Part 1: Monoculture plantations, a post-logging development
Since the 1990s, Malaysia, following uncritically the trends set by international bodies that are susceptible to the lobbyists of the 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 the 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. The first part of this article will discuss how unsustainable logging has led us to this path of forest conversions and monoculture plantations.
In our previous article, we have estimated the size of forested areas, production forests and totally protected forests in the country, by using data from 2016 to 2018. In 2018, the size of forested areas in Malaysia was estimated to be 18.26 million hectares, covering 55 per cent of the country’s land area, while the size of its production forests and state land forests stood at 9.10 million hectares and 3.92 million hectares respectively, which when combined covered some 39 per cent of our total land area. Our estimation on the size of totally protected forests and terrestrial areas in 2018 meanwhile was 5.24 million hectares or 16 per cent of our total land area, while A Master List of Protected Areas in Malaysia, thepublication by the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (KETSA) in 2016 estimated this to be 4.35 million hectares or 13 per cent of the land area. The difference in these two calculations is most likely caused by, among others, the modest increase in the size of conservation areas in Sabah and Sarawak between 2016 and 2018; and the fact that the KETSA publication does not include areas that have only been administratively classed and managed as protected areas but have not actually undergone gazetting, the bulk of which are located in Peninsular Malaysia.
However, beginning from the 1990s onwards, our production and state land forests have also been the site of land use conversions, for the purpose of the development of monoculture plantations, chiefly for timber and pulp and paper tree and oil palm cultivation. These land use conversions, although certainly recorded by our forestry and land authorities, do not however prevent most of the areas from being continued to be calculated as part of our forested areas, in particular those that fall within our gazetted production forests. Consequently, although our production forests may remain gazetted on paper, but on the ground, a certain size of them have actually been turned into monoculture plantations.
Plantations are not forests, even if the FAO says so
Since the 1990s, the terms ‘forest plantation’ and ‘planted forest’ have been accepted for official use in our country. The Compendium of Environment Statistics published by the Department of Statistics (DOS) has even provided a definition for ‘forest plantation’:
This regrettable attempt to twist the constitution of forests to suit human folly, is not a unique development in Malaysia. The lobby for certain types of monoculture plantations to qualify in definition as forests is international in nature. Currently, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) itself defines the following as such: 
Forest predominantly composed of trees established through planting and/or deliberate seeding.
- In this context, predominantly means that the planted/seeded trees are expected to constitute more than 50 percent of the growing stock at maturity;
- Includes coppice from trees that were originally planted or seeded.
Planted forest that is intensively managed and meet all the following criteria at planting and stand maturity: one or two species, even age class, and regular spacing’.
- Specifically includes: short rotation plantation for wood, fibre and energy.
- Specifically excludes: forest planted for protection or ecosystem restoration.
- Specifically excludes: Forest established through planting or seeding which at stand maturity resembles or will resemble naturally regenerating forest.
Malaysia in this regard, is only following the tune already set by the unsustainable international free market and their lobbyists in an uncritical fashion.
No matter how hard we try to twist its meaning and fantasise of their existence, the ‘forest plantation’, ‘plantation forest’ and ‘planted forest’ simply do not exist. What we have here are monoculture plantations, pure and simple. A forest, in all languages, is not planted. In fact, it is scientifically erroneous to claim otherwise. A plantation can never be a forest, not even a biological or legal category of it. Forests are formed by natural vegetation and a high level of biodiversity. They perform various ecological functions, including as water catchment systems. They shield wildlife, fishes and microorganisms. Plantations are large monoculture farms of crops, disastrous for water catchments, rivers, entire ecosystems and their biodiversity.
Forest conversions is a result of three decades of unsustainable logging
The Malaysian timber industry began to undergo a rapid growth from the late 1960s, with log production and export respectively peaking at 40.10 million m3 and 20.35 million m3 in 1990, before undergoing a steady decline, as shown in table 1. Ten years later, the country’s log production had plunged to 23.07 million m3, while its export was only a third of what it used to be in 1990, at only 6.80 million m3. In 2018, our log production was only 12.81 million m3. In 2019, its export was only 1.34 million m3. All these took only 30 years to unfold.
Although the decline in our timber production and exports has been used as evidence of the country’s progressive commitment towards sustainability concerns, we beg to differ. Instead, we have reason to believe that this decline is simply caused by the sharp dwindle in our natural timber resource base. In plain words, between the 1960s and 1980s, we had basically overharvested. There is ample evidence that points to this fact.
First, Malaysia’s claims on the sustainability of its selective timber felling cycle had been made way back since the 1980s, when production was still extremely high and climbing. Indeed, if such claims had really held water, Malaysia could have well continued harvesting between 30 million m3 and 40 million m3 of logs annually, in perpetuity, as it used to do in the 1980s, with no adverse impacts on our natural timber resource base. Clearly, this has not been the case. Then as the figures fell steadily, these sustainability claims continue to be sustained until today.
Second, the serious degradation in our natural timber resource base had actually been anticipated by many parties since the 1980s, including several prominent studies. If you are interested, our 2013 publication, From Policy to Reality, ‘Sustainable’ Tropical Timber Production, Trade and Procurement has listed some of these scientific premonitions.
One of these, the Timber from the South Seas, published in 1989, estimated that Sabah and Sarawak should be logged for no more than between 4.5 million m3 and 6.5 million m3 annually if sustainability was to be maintained, at a time when current log production rates were around 11.7 million m3 and 11.5 million m3 respectively. In 1990, The Promotion of Sustainable Forest Management: A Case Study in Sarawak, Malaysia was published following an international fact-finding mission in the state. This report recommended for the state to impose an annual harvesting limit of between 6.3 million m3 and 9.2 million m3, depending on the choice of the silvicultural treatments used.
Sarawak however continued producing 18.84 million m3 of logs in 1990. Ten years later in the year 2000, it was still harvesting more than 14.27 million m3 of logs, of which more than six million m3 was exported. By 2018, finally its log production had dwindled to 7.11 million m3, a bulk of which quite possibly came from the clear felling of forests destined for conversions. In 2019, it exported only 1.30 million m3 of logs.
Meanwhile in Sabah, in the first week of 2002, news began to report on the claim made by the Sabah Timber Association that many of Sabah logging and timber processing companies may soon be forced to shut down within a year, as there was not much left within the state’s production forests, as a result of overlogging in the past. The news article in The Star on January 4 was actually entitled ‘No timber left in Sabah forests’.
As a matter of fact, the impending shortage in our natural timber base had even been used to justify the need for timber tree plantations by several Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports of monoculture plantations in Sabah and Sarawak.
Last but not least, the intense peaking and sharp decline in our timber production and export volume within a span of just three decades, was not be an exception to the rule, but in fact, it is part of a regional trend, at least in Southeast Asia and Oceania, in the presence of heavy foreign investments. It is also not a secret that intense timber harvesting periods of the affected countries tend to also coincide with their more politically undemocratic periods.
Timber corruption is indeed an efficient resource to fund election campaigns and concentrate power and wealth into the hands of a few kleptocrats, be they national politicians or their local chieftains, while enriching businesses that will be more inclined to return a host of favours to them.
Because, generally, why not? Licences may be bought under the table; production and export quota may be breached; various timber species may be mislabelled and the protected ones even smuggled; accounting of royalties, export duties and other business taxes may be manipulated; downstream and trading activities too can possibly be monopolised. The possibilities are many and varied. Indeed, illegalities in logging are not just limited to logging within unauthorised areas.
After all, it is not very easy for tired, overworked and underpaid local government officers to monitor logging operations and calculate their outputs in the forested interior, surrounded by staff and sometimes even gangs, on the payroll of the powerful. Meanwhile, their foreign counterparts waiting in the ports of wealthy importer countries may not even be that well-trained to tell the different species of woods fashioned into different end products. Back in the 1980s, importer countries like Japan regularly recorded a larger amount of timber imports from Southeast Asia than that declared by the exporter countries.
In Southeast Asia, the international tropical timber trade began by first logging the forests of the Philippines and Thailand as early as the 1940s. In the Philippines, American businesses played a significant role during these early years, before the arrival of Japanese investments and buyers, looking for vast quantities of cheap timber to feed into the expansion of the Japanese economy and the boom in its construction sector throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In Thailand, its teak forests reportedly attracted significant British interests, even as early as at the turn of the last century.
Eventually, logging operations in the Philippines and Thailand reached their peak in the 1970s, concurring with a period of militarised rule in both countries. The former by then also had a president by the name of Marcos. By the 1980s however, the role of these two nations as major global exporters of tropical timber products was pretty much over, along with their political regimes. In fact in 1988, a massive flood in southern Thailand led to a complete ban on all commercial logging in the country a year later. Subsequently, between the 1970s and 1980s, the next targets of the industry were Malaysia and Indonesia; the latter by then had a president by the name of Suharto.
In Malaysia, the same boom-and-bust trend could even be seen within the country itself. Concentrated industrial timber production first began in Peninsular Malaysia in the 1960s, followed by Sabah in the early 1970s, before building up in Sarawak in the 1980s. Logging always began in the coastal areas, before the operations moved to higher elevations in more inland forests.
Consequently, the decline in timber production commenced much earlier in the Peninsula at the end of the 1970s. This decline was then being compensated for by the sharp production boom in Sabah in the late 1970s and in Sarawak in the 1980s. Nevertheless by the early 1990s, Sabah’s production volume too began to fall before Sarawak began to follow suit by the end of the same decade.
From the 1970s onwards, the industry in Sarawak and Sabah was also heavily supported by large Japanese importers, whether directly or indirectly. Local loggers were assisted through various measures – from the provision of soft loans to the lease or sale of heavy machinery, in return for a guaranteed steady supply of timber, which in turn would repay for the borrowings taken earlier by local businesses, which in consequence, promoted excessive timber harvesting rates.
This cycle is also often complemented by policies in timber importer countries such as Japan, which encourage the exploitation of forests in foreign countries in order to ensure the cheap supply of durable and high quality tropical wood products. The domestic timber industry in Japan, mostly run by modest family-owned businesses, in fact badly suffered as a result of such a policy.
Due to their low prices, the bulk of these highly durable tropical woods even ended up as disposable materials for the utilisation of the Japanese construction sector. Essentially, a large driver of the rapid deforestation in Sarawak and Sabah in the 1980s was the move to supply the Japanese with high quality tropical but disposable wood products, which in a more rational economic system would have been fashioned in more sustainable quantities into products that would have lasted for generations in our homes, indoors and outdoors.
By the time the last legs of logging operations began to slow down in Sarawak in the late-1990s, its industry main players were already fabulously wealthy. Wealthy enough to be able to diversify into other industries domestically, from construction to communications, and of course, plantation development itself. Additionally, they also began to move into the forests of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and in fact, in several countries in Africa and Latin America, triggering a similar path of destruction and causing the wrath of local communities.
Within the country, forestry policies and laws began to be amended in the early 1990s, to allow for the clear felling of these logged over forests in order to turn them into monoculture plantations of either timber or pulp and paper trees, or oil palm, under the same sustainability claims, which by now, sounds even more bizarre than ever.
This policy path claims that in order to reduce the pressure on our natural forests, we need to switch to producing planted timber from monoculture plantations. Essentially, this would encourage the clear felling of some forested areas, in order to protect other forested areas. In does not seem to matter that the timber produced would largely be lower in quality, harvested from fast-growing trees, some of which are not even local species to begin with. It does not matter that some of these timber trees are not even capable of producing durable wooden furniture and materials, but instead will be fashioned into pulp and paper. It does not even matter that some of them are not even timber trees at all; in Sabah and Sarawak, oil palm plantations may even be grown in their gazetted production forests.
Likewise, Indonesia, beginning from 1990s, also began to convert its logged over forests and peat land in Sumatra and Kalimantan into pulp and paper tree or oil palm plantations. In fact, Malaysian businesses are also significant players in some of these operations. For more than 30 years, the smoke from the fire that was used to burn the remaining standing vegetation, especially on peat land, would make its way to the rest of Southeast Asia in unbearable amounts, especially during El Nino years.
Subsequently, within the region, the transnational tropical logging industry then moved on to Papua New Guinea. However, in the last 15 years or so, Papua New Guinea too began to issue out its Special Business Agricultural Leases(SABL) to companies that are expected to log its forested areas, before converting them into monoculture plantations in the years to come, instead of its regular logging permits.
Indeed, if our production forests had really been sustainably managed under a rigorous selective felling cycle, with the minimum span being 25 years in Sarawak, why the urgency to convert them into monoculture plantations? Perhaps, it is not surprising that many of the plantation corporations in Sabah and Sarawak also belong to the same timber business groups themselves. Would the industry be still felling the rainforests just so it could establish plantations, if they could have just continued felling timber the way they used to, to produce similar amounts of private wealth?
After all, forest clearing operations themselves could be extremely profitable. They are unencumbered by the various regulations imposed on normal timber harvesting operations, where only a certain amount of certain timber trees of certain sizes could be harvested. In September 2014, the Pahang Forestry Department defended its decision to allow a part of the Lesong Permanent Reserved that had been ‘degraded’, reportedly the size of Cyberjaya, to be converted into timber tree plantations. However, it was estimated the value of the logged timber could possibly worth at least RM 150 million.
So there you have it, the plain reasons for the expansion of monoculture plantations into Malaysia’s forested areas since the 1990s. You must also be aware that we have not even touched on the decades’ worth of allegations of timber politics and corruption in Malaysia. That information, you can freely find elsewhere in cyberspace, quite easily we must say, in an impressive volume.
Forested areas designated for conversions into monoculture plantations
Table 2 shows the size of gazetted production and state land forests in Malaysia in 2011 and 2018, which since the 1990s, have become more vulnerable to land use conversions for the purpose of the development of monoculture plantations. In 2018, these areas are estimated to be approximately 2.98 million hectares in Peninsular Malaysia, 2.61 million hectares in Sabah and 6.93 million hectares in Sarawak. These totalled up to 12.77 million hectares for the entire country.
In Peninsular Malaysia, the areas reported by its forestry department only involve its Permanent Reserved Forest, not its state land forests. The crops of choice include acacia, rubber and other timber species; in recent years, there are also plans to include fruit trees such as durian as well. Sabah and Sarawak on the other hand allow both timber tree and oil palm plantations within both of their gazetted production forests and state land forests.
Finally, we must also not forget that a significant bulk of such areas designated for monoculture plantations also encroaches upon indigenous customary territories in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. Conflicts on the extent of indigenous customary territories are commonplace in Malaysia where their rights to forested areas tend to be more contested by the state, in comparison to active cultivation areas, which no longer harbour precious timber. Such territories comprise both family-owned areas for cultivation, some of which may be left in fallow or even remain forested, especially if they contain precious and long-living timber, fruit, medicinal and multi-purpose trees; apart from their village communal forests that are protected for hunting, gathering and their various ecological functions.
If an indigenous customary land is without a communal reservation status or documentary title, as the case is with the bulk of the territories, the state may either concede that the communities possess some form of usufructuary rights to utilise them, especially if they are under active cultivation, or simply not recognise the rights at all. The extent to which the state may admit their rights is often limited; this is also typically done without full consultations, boundary demarcation or even the dissemination of maps and other documents to the people.
Within production and conservation forests, the indigenous customary land rights are either presumed to have been largely extinguished or heavily regulated by the state, as a result of their gazetting process. When development is authorised on indigenous territories on land classified as state land, whether forested or not, without recognition of the continued existence of such rights, the state may have relied on the premature and often misleading assumption that such areas are not encumbered by legitimate indigenous customary land rights claims. This is in conflict with judicial decisions which have ruled that indigenous customary land rights will continue to exist on any land unless they have been extinguished through clear and unambiguous words under the authorisation of a legislation, with the payment of adequate compensation, as demanded by the Federal Constitution.
Consequently, much land that has been unilaterally interpreted by the state as being part of state land forests and production or even conservation forests, may actually fall within areas that indigenous communities still regard as part of their ancestral territories. We will be discussing these issues in our future articles.
The conversions of our forests into monoculture plantations must really be seen as a post-logging development. In the larger political scheme, it is the result of the failure in good governance and justice. In simpler words, it is just the result of the failure to heed the obvious, our common sense.
 For more information, please see the website of FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessments, which annually collects and reports on the global and national forestry information. Apart from its main report, the process also publishes its key findings, terms and definitions, data collection guidelines and individual country reports.
Legal classes of forests and conservation areas in Malaysia, Part 1: Federal data classification
Legal classes of forests and conservation areas in Malaysia, Part 2: Legislation and Categorisation
Statistical data on forested and conservation areas in Malaysia, Part 1: Federal but not central
Statistical data on forested and conservation areas in Malaysia, Part 2: 13 or 55 percent?