Part 2: 13 or 55 percent?
What is the size of forested areas in Malaysia? What is the size of our totally protected terrestrial areas? What has been the rate of deforestation in the country in the last 40 years? Now and then, we will meet data that would make various claims on the state of our forests, especially those that have been sourced from satellite images. If you have read our previous articles on how forests and conservation areas are governed and classed in Malaysia, now you will be better informed to make sense of such data. In this second part of the article, we will attempt to construct information on the size of forested and conservation areas in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak over a period of at least 15 years. In doing so, we will have to select information from a host of federal and state authorities that in our judgement is the most comprehensive and reliable. It is unlikely you will find all the statistical information gathered in this article on one single federal government website or publication.
The second part of this article will provide a guide on how one can estimate the size of forested and conservation areas in Malaysia, by collecting data provided by the various forestry and conservation authorities in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, as well as those compiled at the federal level, we which we believe to be the most accurate.
The size of forested and conservation areas in Peninsular Malaysia, 1990 – 2018
According to the Compendium of Environment Statistics, Peninsular Malaysia has a total land area of 13.22 million hectares. The total size of forested areas and other forestry statistics in Peninsular Malaysia are presented by the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia (JPSM) through its annual reports. (However, for the year 2019, the tabulation of this information appears to have been omitted from the publication.) Such forestry information is also available on and consistent with the Malaysia Open Data Portal website, as well as the Compendium of Environment Statistics.
Before we continue, we would like to advise you to first access the annual report of 2018 on JPSM’s website, in order to understand better the discussion below. From this report, as the practice is each year, you will find table 1 where the total size of forested areas in Peninsular Malaysia, including the break down for each state, is calculated.
This tabulation of data also provides the size of different categories of forests, including the Permanent Reserved Forest (PRF) (equivalent to the Forest Reserve in Sabah and the Permanent Forest Estate in Sarawak, while being referred to as the same in federal classification) under the authority of JPSM, and the non-gazetted state land forests. While the inclusion of these two classes of forests is easily understandable, JPSM’s classification of other forest categories may not necessarily be so.
These other categories are termed as ‘wildlife forest park’, which is further subdivided into ‘wildlife reserve’ and ‘national park’; ‘state park’; and ‘other forested reserves’. For the categories ‘wildlife reserve’, ‘national park’ and ‘state park’, each category is further subdivided between those within the PRF and outside PRF.
If you have been acquainted with the forestry and conservation laws in Peninsular Malaysia, you may find yourself immediately confused by the suggestion that national parks for example, which should be under the authority of the Department of Wildlife Protection and National Parks (PERHILITAN) or state conservation agencies, could also exist within the PRF, which is under the authority of JPSM. Then, while you know that the PRF has a functional class called ‘Forest Sanctuary for Wildlife’, the term ‘Wildlife Reserves’ is a proper legal class of conservation areas under the sole authority of PERHILITAN. Furthermore, if you know by heart the size of the Royal Belum State Park in Perak that is under the authority of the Perak State Parks Corporation, you will also be confounded to see that the same size is also reported to be the size of the ‘State Park’ in Perak, but within the PRF, in 2018.
There are several other clusters of data that may throw your confusion even deeper, if you are familiar with the size of conservation areas throughout Peninsular Malaysia. We will not give you further examples of them, since we ourselves could not necessarily resolve them. However such issues do not affect the accuracy of the final data on the total size of forested areas in Peninsular Malaysia, as they are primarily related to the categorisations administratively employed by JPSM, published to describe the calculations in greater detail.
Below, we will continue discussing information which we could resolve satisfactorily, i.e. the constitution of the forest categories as employed by the JPSM in its table 1, column by column. This understanding is only possible due to our fair knowledge on forested and conservation laws and areas in the country.
The Permanent Reserved Forest (PRF)
The PRF category is easy to understand. This category is then further subdivided into gazetted areas and those at the gazetting proposal stage. The latter, although legally is still a state land forest, has officially entered into a gazetting process, where activities such as boundary demarcation and surveying may have been commenced and some restrictions over their access would have been put in place, pending the completion of the process. This is the logic behind the statistical inclusion of areas that are only under a gazetting proposal by the JPSM, or by any forestry or conservation authority in this country.
However, subdivisions showing the size of each of the 12 functional classes of the PRF is not given in table 1 or elsewhere in the annual reports, although this information may be found on the websites and annual reports of some of the state forestry departments. In all likelihood, the complete data set on the 12 functional classes have never been included in table 1, since an area within the PRF may be gazetted under more than one protection functional class at the same time, which may complicate the process of calculating the total forested areas for Peninsular Malaysia. Still, it would have been useful for this information to be tabulated in a separate table in the annual reports.
Wildlife Forest Park (within and outside of the PRF)
The term ‘wildlife forest park’ is obviously not provided for by legislation. This classification does not exist in law. This is only an administrative category employed for the purpose of data tabulation in table 1, termed as such in order to resolve the complexity of the network of conservation areas in Peninsular Malaysia that are under a host of different authorities and laws. You are unlikely to see it elsewhere except in JPSM data. Prior to 2012, the annual reports had termed this data category simply as ‘wildlife reserves’. Back then, this was even more confusing, since a person who is familiar with the sizes of the various conservation parks and wildlife reserves in Peninsular Malaysian states would have immediately realised that data from national and state parks may have also been included under this category.
However it is named, this category serves to provide the details on the size of an array of conservation forests under the authority of JPSM and its National Forestry Act 1984; PERHILITAN and the two federal conservation laws; as well as other state conservation authorities and their laws. PERHILITAN is also additionally in charge of a few conservation parks that had been gazetted under several state conservation laws, be they during the colonial era or after independence, as well as the main land legislation, as explained in our previous articles.
This category is then divided into ‘wildlife reserve’ and ‘national park’. Each will be further subdivided to show whether they reside within the PRF or outside of it. If you have understood our past articles on the forestry and conservation laws in Peninsular Malaysia, you can then deduce the following:
(i) Wildlife reserve
This category will include the following forested areas:
(a) The sixth functional class of the PRF known as ‘Forest Sanctuary For Wildlife’, which is under the authority of JPSM and the forestry legislation in Selangor and Terengganu;
(b) The ‘Wildlife Reserves’ under the authority of PERHILITAN and the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, which in Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak and Perlis are located outside of the PRF; and
(c) The ‘Wildlife Reserves’ under the authority of PERHILITAN and the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 in Johor, which however are still reported to be within the PRF. The most probable explanation for this is the occurrence of double gazetting of the concerned forests.
(We do not wish to further discuss the history of such double gazetting exercises in Peninsular Malaysia here, although they have indeed caused some serious problems to the affected forests in Johor in the past.)
(ii) National Park
This subcategory today includes conservation parks that have been termed as ‘national park’ in legislation, although these may have been established by different laws and are under different authorities. They include:
(a) Conservation parks under the authority of PERHILITAN i.e. the Penang National Park, established under the National Parks Act 1980;
(b) The Taman Negara National Park, established under three individual colonial state laws in Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu; and
(c) The network of Johor National Parks under the authority of Johor National Parks Corporation, established under the National Parks (Johor) Corporation Enactment 1989.
While the first two categories of (a) and (b) are documented to be outside of the PRF, those in Johor are still documented to be within the PRF, most probably due to double gazetting again.
This category includes conservation parks that have been termed as ‘state park’ in legislation, regardless of the fact that they have been established by different laws. They include:
(i) State Parks that have been gazetted or proposed to be gazetted by the states as the twelfth functional class of the PRF under the authority of JPSM and the state-based National Forestry Act 1984 in Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis, Selangor and Terengganu;
(ii) The Endau Rompin State Park that has been doubly gazetted under the National Land Code 1965 and the forestry legislation in Pahang; and
(iii) The Royal Belum State Park that has been doubly gazetted under the Perak State Parks Corporation Enactment 2001 and the forestry legislation in Perak.
State land forests
This category are the remaining ungazetted forests in Peninsular Malaysia.
Other forested reserve
We do not have further information on this category, although forested areas under this category consistently appears only in Johor with the same modest figure over the years.
Table 1 shows the data that we have reconstructed to show the size of forested areas in Peninsular Malaysia from 1990 to 2019. The data was obtained from the Malaysia Open Data Portal website, cross checked with the annual reports of JPSM and the Compendium of Environment Statistics. Our construction of table 1 omits the subclassification of conservation areas within the PRF, for simplicity.
From table 1, we can see that in 1990, Peninsular Malaysia had 6.27 million hectares of forested areas, of which 4.87 million hectares was part of the PRF while another 0.83 million hectares remained as state land forests without any reservation status. By 2018, the size of forested areas had been reduced by 0.52 million hectares to 5.76 million hectares. However, the size of the PRF had increased to 4.92 million hectares.
The reduction in the size of state land forests from 1990 to 2018 can indicate two possible developments. First, at least 53,279 hectares of the state land forests have been gazetted into the PRF over a period of nearly three decades. (This is an extremely low figure and is more indicative of the political will of state governments rather than JPSM’s.) We do say at least, because it is also possible that a larger size of forested areas had been gazetted into the PRF during this period, but this figure was offset by the degazetting of other PRF areas. Second, the bulk of the loss of our forested areas during this period, in all likelihood, must have occurred within state land forests, as its reduction size over this period of time stood at 0.60 million hectares, not too far off from the reduction of 0.52 million hectares in the total size of our forested areas. All these are of course a general inference; in order to know the actual losses and increase of each category annually, one must analyse the same unit of data from the 11 Peninsular states during the same period.
The significant data fluctuations in the category ‘wildlife reserves and national parks outside of the PRF’ between 1990 and 2009 may be baffling, but this is most likely the result of the changes in the ways the data were re-categorised rather than actual changes in our forested areas and their status. During this period, various forestry and conservation authorities in Peninsular Malaysia began engaging in a lengthy process of re-organising the way they consolidate and structure their data tabulation of forested areas, being confronted by issues including but not limited to, the double gazetting of forests under forestry and conservation legislation.
An important matter that must be noted here is the fact that data from table 1 (both JPSM’s and ours) cannot be used to estimate the size of production as well as conservation or totally protected forests in Peninsular Malaysia. Although the details on the size of conservation forests defined as national parks, state parks and wildlife reserves are given, the PRF itself comprises 12 functional classes, 11 of which are considered to be part of its protection forests.
Can we estimate the size of production and conservation forests in Peninsular Malaysia from JPSM data?
Although JPSM annual reports do not report on the size of the 12 functional classes under its PRF, the section on forestry statistics on its website does provide more simplified information on this between the years 2011 and 2019. This data tabulation does not provide the size of each of the functional class, but rather, it only shows the size of forests that have been classified as production forests i.e. Timber Production Forest under Sustained Yield and the remaining 11 functional classes dedicated for protection purposes. Table 2 shows the tabulation of this data.
From table 2, we can see that at all times, the size of the production forests in the PRF in Peninsular Malaysia, i.e. the Timber Production Forest under Sustained Yield, is larger than the combination of the other 11 functional classes of protection forests. In 2011, the former formed 59 per cent of the PRF. By 2018, this figure had increased to 60 per cent. In 2019, this climbed further to 61 per cent, as the size of the PRF itself had been reduced by approximately 20,000 hectares. (The JPSM’s annual report of 2019, while no longer providing detailed tabulated data, also states that the size of forested areas in Peninsular Malaysia for the year was 5.73 million hectares, a reduction of approximately 30,000 hectares from the size recorded in 2018 i.e. 5.76 million hectares.) This is a significant loss over a span of one year, a trend that must not be left unchecked.
Furthermore, if we take into account that state land forests can also be logged or even converted into other land uses, its size obviously matters too. By using information on state land forests in table 1, we can estimate that in 2011, the combined size of production and state land forests was 3.22 million hectares. Therefore, while 5.81 million hectares or 44 per cent of Peninsular Malaysia was under forest cover in 2011, around 55 per cent of these forested areas or 24 percent of the total land area in Peninsular Malaysia was not protected from production activities such as logging. State land forests are even more vulnerable to land use conversions.
In 2018 (the last year which we have access to a complete set of data), the combined size of production and state land forests was 3.23 million hectares; suggesting that while 5.76 million hectares or 44 per cent of Peninsular Malaysia was still under forest cover, 56 per cent of the forested areas or again, nearly a quarter of the total land area in Peninsular Malaysia, although forested, may not be necessarily protected from forest production activities.
In conclusion, there was little change between 2011 and 2018.
This brings us to the question on the size of conservation forests and areas in Peninsular Malaysia. Can we add the size of totally protected forests outside of the PRF found in table 1 and the size of protection forests found within the PRF found in table 2? If this is done for 2018, we would have arrived at 2.52 million hectares of totally protected forests in Peninsular Malaysia, or 44 per cent of its forested area or 19 per cent of its total land area.
However we have reasons to believe that this figure is not reliable.
First, a significant size of the PRF classed as protection forests has actually not been gazetted. They have been classed as such only by the JPSM for administrative and management purposes. However, legally, the respective state governments have yet to gazette them. As long as the gazetting process of the functional classes other than the first has not been undertaken or completed, these forests are still legally part of the Timber Production Forest under Sustained Yield. Technically, state governments still have the authority to issue logging permits over them. A Master List of Protected Areas in Malaysia, A Tool for National Biodiversity Conservation, Management and Planning, the publication mentioned in the first part of the article, has identified such areas and rightly excluded them in their calculation of Malaysia’s protected areas.
More importantly, the Master List publication has recorded only 1.84 million hectares of terrestrial protected areas in Peninsular Malaysia in 2016 or 14 per cent of its total land area. Although, there is a span of two years between our estimation above and the figure given by the Master List, the discrepancy of 0.68 million hectares is too significant for us to believe in the relative accuracy the first estimation.
We will not make any further comments on this statistical difference between the JPSM and the Master List data on conservation areas in Peninsular Malaysia, except to state that we have been waiting for far too long for the inconsistencies in the data on conservation areas published by the different forestry and conservation authorities in Peninsular Malaysia to be resolved for good.
The size of forested and conservation areas in Sabah, 2005 – 2019
Among the three forestry departments, it is the Department of Forestry of Sabah that produces the highest quality of annual reports each year without fail. In fact, it is quite possible that the annual reports of the department may be one of the best, if not the best, in the entire Malaysian civil service. It can be quite a pleasant shock reading the precision and richness of their data each year, along with their detailed descriptions, when one could at times be confused by the data presentation in the annual reports (and websites) of other government departments (and ministries); and the ridiculous amount of pages in the reports that can be devoted to the posed and large photographs of government officials. (We are always stumped by this strange tradition and think it should be put to a stop.)
According to the Compendium of Environment Statistics, Sabah has a total land area of 7.36 million hectares. From the annual reports of its forestry department, we were able to partially construct table 3, which among others, shows the tabulation on the total size of the forested areas in Sabah between 2005 and 2020. Unfortunately, we were unable to find the size of state land forests and the total size of forested areas in Sabah from these annual reports. We thus urge the department to also include these data in its future publications. Due to their absence in the annual reports, the data on the total size of forested areas in Sabah were sourced from the Compendium of Environment Statistics. From this, we were able to estimate the size of state land forests in Sabah.
Table 3 shows that in 2005, Sabah had 4.36 million hectares of forested areas; in 2018, (the last year which we have access to a complete set of data), this size had increased a little to 4.77 million hectares.
Sabah’s network of Forest Reserves under the authority of its forestry department (equivalent to the Permanent Reserved Forest in Peninsular Malaysia and the Permanent Forest Estate in Sarawak, while being referred to as the former in federal classification) stood at 3.50 million hectares in 2005 and 3.51 million hectares in 2006. This increased slightly to 3.54 million hectares in 2018. In mid-2020, after its latest reclassification exercise on the Forest Reserves, this figure climbed further to 3.57 million hectares. Unfortunately however, during this period of time, the size of state land forests in Sabah also showed an increase from 0.56 million hectares in 2011 to 0.95 million hectares in 2018, which is worrying trend indeed.
However, during this period, the size of Sabah’s Forest Reserves classified as protection forests (Class 1, 6 and 7) increased tremendously, while those classified under the production classes (Class 2, in particular) showed a corresponding decline. Most prominently, the size of its Class 1 Protection Forest, climbed from 0.34 million hectares in 2006 to 1.39 million hectares, an increase of 1.05 million hectares. The size of its Class 2 Commercial Forests meanwhile, decreased from 2.68 million hectares in 2006 to 1.66 million hectares, a decline of 1.02 million hectares. The changes in the size of other classes of the Forest Reserves also reflected this trend. Unfortunately, the size of its Class 3 Domestic Forests, gazetted for the use of indigenous communities in Sabah, suffered a decline, from 7,355 hectares in 2006, which was not at all large to begin with, to 4,634 hectares in 2020.
These changes are a result of the several reclassification exercises undertaken by the Sabah state government beginning from more than 30 years ago under the Forests (Constitution of Forest Reserves) Enactment 1984, of which the most recent was conducted in mid-2020, as mentioned above. This legislation functions to declare the classification of the Forest Reserves gazetted under the Sabah Forest Enactment 1968.
Most of the years, the annual reports would also provide statistical information on the totally protected forests in Sabah that are under the authority of the Board of Trustees of the Sabah Parks and the Sabah Wildlife Department, the most recent of which can be accessed on the websites of these two agencies. The data in the annual reports appear to be so precise that it has apparently omitted the entire size of these areas, some of which would have included marine ecosystems as well. (Thus, do not be confused if you find larger figures being reported by the two conservation agencies.)
According to the data obtained, the terrestrial size of Sabah Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Wildlife Conservation Areas did not change much between 2011 and 2020. The terrestrial size of Sabah Parks remained the same at 0.24 million hectares, while the size of its Wildlife Sanctuaries and Wildlife Conservation Areas declined very slightly from 29,097 hectares to 28,957 hectares. During this period however, the true size of these conservation areas did actually increase, but this largely involved marine areas.
From these, the following facts can be deduced.
In 2011, the year we began to have access to a complete set of data, the four classes of production forests in Sabah stood at 2.90 million hectares. The size of its state land forests was recorded at 0.55 million hectares; together their combined size stood at 3.45 million hectares. Essentially, while 4.44 million hectares or 60 per cent of Sabah was under forest cover in 2011, around 78 per cent of these forested areas or 47 per cent of Sabah land area were not protected from production activities. A part of this and for state land forests, from land use conversions as well.
In 2018, the last year where a complete set of data is available, the size of production forests in Sabah stood at 1.91 million hectares and the size of its state land forests was 0.95 million hectares; together, they totalled up to 2.86 million hectares, which is a significant decline of 0.59 million hectares from 2011. The size of forested areas in Sabah meanwhile had increased slightly to 4.77 million hectares by 2018; therefore for this year, around 60 per cent of its forested areas or 39 per cent of its land area was not protected from at the very least, forestry production activities.
Meanwhile, the size of Sabah’s totally protected terrestrial areas comprising Class 1, 6 and 7 of its Forest Reserves and the network of Sabah State Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Wildlife Conservation Areas was recorded at 0.98 million hectares in 2011 and 1.91 million hectares in 2018, an impressive increase of nearly one million hectares.
The size of forested and conservation areas in Sarawak, 2005 – 2019
The Sarawak Department of Forests does not feel compelled to regularly release its annual reports on its website. Therefore information to construct table 4 had to be obtained from three sources, namely the Compendium of Environment Statistics; the webpages of the Sarawak Forestry Department, where links to the gazette notifications of the three categories of conservation areas i.e. the National Parks, Nature Reserves and Wildlife Sanctuaries can be found; and another list of conservation areas published by the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), which was last updated in 2020.
According to the Compendium of Environment Statistics, Sarawak has a total land area of 12.44 million hectares. Like Sabah, information on the total size of forested areas in Sarawak was also sourced from the compendia between the years 2010 and 2020. In 2005, the total size of forested areas in Sarawak was reported as 8.06 million hectares. In less than two decades, this had plunged to 7.75 million hectares, a loss of 0.31 million hectares. Unlike Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, the Permanent Forest Estate in Sarawak (equivalent to Peninsula’s Permanent Reserved Forests and Sabah’s Forest Reserves, while being referred to as the former in federal classification) also showed a corresponding decline, falling from 4.78 million hectares in 2005 to 4.21 million hectares in 2018, a reduction of 0.57 million hectares.
The size of Sarawak’s state land forests, an estimation derived from subtracting all the other categories from the total size of forested areas, showed little change, but with frequent fluctuations; in 2005 it was estimated to be around 2.79 million hectares, in 2018 it was estimated at 2.72 million hectares.
For conservation areas in Sarawak, all under the authority of its forestry department but consisting of three categories, namely the National Parks, Nature Reserves and Wildlife Sanctuaries; there was an increase of 0.37 million hectares, from 0.49 million hectares in 2005 to 0.89 million hectares in 2019.
We have also found small but important inconsistencies between that data published by the forestry department, the SFC and the Master List. Our calculations have corrected these perceived errors, by directly basing the size of the areas from the gazette notifications themselves.
From these, the following facts can be deduced.
In 2005, the production forests in Sarawak, comprising the entirety of its Permanent Forest Estate stood at 4.78 million hectares. The size of its state land forests was estimated to be around 2.79 million hectares; together their combined size stood at 7.57 million hectares. Essentially, while 8.06 million hectares or 65 per cent of Sarawak was under forest cover in 2005, around 94 per cent of these forested areas or 61 per cent of Sarawak land area that was forested, was not protected from production activities. A part of these forested areas comprise state land forests that can also be converted into other land use as well.
In 2018, the last year where a complete set of data is available, the size of production forests in Sarawak stood at 4.21 million hectares and the size of its state land forests was 2.72 million hectares; together, they totalled up to 6.93 million hectares, which is a significant decline of 0.64 million hectares from 2005. However, we must not forget that the size of forested areas in Sarawak had also decreased to 7.75 million hectares by 2018. Therefore during this year, 89 per cent of its forested areas or 56 per cent of its land area that was forested was still not protected from at the very least, forestry production activities.
Meanwhile, Sarawak’s three classes of totally protected areas, namely its National Parks, Nature Reserves and Wildlife Sanctuaries, increased from 0.49 million hectares in 2005 to 0.82 million hectares in 2018, a significant increase of 0.33 million hectares. However, as we shall see further below, Sarawak, in all aspects, fared the worst, in comparison to Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, in all aspects of its forest protection efforts.
The size of forested areas, production forests and totally protected areas in Malaysia, 2016 – 2018
From the data that we have managed to obtain, can we construct information on the size of forested areas, production forests and totally protected areas in Malaysia, for at least between 2016 and 2019? We probably can, but two tabulation processes need to be conducted, using only approximate figures, as a result of the lower quality of data available for Peninsular Malaysia.
Table 5 displays the size of forested areas, production forests and totally protected forests and areas in Malaysia for 2018, the last year where our data is complete. For Sabah and Sarawak, all figures were respectively obtained from tables 3 and 4. For Peninsular Malaysia, all figures were obtained from tables 1 and 2.
The land size of Malaysia, according to the Compendium of Environment Statistics is 33.02 million hectares. Table 5 shows that the size of forested areas in Malaysia for 2018 was 18.26 million hectares, covering 55 per cent of its land area, consistent with the data published by the Compendium of Environment Statistics for 2018. Therefore the government is not wrong when it reminds us that Malaysia has made good on its promise to ensure that at least 50 per cent of its land will be permanently under forest cover.
However, out of this 18.26 million hectares, 9.10 million hectares, or 50 per cent of it has also been permanently reserved as production forests, chiefly for logging and a significant portion of it has also designated for conversions into monoculture plantations. This is 27 per cent of the country’s land area. However, if the size of state land forests is added into the equation, the size of our production and largely unprotected state land forests in 2018 was recorded at 13.02 million hectares. This is 71 per cent of our forest cover or 39 per cent of our land area.
Based on table 5, in 2018, protection or totally protected forests consisted of only 5.24 million hectares or 29 per cent of our forest cover or 16 per cent of the country’s land area. However, if we are to use the data published by the Master List in 2016, republished in table 6, the size of totally protected terrestrial areas in Malaysia stood at only 4.35 million hectares in 2016. This is only 13 per cent of Malaysia’s total land area.
The Master List’s documented size for Peninsular Malaysia was in fact only 1.84 million hectares, significantly lower than the data that we had obtained from JPSM, at 2.51 million hectares. The fact that many protection forests within the PRF in Peninsular Malaysia have never actually been gazetted may be one of the reasons for this. Meanwhile, our documented size for conservation areas in Sabah for 2016 was the 1.87 million hectares, while the Master List reported 1.80 million hectares. In Sarawak, our calculations and the Master List’s are almost the same, both could be rounded to 0.71 million hectares.
We are unable to tabulate the overall data from 2019 onwards, due to incomplete information from Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak, but it is unlikely that the size of our terrestrial conservation areas would have climbed too far from 2016 today. Table 3 shows that between 2016 and 2020, Sabah had increased the size of its Class 1 Protection Forest by 68,039 hectares, its Class 6 Virgin Jungle Reserve by 34 hectares and its Class 7 Wildlife Reserve by 262 hectares. Table 4 shows that between 2016 and 2019, Sarawak had increased the size of its National Park by 154,485 hectares and its Nature Reserves by 922 hectares. Altogether, the data that we had obtained documented an increase of 223,742 hectares of conservation areas in Sabah and Sarawak between 2016 and 2020. Meanwhile the size of Peninsula Malaysia’s PRF, which only gave us approximate figures reproduced in table 2 , showed a decline of 20,000 hectares between the four years. If we are to incorporate this data to the Master List’s figure, the updated data will give us approximately 4.55 million hectares or 14 per cent of our total land area.
Additionally, table 5 also shows us that although Sarawak has the largest size of forested areas in 2018, by percentage to its land area, Sabah has the largest forest cover at 65 per cent and the largest size of totally protected areas at 24 per cent. In contrast, Sarawak, by percentage to its land area, has the largest size of production forests at 34 per cent, the largest size of ungazetted state land forests at 22 per cent and the smallest size of totally protected terrestrial areas at no more than six per cent.
We hope this has helped to clear a common public confusion on the state of forests in Malaysia. In 2018, 55 per cent of Malaysia’s total land area may well still be under forest cover. However, 71 per cent of this, or 39 per cent of our total land area actually consisted of production and unprotected forests. This leaves only 29 per cent of the forest cover, or 16 per cent of Malaysia’s land area as totally protected forests in 2018. In 2016, the Master List recorded the size of our totally protected terrestrial areas at only 13 per cent of the country’s land area. The data that we had obtained for 2016 documented this at 15 per cent of the country’s land area. The latter body of information is not the kind of publicity the government is more inclined to repeat to the world.
Selective data has always been used to make selective representations of reality. In the case of Malaysian forests, the oft-repeated claim that 55 per cent of the country’s land area is still under forest cover is not incorrect. It is only an incomplete description on the reality of the state of our forests. Beneath this claim lie the rarely publicised facts of our forested areas i.e. 27 per cent of our land area has been reserved for forestry production activities; 12 per cent of our land area that is also forested receives only minimum legal protection; and totally protected forests and other terrestrial areas make up only between 13 and 16 per cent of our land area. Between 13 per cent and 55 per cent, it is the selection of data that makes all the difference.
We also have to remember that this story does not end here. A significant part of our production and state land forests have also been designated for monoculture plantations since the mid-1990s, chiefly for pulp and paper, timber and oil palm cultivation. We will be discussing this in our next article.
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