Part 2: When plantations are counted as forests
Since the 1990s, Malaysia, following uncritically the trend set by international bodies that are susceptible to the lobbyists of the supposedly international free market, has allowed for its forested areas to be converted into monoculture plantations, while still calling and counting them as forests. Consequently, statistical information on our forested areas, including our own documentation in our previous article, for all intents and purposes, is inaccurate. It is only paper information that may not necessarily correspond to the reality on the ground at all times. This second part of this article will attempt to explore this reality, where plantations are disguised as forests in our statistical data.
The focus of the second part of this article is the development of monoculture plantations by the corporate sector that began to take place in our forested areas beginning from the 1990s onwards, as a result of the decline in our natural timber resource base, due to their overharvesting in the past decades.
This development in particular poses a risk to the integrity of our forestry data, when such monoculture plantations began to be defined and calculated as forests. The figures provided in this article are mostly focused on forested areas that have been designated for monoculture plantations since the 1990s, unless described otherwise. These must be distinguished from data on areas that have actually been planted. While not all of the designated zones will be developed, all planted areas are clearly within the designated zones.
Plantation development is essentially a very large-scale agricultural project, which will take several years to be completed, depending on its licensing process and the size of the project area. The size of the area that ends up being planted within a project may be around 50 per cent of its actual licensed area, as some parts of the land must be legally left out as buffer zones or due to their steep terrain, while others will be used to set up the project nursery, workers’ housing and other facilities. Nevertheless, no matter how modest their actual plantable areas are, monoculture plantations would always result in the severe fragmentation and disturbances of ecosystems, apart from creating adverse impacts to local communities.
Which monoculture plantations?
This discussion is not focused on older oil palm or rubber plantations that have long existed and been identified as such within our statistical data, more common in Peninsular Malaysia than in Sabah and Sarawak. More importantly, it is also not focused on smallholdings run by our farming community, whose rights, interests and welfare must always be protected. Instead, this article will be focused on monoculture plantation projects that are characterised by four common features.
First, they involve forest conversions permitted within the forestry policies and laws in the three regions since the mid-1990s. Second, they are a post-logging development that mostly take place within gazetted production and state land forests that had been logged over in the previous decades. Third, they are large projects developed by corporations, instead of smallholdings owned by farmers. Fourth, a significant size of such projects may also create or have created adverse impacts on the customary land rights of our indigenous communities, as logging had done before. While logging had certainly caused much suffering for affected indigenous communities, monoculture plantations are clearly worse, as they require the clear felling of entire forests.
Size of forests designated for plantation development in Peninsular Malaysia
In 2009, the total size of the production forests within the Permanent Reserved Forest (PRF) i.e. the Timber Production Forest under Sustained Yield in Peninsular Malaysia that has been designated for timber tree plantations was recorded at 108,742 hectares. By 2013, this figure had soared to 324,417 hectares, or six per cent of the 4.94 million hectares of the PRF back then. This was a leap close to 200 per cent within a span of just five years.
At the height of this planned expansion in 2016, only two years after the massive floods of the December 2014 and January 2015, state governments in Peninsular Malaysia, including those from the worst affected states in its east coast, were still lacking in common sense; upping the size of the designated zones to 402,000 hectares or eight per cent of the PRF, which was recorded to be 4.92 million hectares in 2016.
Fortunately, this plan was halted after the temporary change of our federal government in 2018, which saw this figure being immediately reduced to 115,438 hectares or two per cent of the PRF, which still stood at 4.92 million hectares in 2018.
Kelantan had the largest bulk of such PRF areas classified as timber tree plantations beginning from 2012 onwards. By 2013 in fact, it had zoned some 162,485 hectares, or 26.0 per cent of its PRF (623,849 hectares). Back then, the website of the Kelantan State Forestry Department stated that the state had designated some 199,352 hectares within its PRF as the Latex Timber Clone Plantation Zone. By 2010, 115 companies had reportedly received approval from the state to establish LTC plantations on 91,030 hectares or 14.6 per cent of its PRF. In 2018, Kelantan’s designated zones had been slashed down to 36,846 hectares, or two per cent of its 2.12 million hectare PRF.
Should we now let off a sigh of relief? It really depends on the direction the new federal government, which came into power in early 2020, will take. It is also worthwhile for us to read this letter written by the former chairperson of the Forest Plantation Development Sdn. Bhd (FPDSB) in July 2020, before doing just that.
FPDSB is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Malaysian Timber Industry Board (MTIB), a regulator of the downstream timber industry in Peninsular Malaysia, placed under the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities (MPIC). It functions as the federal government’s special purpose vehicle to implement the country’s timber tree plantation development programme (PPLH), which among others, had been tasked to provide RM 1 billion in soft loans to private investors between 2006 and 2020.
The letter revealed how the programme’s initial vision, which was focused on development of timber tree plantations on alienated land and state land forests only, took a different turn by 2012.
“Unfortunately, in its implementation the sustainability consideration was ignored. In 2012, the cabinet adopted the suggestion of the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia (with the buy-in of state governments) to allow up to 439,189 ha of PRFs to be zoned for plantation development.
This approach was simultaneously factored into the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme’s (MTCS) Malaysia Criteria and Indicator 2012 document with a caveat that such conversion will be limited to no more than 5 percent of the respective state’s PRFs.
…In 2013, further consideration was added to the approval criteria. Proposed development areas within the Central Forest Spine (CFS) would be rejected. There had been pressures by investors to relax this rule but the management of FPDSB supported by the ministry has remained steadfast in respecting the directive from the Forestry Department, the implementing agency of CFS.”Excerpt from a letter written by the former chairperson of the Forest Plantation Development Sdn. Bhd (FPDSB) in July 2020
Fortunately, under her brief watch, a review of this programme was conducted, which saw the decision undertaken to exclude the PRFs from further timber tree plantation development.
For us, we would rather defer our sigh of relief to a more suitable time.
Size of forests designated for plantation development in Sabah
In 2008, a document entitled A Guide to Forest Plantation in Sabah was published by the Department of Forestry of Sabah, describing the framework of timber tree plantations development in the state. This document states that most of Sabah’s Forest Reserves are managed in accordance with sustainable forest management, of which its main component includes forest restoration. Forest restoration in turn includes, among others, enrichment planting and ‘forest plantation’ development in identified industrial tree plantation (ITP) areas that are characterised by severely degraded forests.
The publication contains valuable data on the state’s development plan in this sector. Reproduced as table 2, this data provides the size of areas that had been identified for forest plantation development in the state by the end of 2004. The total size given then was 547,693 hectares; 384,115 hectares or 70 per cent of which were confirmed to be within Sabah’s Forest Reserves.
If we are to use the size of forested areas in Sabah in 2005 as reported by the Compendium of Environment Statistics, i.e. 4.36 million hectares, this would comprise around 13 per cent of forested areas in the state. By 2006, more than 205,622 hectares of these had already reportedly been planted according to the publication.
Table 3 was constructed from the annual reports of the forestry department in Sabah, which provide information on the accumulated size of ‘forest plantations’ in the state, a term which we have chosen to replace with timber tree plantations. These timber tree plantations are grouped into five categories, depending on how their project proponents are categorised by the state.
The first category falls under the Department of Forestry of Sabah itself, which only runs a small research plot of 31 hectares. The second falls under the Sabah Foundation and Rakyat Berjaya Sdn. Bhd., with only a handful of projects situated within the Forest Reserves; we presume the rest are located within state land forests. The third group is the largest, comprising the Sustainable Forest Management Licensee Agreement and Long-Term Licence (SFMLA/LTL) holders, whose operations are all situated within areas that have been identified as ITP zones within the Forest Reserves. The fourth are other agencies, companies or smallholders, which appear to operate either on state or alienated land, which we presume is part of the degraded forests mentioned above. The fifth group are rubber tree plantations developed by other government agencies, such as the Sabah Rubber Industry Board (LIGS), the Malaysian Rubber Board (LGM), the Rubber Industry Smallholders Development Authority (RISDA) and FELCRA Berhad (formerly Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority.)
Although we are certain that the fifth group of timber tree plantations are not grown within the Forest Reserves, we cannot confirm if their development involves recent forest conversions. Therefore, although they are part of the ‘forest plantations’ of Sabah and reported accordingly by its forestry department, we have also prepared data tabulation that excludes them.
Additionally, like Sarawak, Sabah also allows the development of oil palm plantations within its forested areas. However, such oil palm plantations do not seem to be defined as part of Sabah’s ‘forest plantations’. Instead they are described as an agroforestry component of sustainable forestry management by the forestry department. Although their existence has always been reported by the annual reports, their data initially only described their production volume. It was only from 2012 onwards that the size of their areas began to be recorded by the annual reports.
From table 3, we can see that in 2012, the year when we first had access to a more complete set of data, Sabah possessed at least 208,521 hectares of timber tree and oil palm plantations. By 2019, this figure had climbed to 276,989 hectares. These figures would be even higher if we are to include timber tree plantations that have been developed by other land development agencies.
Size of forests designated for plantation development in Sarawak
It is not possible for us to chart the trends in the conversions of forested areas into monoculture plantations in Sarawak, due to the unavailability of the relevant information. However, we are able to document their existing size today, based on information gathered from different Sarawak authorities as well as the Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council, which runs the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme.
In principle, there are two broad types of monoculture plantation development permits in Sarawak, i.e. those which originate from its Department of Forests and those that originate from its Department of Lands and Surveys. Table 4 provides the summary for the discussion below.
(i) Department of Forests: Licence for Planted Forests (LPF)
Under the Licence for Planted Forests (LPF) system of the Department of Forests of Sarawak, 43 LPFs have been issued in Sarawak since the mid-1990s, covering a total area of 2.37 million hectares. Although the LPFs are principally permits to develop plantations of various kinds of pulp and paper and timber trees, at least 15 of these have also been given the permission to devote a maximum of 20 per cent of their licensed areas to cultivate oil palm trees for one cycle of 25 years.
The LPF projects only take place in the gazetted production forests that are part of the Sarawak’s Permanent Forest Estate (PFE) and the non-gazetted state land forests. The smallest LPF plantation is believed to be around 5,000 hectares while the largest, the LPF 1, is close to 490,000 hectares. The LPFs do not involve any participation from indigenous landowners.
(ii) Department of Lands and Surveys: Agricultural development
The second type of monoculture plantation development permit is under the authority of the Department of Lands and Surveys, where the crop of choice is oil palm and the land use activity is specified for the purpose of agriculture. These licences are much smaller in size in comparison to the LPF permits, typically ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand hectares. However there are possibly hundreds of such licences in existence today. These licences in turn utilise different development approaches under different development authorities.
(a) Without the involvement of indigenous landowners
The first type of licence permits the development of oil palm plantations without any involvement of indigenous landowners, implemented either by the private sector or state government agencies such as the Land Custody and Development Authority (LCDA) and the Sarawak Land Development Board (SLDB), or through some form of partnership between these private and public actors.
According to the LCDA website in 2018, 238,885 hectares of such state land have been put under its development authority. Meanwhile, the website of the Sarawak Plantation Berhad (SPB), the company which owns and manages the principal assets of SLDB, showed that 46,150 hectares from 19 projects of such land are currently under its development authority.
(b) With the involvement of indigenous landowners
Another development approach for oil palm plantation projects are those which require the supposed partnership between state or federal government agencies and indigenous landowners, with or without the support of private investors. The justification for this partnership model would typically involve claims that vast plots of the indigenous customary land are fragmented and not under optimal utilisation. However, many of such projects have also been widely protested against by affected communities, as a result of a combination of factors, including the lack of proper consultation and consent process, the possible permanent loss of community control over their land and other financial and business-related issues. Generally, there are two models of joint-venture partnerships in such plantation development projects with indigenous communities.
The first is executed with the involvement of government land development agencies such as the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (SALCRA) and FELCRA Berhad (formerly the Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority), with government funding in the form of grants and soft loans. The size of SALCRA joint-venture projects is recorded at 51,072 hectares, while FELCRA projects are documented to cover 53,646 hectares.
The second is executed with the involvement of the private sector without government funding through the controversial New Concept of Development on Native Customary Rights Land, typically referred to as the Konsep Baru in Malay. The bulk of such projects are designated to be under the development authority of the LCDA, with only one project under the development authority of SLDB through its company, SPB. In 2018, the LCDA website showed that 554,523 hectares of land with NCR claims have been approved for such a development, while the SPB website showed that only one such project, at 2,128 hectares, has been developed under its authority.
Table 4 shows that the size of monoculture plantations in Sarawak currently stands at 3.32 million hectares. At least 2.37 million hectares of these, under the LPF system, would have almost certainly entered into the statistics of forested areas in the state. It is difficult to estimate how large the size of state land forests that are similarly affected, as we are unable to find such precise data.
We may exclude the data from SBP, SALCRA and FELCRA, which we believe involve oil palm plantations that have actually been developed, based on the reasoning that only the agricultural land of the indigenous customary territories are included in such projects. Exclusion may also probably be done for land under the LCDA designated for joint-venture projects, under the same assumption. However, it must also be stated that such joint-venture projects are also not necessarily free from controversies and community complaints as reported here, here, and here; you are free to look for more.
However, if all such land are excluded, the size of forested areas that have been designated for monoculture plantations in Sarawak would still be at least 2.65 million hectares. Data sourced from the Malaysian Oil Palm Board (MPOB), which was documented by our publication in 2019, shows that in 2017 alone, Sarawak had already developed some 1.56 million hectares of oil palm plantations, an increase of almost a million hectares from 0.61 million hectares in 2007.
Size of forests designated for plantation development in Malaysia
From the data that we have managed to obtain, can we construct information on the size of production and state land forests that have currently been designated for the development of monoculture plantations and their percentage to our state land and gazetted production forests? We probably can, but only approximately, albeit conservatively, limited to the year 2018 where we have the most complete set of data from Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. However, for areas that have been planted, we are unable to obtain data from the Sarawak Department of Lands and Surveys, so the figure for Sarawak is very conservative, involving only its forestry department.
Table 5 is the result of this attempt. From here we can see that by 2018, 0.12 million hectares in Peninsular Malaysia, 0.51 million hectares in Sabah and 2.65 million hectares in Sarawak had been designated for monoculture plantation development that will most likely involve the conversion of either our state land or gazetted production forests. This brings the total to 3.32 million hectares. This is 25 per cent of the size of our state land and production forests in 2018.
We must say that this is indeed a conservative figure, as the data for Sarawak has excluded a large chunk of 0.55 million hectares that has been targeted by the LCDA, under the Konsep Baru joint venture development projects, which involve the participation of its indigenous communities, many of whom are not at all receptive to be involved in such a partnership.
Nevertheless, in 2018, only a portion of these have been developed. The size of such planted areas was documented to be 31,783 hectares in Peninsular Malaysia, 0.27 million hectares in Sabah and 0.64 million hectares in Sabah, bringing a total of 0.94 million hectares for the entire country.
The two types of percentages in the table involve the ratio of designated zones and actual planted areas to the size of state land and production forests in 2018. For Sabah and Sarawak, it is possible that some of their respective state land forests that have been targeted for forest conversions for the purpose of oil palm plantations, have already been taken out from their statistics on forested areas in 2018. As such, these percentages reflect more on the possibility of forest loss as whole rather than the inclusion of oil palm plantations in our forestry data, strictly speaking. Still, a significant size of these targeted zones and planted areas are located within our gazetted production forests that are still counted as forests.
The figure for the planted areas for Sarawak again has been conservatively estimated, as it does not involve oil palm plantations that have been developed outside of its forestry department authority. As mentioned above, our 2019 publication has documented 1.56 million hectares of oil palm plantations in 2017 in Sarawak based on MPOB data, of which presumably only 197,189 hectares of them are under the authority of its forestry department. This leaves some 1.36 million hectares out of our equation in table 5.
Some of these undoubtedly are directly grown by smallholders, but their size can’t possibly be very large. The collective size of joint-venture projects involving SPB, SALCRA and FELCRA themselves, as documented in table 4, was only recorded at 106,846 hectares by 2018.
Furthermore, the rapid expansion of close to one million hectares of these plantations between 2007 and 2017 is an indication that such a development could not have been largely executed by smallholders. This speed in which the size of oil palm plantations had expanded in Sarawak in the last decade or so could have only been done with a huge amount of capital and heavy machinery owned by corporations. Therefore, if we are to take a conservative estimation of such areas to be approximately one million hectares, the size of planted areas in Sarawak can be as close as two million hectares.
With the arrival of climate change, the choice we have made in allowing and even encouraging forest conversions for the purpose of monoculture plantations is patently irrational. The future generations do not have to wait for the consequences, the global temperature increase has already led to changes in weather including major wind patterns, amount and intensity of precipitation and increased frequency of severe storms and weather extremes. The floods of December 2014 and January 2015 have provided us with sufficient lessons, if only we wish to learn from them. Therefore, since the size of planted areas of such monoculture plantation projects has still not reached the original targets of their designated zones, now is the perfect time to make sure that this will never happen at all.