happening. Almost all the states, particularly those with ‘big’ forests, will have illegal logging cases. – Datuk Seri Takiyuddin Hassan, Energy and Natural Resources Minister
In Early 2023, three loggers were detained by Kelantan forestry rangers for carrying out illegal logging in permanent forest reserves and on government land. State Forestry Department deputy director Abdul Wahab Deraman said the trio were arrested in a series of operations in Gua Musang since last year.
We recorded 10 illegal logging cases the past year and arrested three loggers. We seized logs, equipment and vehicles worth thousands of ringgit. – Abdul Wahab Deraman, State Forestry Department deputy director
But why is illegal logging still a problem in Malaysia? What are the reasons behind it? And how can we ensure that legal logging is sustainable?
The History And Spread Of Deforestation In Malaysia
In 2010, Malaysia had 20.3Mha (million hectares) of natural forest, covering 87% of its land area. By 2021, Malaysia had lost 123Kha (thousands of hectares) of natural forest, equivalent to 87.2Mt (metric tonnes) of CO2 emissions, according to the latest data from Global Forest Watch.
From 2001 to 2021, 93% of tree cover loss occurred in areas where the dominant drivers of loss resulted from deforestation, with Sarawak experiencing the most tree cover loss at 3.11Mha compared to an average of 542Kha, followed by Sabah.
Malaysia’s Borneo, in fact, suffers from some of the most significant forest loss in the country, with 80% of the region’s rainforest having been logged. As of now, Malaysia recorded 90 cases of illegal logging last year, of which 60 were in Sarawak alone.
The Rising Demand For Timber
This intensive logging had its genesis following the end of the Second World War. This was when the demand for hardwood timbers rose and Sarawak and Sabah were targeted for their high density of exploitable dipterocarp trees. In 1966, the government set aside a vast tract of remote rainforest to be managed by Yayasan Sabah, a state-directed foundation, with the intention that the forest would be logged on an 80-year cycle to ensure financial — if not ecological — sustainability. The concession would eventually cover some one million hectares of forest.
As global consumption of timber products increased in the 1970s, logging accelerated in forests across Borneo, including Sabah. By the 1990s, most of the Yayasan Sabah area had been selectively logged. During the early 1990s, at least one-third of log exports from Malaysia were illegal, including 40% of timber sent to Japan.
Sacrifice Made To Become One Of The Largest Palm Oil Producer
The problem only worsened when palm oil became a major export for Malaysia. Malaysia is the world’s second-largest palm oil producer, accounting for more than a quarter of total global output in 2020.
Within the country, Peninsular Malaysia makes up 47% of the total planted area of 5.9 million hectares (14.6 million acres) of oil palm plantations. That is to say, nearly half of an area is more than 17% the size of the entire country.
Since the 1970s, vast rainforest areas have been cleared and transformed into oil palm plantations. Today, the vast and orderly rows of oil palm plantations continue to encroach on forested land.
Some 84% of Peninsular Malaysia’s remaining forest is classified as permanent forest reserves, and of these, more than three-quarters are concentrated within the four states of Perak, Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu.
Yet Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu, as well as Johor, are also the states where plantations have been expanding the most rapidly between 2018 and 2020.
The Impacts Of Illegal Logging
The effects of illegal logging (and by extension, deforestation) are substantial, with adverse effects on both wildlife and human society.
BIODIVERSITY & HABITAT LOSS
The most obvious effect that deforestation causes is the loss of biodiversity. This is especially problematic for Malaysia since its rainforests contain some of the most biodiverse habitats in the world.
By clearing the rainforest, it means the reduction of biodiversity, endangering individual species, and threatening some with extinction.
Species richness surveys in Malaysia show that there is a 34.9% reduction in species richness in oil palm compared to forest habitats, and 79.6% of the species found in forest habitats were not found in oil palm habitats.
Some of the species at risk in the Malaysian rainforest include Pygmy Elephants, Orangutans, Sumatran Rhinos and the Malayan Tiger.
Adding to the problem is that the loss of vital habitats will force animals closer into conflict with humans. Already, we are having problems with macaques in our cities and Orang Asli villagers are being troubled by tigers and elephants encroaching onto their lands.
Rainforests play an important role in mitigating climate change. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by the tree canopy. As soon as trees are felled, this stops, and more carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere. The decomposing tree stumps will even release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.
Rainforests also help regulate our local temperatures, keeping things cool by evaporating rainwater intercepted by the forest canopy. The evaporated water forms clouds, which also contribute to cooling. If evaporation is not happening, a lot of the energy that’s coming from the sun turns into raising temperatures instead.
The clouds also reflect a lot of the sun’s radiation back into space and are a source of rainfall. So when tropical forests are felled, local temperatures tend to rise, and rainfall patterns change, becoming less reliable and more extreme, leading to heat waves and even droughts.
Malaysia has experienced an increasing number of floods over the past few years. And although deforestation cannot be pinned down as the primary culprit behind every recent flood, it is known that forests can serve as a buffer against heavy rainfall; a tropical rainforest can intercept about 30% of rainfall in its canopy, with the remaining percentage being absorbed into the soil or taken up by tree roots.
Damien Thanam Divean, vice-president of the non-governmental organisation Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (PEKA), said the clear-cutting of forests to plant crops such as palm oil and durian fruit had only reduced the ability of the land to absorb water, worsening the floods.
One of the reasons why it floods so much is because they cut down too many trees or burn down trees to make way for developments and palm oil plantations. – Ms Elizabeth Chong, KL resident
By removing tree cover, we expose the soil underneath to rainfall. This will increase the rate of soil erosion and make slopes increasingly unstable, eventually leading to landslides. And in a country with a high level of rainfall, such disasters are unfortunately a common occurrence.
Over the past decade, Malaysia has experienced a high number of landslides. Approximately 100 landslides occurred in Malaysia each year in 2011 alone. The fatalities caused by these disasters have been 600 since 1961.
The Decline of Indigenous Tribes / Malaysia’s Indigenous Left Vulnerable
Malaysia’s indigenous people depend on the rainforest for their sustenance. Their livelihoods include hunting, fishing, and gathering wild fruits and honey for sale locally as well as hunting, fishing, and gathering. Several groups, such as the Jakun people, practice subsistence farming, growing rice, corn, and spinach with indigenous plants.
Unfortunately, many OA communities have been stripped of their ancestral lands as logging continues, depriving them of not just their vital sources of food and income but also medicine. The knowledge and usage of medicinal plants harvested from the jungle have been an age-old traditional practice passed down through the generations, representing a crucial aspect of their health, spirituality and longevity.
Indigenous people are the most affected people because they live in the forests. The government has to acknowledge this and work with them to combat illegal logging. – Meenakshi Raman, Sahabat Alam Malaysia president
As more and more of the jungle is logged and converted into plantations or mines, however, the communities of hunter-gatherers find themselves being forced into smaller pockets of green areas, which cut them off from the resources sustained by their nomadic customs.
Without access to their traditional way of life, they become malnourished and underweight. They end up eating junk food and consuming more sugar to substitute their diet of fruits and other things.
With their resistance being low, many diseases — whether it’s pneumonia or tuberculosis, or even diarrhoea — can be fatal. But the root cause is that their environment has been taken away. – Colin Nicholas, Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) executive director
At Gua Musang, for example, uncontrolled logging to open up land for farming in the Lojing and Pos Brooke had resulted in the erosion of the hill slopes, endangering the local OA communities.
Heavy rains will send water rushing down the bare slopes, causing danger to the Orang Asli community after the hills have been stripped bare for agriculture purposes. – Mohd Syahbuddin Hashim, Galas State Assemblyman
Why Does Illegal Logging Happen?
During the 1980s, Malaysia was the world’s largest exporter of tropical wood. Even today, the sale of timber and timber products remains a profitable industry in the country. When companies prioritise profit over the environment they continuously cut down more trees to meet the increasing demand for timber, paper and derivative products, including packaging.
The illegal bauxite mining industry is another factor, with Malaysia rushing to capitalise on exports of valuable ore in 2014. This led to a “mad rush” as miners took hold of land in Pahang, stripping hills bare of their forest cover to make way for mining sites and roads for trucks to carry their haul on.
Even after a ban was issued in 2016 following unregulated mining and run-offs from unsecured stockpiles in Pahang contaminated water sources, turning roads, rivers and coastal waters red, bauxite exports from the country will hit 9 million tonnes by 2020.
For the last six months [in 2020], we’ve received reports from residents about the presence of fresh excavations… That is why the volumes of the stockpiles do not go down. – Fuziah Salleh, the member of parliament for Kuantan
RUBBER & OIL PALM PLANTATIONS
Palm oil and rubber have overtaken timber as Malaysia’s primary exports. Therefore, it is not surprising that the expansion of oil palm and rubber tree plantations in order to continue meeting demands is leading to increased encroachment into our rainforests.
According to a report by eco-watchdog Chain Reaction Research (CRR), state governments in Malaysia can issue forest clearance permits that have the clear-felling or removal of all trees in the forests as their sole purpose.
Such permits do not then require companies to disclose what the cleared area will be used for, be it an oil palm plantation, mining project, or some other undertaking, they have led to situations where one company clears an area only to have a different one start an oil palm project there later.
This results in a confusing situation as to whether the [oil palm] grower can still be held responsible for the deforestation. – Chain Reaction Research (CRR) report
There has been an increase in illegal logging activities in recent years (especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic). This has led to environmental groups pointing towards possible corruption within government agencies that have been entrusted with protecting our forests as the main driver behind these incidents.
Gurmit Singh, chairman of the Centre for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia chairman said that 90 illegal logging cases recorded in 2022 were nothing new.
The number of cases might be higher as not all are reported or identified. The main cause is corruption in the Forestry Department. As long as you allow that (corruption) to continue, enforcers themselves turn away from these activities. – Gurmit Singh, Centre for Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia chairman
Sahabat Alam Malaysia president Meenakshi Raman said: “The fact that the number of cases in Sarawak is high is appalling. This signals that the authorities are not doing their job because if they are monitoring and enforcing, then it would not go on.”
What Are The Current Laws Regarding Logging?
REGULATIONS FOR LEGAL LOGGING
Legal logging falls under Section 16 of the National Forestry Act 1984 for collecting forest produce with licence or minor licence from Permanent Reserved Forests (PRF) and State Government Lands through any of these 3 methods:-
- after it has negotiated an agreement in respect thereof; or
- in such other manner or by such other process as it may deem fit in the circumstances of any particular case.
Timber falls under the category of “major forest produce” and in order for operators to extract wood from a Permanent Forest Estate (PFE), an operator must have a license. Under Section 16 of the National Forestry Act 1984, the State Authority can issue licenses for operators to extract forest materials from the PFE of other State Government land. While there are basic requirements for obtaining a license to harvest from the PFE, each State will have different terms and specific requirements.
An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is also necessary for timber extraction activities. They must include landscape-level considerations, as well as the impacts of on-site processing facilities appropriate to the scale and intensity of forest management. EIAs must be conducted prior to the commencement of forest operations in the PRF for Peninsular Malaysia and in the forest management areas of Sabah and Sarawak.
LAWS AGAINST ILLEGAL LOGGING
In 2022, the Dewan Rakyat passed the National Forestry (Amendment) Bill 2022, with the purpose of introducing stiffer penalties for offences and tighter controls on permanent forest reserves.
The amended law required state authorities to conduct an inquiry before PRFs were allowed to be cleared. State governments were also required to replace the affected forests with land that was similar in size or larger.
Moreover, under this enacted law, illegal loggers may face a minimum of five to 20 years in jail and fines of up to RM1mil. This is in response to moves to better protect the nation’s forest reserves.
Prior to the amendments, the law imposed a minimum of one year to a maximum 20-year jail term and a fine not exceeding RM500,000 on convicted offenders.
As you can see, illegal logging remains a major driver of deforestation in Malaysia. And although the government has been making steps to combat this problem, the fact that an uncomfortably high number of illegal logging cases were recorded in 2022 shows that more needs to be done if we want to put an end to illegal logging in this country.
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