Part 1: Federal but not central
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, you will now be better informed to make sense of such data. In this first part of the article, we will discuss some of the challenges that one may face in seeking such data at the federal level.
Seeking and understanding forestry and conservation data in Malaysia can be a very challenging task. This is because different federal and state authorities may choose to tabulate their data differently, as a result of the existence of various federal and state laws and authorities involved in the regulation of forests and conservation areas, and the management of their data, in particular for Peninsular Malaysia. Furthermore, the reporting of these data at the federal level may also be too generalised or limited in certain ways; and in many cases, data between federal and state agencies may also not be consistent at all times.
Five basic rules
Essentially, these are the five basic rules that must be remembered when we embark to seek and analyse data on our forested and conservation areas, apart from the structure of governance on land, forests and conservation in this country, as laid out by our Federal Constitution. All these have been explained in greater detail in our previous articles.
One, the size of forested areas, or sometimes referred to as the size of forest cover, is not the same as the size of totally protected forests or conservation forests. It is also not the same with size of tree cover, which we will not be discussing in this article. We must therefore know what we are looking for, and not mistake one for another.
Two, forested areas contain two broad classes of forests i.e. those that have been gazetted, often divided at the federal level between the permanent reserved forests and totally protected forests or areas; and those that have not been gazetted, known as state land forests. A small third category of forests i.e. alienated forests, may also occasionally appear in our forestry data; these are forests standing on land with a private documentary title.
Three, the largest class of forested area documented at the federal level is often administratively termed as the permanent reserved forests, which are under the authority of the main forestry legislation in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. In their respective forestry legislation, such forests are actually termed the same in Peninsular Malaysia, Forest Reserves in Sabah and the Permanent Forest Estate in Sarawak. They tend to be reported by our federal authorities as a single category, with no further subdivisions of its actual legal functions. Nevertheless in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, this forest category can in fact be further subclassified into production and protection forests, while in Sarawak, this category only contains production forests.
Production forests are permanent reserved forests that have been reserved for timber harvesting, monoculture plantations and other permissible economic activities, which supposedly must be conducted sustainably based on strict regulations. Within forests classed as protection forests, sometimes also termed as conservation or totally protected forests, no such activities are allowed.
Four, a separate tabulation on the size of totally protected areas in the country is also documented by our federal authorities. Totally protected or conservation forests are often reported as part of a larger network of totally protected areas, which may include wetlands and other terrestrial ecosystems, as well as marine areas. However, this category often does not incorporate data on the protection forests within the permanent reserved forest network that is under the authority of the forestry legislation and departments in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah.
An efficient data tabulation process on conservation areas should ideally be able to distinguish conservation areas that are located on terrestrial ecosystems from those located on marine areas. It could also be focused on one but not the other. However, a conservation legislation and its authority, may or may not have jurisdiction over both terrestrial and marine areas. Consequently, while most conservation areas are located either on terrestrial or marine areas, there are also conservation areas that comprise both the land and the sea such as the Penang National Park and several conservation areas in Sabah and Sarawak. The inability to resolve such complexities in a data presentation exercise on conservation areas may eventually lead to statistical inaccuracies.
Five, the terms used to classify national and international categories of forests and conservation areas are employed only for administrative and managerial purposes, in order to organise data from different legislative frameworks. To ascertain their actual legal terms and categories, one must return to the actual legislation that has the authority to establish and regulate them. Additionally, the names of these administrative categories of forests and conservation areas may or may not be similar with the actual legal categories that have been provided for under the law.
Compilation of forested and conservation area data at the federal level
At the federal level, the task of publishing forestry and conservation data from Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak is undertaken by a few authorities. In no particular order, we will discuss these sources below.
The first source of statistical information on forests and conservation areas at the federal level is the Department of Statistics (DOS), which publishes the Compendium of Environment Statistics annually. This publication can be downloaded for free once one registers an account with the department. However, although the statistical information provided by this publication is far more detailed than that provided by most federal authorities, the forestry and conservation area data in its last two publications for 2019 and 2020, were not as up-to-date as one would expect. For its 2019 publication, some of the data on forests and conservation areas may have been dated as far back as 2013. For its 2020 publication, some of the data were only updated up to 2018. We do not know why this is the case.
Furthermore, while the DOS data on the size of our forested areas are consistent with those published by the state authorities, we have found in some instances where its data on conservation areas may have been incomplete or inaccurate. This will be noticeable when one thoroughly compares figures published by the compendium with those presented by the different conservation agencies from the three regions. Moreover, the compendium also does not list protection forests that are under the authority of the forestry legislation and departments in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah. While these figures can be easily obtained from the annual reports of the Sabah Forestry Department during most years since 2011, the same cannot be said about JPSM’s annual reports, as will be shown in part two of this discussion.
Nevertheless, any weaknesses found in the data on conservation areas in the compendium, cannot be faulted on the DOS alone. This department is obviously dependent on the information fed to them by the various conservation authorities found in the three regions. Up until 2020, Malaysia did not even possess a master list of its conservation or totally protected areas. This is caused by a host of technical issues, some of which will be further discussed below.
The second source for forestry and conservation data at the federal level is the Malaysia Open Data Portal website. Hosted by the Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU) of the Prime Minister’s Department, it houses numerous statistical data from different ministries and government departments and agencies.
Unfortunately however, this website largely functions through a search process, which can pose difficulty for information seekers with a modest knowledge on the subject of their interest, as they may miss important data as a result of the usage of unsuitable terms during the search process or they may also end up being overwhelmed by the search results themselves. Overall, our experience with this website is one that is not particularly public friendly in relation to our search on forests, conservation areas and the production of commodities such as timber.
The third federal source for forestry and conservation forest data in this country is the website of the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (KETSA), where statistical information on the total size of our forested areas, permanent reserved forest and totally protected areas as well as the size of our forested areas in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, from the year 1990 onwards, can be found.
Another major federal source for our national forestry and conservation area data used to be the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities (MPIC), although their quality could be relatively lower, in comparison to other federal sources. Today, MPIC only publishes data on the size of our forested areas, focusing more on the data of our key agricultural commodities, including timber and palm oil.
Up until 2013, MPIC used to make its annual publication, the Statistics on Commodities, freely available on its website, all the way from the year 2000. These publications, although providing more simplified statistical information, did provide an efficient way of reporting centralised and comparative annual information on our various commodities over the years, including those on timber production and timber product exports, as well as the total size of forested areas, production forests and protection forests in the country. However, some of their forest categorisations, in particular those related to the protection forests, were not well defined and potentially led to a good deal of confusion.
Unfortunately, these reports are no longer available on the ministry’s website today. If you are interested to have them, please write to us and we will gladly send them over to you. In replacement, the ministry currently only provides individual links for the public to access the more recent statistical information, organised based on the type of commodity. For the forestry and timber sector, currently, it only publishes the size of forested areas, focusing more on providing information on our timber production and export statistics.
Last but not least, in relation only to conservation areas, there are another two additional sources of information.
The first is the Malaysia Biodiversity Information System (MyBis) website, which aims to be a one-stop repository for biodiversity information in Malaysia. Hosted by KETSA, this website has been established in accordance with and as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) process, of which Malaysia is a party to.
Although this website is visually stunning and provides very useful information on individual protected areas in the country (as well as other information on Malaysian biodiversity resources), it is again not very friendly for the beginner. For forest and conservation areas at least, it does not explain in detail the different legal categories of conservation areas in existence across the country. In fact, it does not even readily tabulate them, as it also operates largely through a search function. Therefore, you are more likely to benefit from it if you are already equipped with advanced knowledge on our conservation areas. It is an English-only website made by experts for presumably, other experts.
Second, beginning from the 2000s, a multi-stakeholder process involving various conservation, marine and forestry authorities, civil society groups and experts, had worked to compile an authoritative master list of totally protected or conservation areas for the entire country, under the initiative of the then Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (now KETSA). This master list, which includes both terrestrial and marine protected areas, was finally released in 2020 by the ministry, with its content updated until mid-2016. Unfortunately, it is only written in English and currently, we are still unable to locate it on any of our government’s websites.
Entitled A Master List of Protected Areas in Malaysia, A Tool for National Biodiversity Conservation, Management and Planning, it should ideally be regarded as the most exhaustive in the country, although it is updated only up to 2016. Its definition of totally protected areas relies on the definitions set up by IUCN and the Convention on Biological Diversity(CBD), with further explanations described in its annex 4 and 5, noting the following:
While the definitions have slight differences, both definitions make reference to the need for (i) a stated objective for biodiversity conservation; (ii) dedication or designation of a defined area; and (iii) regulation and management.
Further, six criteria were established through multi-stakeholder consultations in order to enable individual areas to be selected in a systematic and consistent manner. In summary, areas listed on this publication require the following conditions to be met.
First, the area concerned has been gazetted under the agreed list of laws. Areas established under ‘administrative orders’ alone will not be included. These may include forests categorised under the various protective functional classes of the PRF in Peninsular Malaysia, even if the JPSM may continue to include them in its data on protection forests. Second, the gazette notification has been published in the relevant government gazette. Three, the geographical location of the area is clearly defined, either in descriptive format contained within the gazette notification or is available as a gazette plan or map, which can be obtained from the relevant survey and mapping department. Fourth, biodiversity conservation is mentioned explicitly as the objective of the establishment of the area. This has resulted in areas such as Tasik Chini to be excluded from the list as its gazette notification only listed recreation as its objective, even though the area contains significant biodiversity values. Fifth, the condition of the area or its management effectiveness is not considered as a factor in its inclusion of the areas as this would be the subject for further assessment under a separate initiative. Sixth, areas with national or international designations are not included if they have not been gazetted with any of the nationally accepted protected areas laws. An example of this is the Sungai Pulai Ramsar site in Johor, which currently has only been gazetted as a production forest under the PRF, although it has been declared to be part of an international network of protected wetland areas under the RAMSAR Convention. (The Ramsar Convention, also known as the Convention on Wetlands, is an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which came into force in 1975.) Whenever exceptions to these criteria are made for certain conservation areas, justifications are footnoted to explain their inclusion.
This publication is indeed the most comprehensive and accurate document we have ever seen on Malaysia’s conservation areas. However, we believe that apart from containing minor errors, its data tabulation could also potentially lead to some confusion to a beginner. This document has also not been updated since 2016. We are fortunate to have a digital copy of the publication. Again, if you are interested to have a copy of it, do not hesitate to write to us.
Federal but decentralised data
As described in the previous section, although there are several federal sources for us to access statistical information on forested and/or conservation areas, their comprehensiveness, accessibility, tabulation of data and updating process availability vary. Consequently, their data may not necessarily be consistent with one another, or even with those provided by the respective state authorities, at all times. Furthermore, while some of the data sets may go back all the way to 1990, other data sets may either cover a shorter period of time or have yet to be equipped with an updating process.
A common theme that can be seen in most of these federal data tabulations is its laziness in explaining the detailed definitions of its data categorisations and constitution. For example, simply terming a class of forests as the ‘permanent reserved forests’, when in fact they are called differently in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, may not help the average information seeker much. Compounding the matter is also the lack of consistency in the categorisation of forests across different federal sources. While KETSA and DOS data differentiate the permanent reserved forests from totally protected areas, MPIC data, up to 2013, used to subcategorise the permanent reserved forests into production and protection forests. How could possibly ordinary members of the public, be they students or journalists, make sense of all these differences?
In this regard, only the Master List publication is an exception. However, this publication only covers conservation areas. It also has not been updated since 2016. It has either not been uploaded on any government website or is simply difficult to search for. It took over a decade for a multi-stakeholder process to publish it, as a result of various technical issues, some of which will be discussed further below.
Compiling the size of totally protected or conservation forests and areas at the national and even international level is certainly not an easy task. Below are some of the challenges involved in producing a consistent federalised body of data on such areas for the country.
One, not all conservation areas are created equal. The objectives, degree and nature of the legal protection enforced over different conservation areas can vary significantly.
For example, there are conservation forests that have been gazetted to protect specific ecological functions such as water catchment forests that feed into the municipal and agricultural water supply systems, or soil protection forests standing on very steep slopes or mountains, under the authority of the forestry legislation in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah. These protected forests may lack clear biodiversity objectives, but they are nevertheless protected for their ecological functions.
Other conservation areas that have been gazetted under conservation legislation meanwhile, may have more explicit biodiversity conservation objectives, but their accessibility to human activities may vary. Some may only be accessible to researchers and conservationists through special permits; others are regulated as parks, which could be enjoyed by the public for recreation and tourism under strict conditions and with the payment of entrance and other fees; still others are regulated as amenity forests for the easier and freer access by the public, with the construction of roads and more public facilities, perfect for your weekend picnic.
Then, for wildlife conservation, there are forested areas that have been gazetted to protect their rich and diverse wildlife populations; others may be gazetted only for the purpose of establishing an area where breeding and rehabilitation efforts for specific species of wildlife, for example for orang utan or turtles, may take place. Still others may be recognised and managed, but not gazetted, as bird sanctuaries for being in the path of migratory birds. In fact, a relatively easy-to-access forested area may even be interpreted as protected, by virtue of a declaration issued during the colonial administration that hunting activities are strictly prohibited within it.
As a result of the diverse quality of legal protection that can be granted over an ecosystem, be they terrestrial or marine, data inconsistencies may occur across different federal and state authorities, if no mutual agreement can be reached on the definition and constitution of a totally protected area.
Two, there also exist areas that have been classed and continue to be classed as totally protected by certain federal authorities, when in fact they have never even been gazetted by their respective state governments at all. The Master Listpublication has rightly excluded such areas. Therefore, if you find a conservation area dated to prior 2015 listed in the Compendium of Environment Statistics, but not in the said Master List publication, this could well be the reason for it. A significant number of such areas are part of the Permanent Reserved Forest (PRF) in Peninsular Malaysia, under the authority of the Department of Forestry of Peninsular Malaysia (JPSM).
These areas may still have their data reported as totally protected by their respective authorities, since they have been to a certain extent, classed and managed as such by their authorities through purely administrative decisions. Although the authorities in charge may well have long recommended for such areas to be gazetted, the respective state governments have simply failed to do so, year after year.
Three, in Peninsular Malaysia, there are also conservation forests that have been doubly gazetted under both the forestry and conservation laws. These forests would have been included in the data of both JPSM and the conservation authorities in charge of them. Sabah used to face a similar issue in the past too, although only on a very small scale. However, the Sabah authorities have wisely taken the steps to resolve them, by ensuring that no statistical overlaps occur in their data tabulation.
This is among the reasons why JPSM data can easily confuse you, a matter that will be further discussed in part 2 of the article. For example, JPSM data may also record ‘national parks’, ‘state parks’ and ‘wildlife reserves’ within its PRF. You may then see that the size of particular conservation categories ‘within the PRF’ in a given state as reported by JPSM data, is either the same or almost the same with that reported by conservation agencies, if you are familiar with their sizes.
Four, there appears to be no agreement amongst the different forestry and conservation authorities on the most appropriate method to manage the data on areas that are only under a gazetting proposal. Some authorities may include such data, some may include them under a special category, some may exclude them altogether. The absence of a standardised practice in this matter has produced data tabulation that may not be legally consistent with one another, compounded by the fact that an area may remain at a gazetting proposal stage for years.
Five, until the publication of the Master List, there were many conservation areas whose boundaries and size had yet to be properly determined. This can be caused by a variety reasons. It could be caused by the inconsistencies between the size stated in the text or plan of an old gazette notification, and the size determined by recent survey and mapping activities. It could be caused by several excision exercises done by the state that had not been properly reported to federal authorities, some of which may date back to the colonial era. It could be caused by double gazetting exercises, with each gazette stating a different size of the approximate area in concern. It could even be caused by a missing old gazette notification. As such, it is not entirely uncommon for discrepancies to be found in respect of the size of the certain conservation areas across different state and federal authorities during different years.
Six, each conservation law is different in its geographical scope. There are those that regulate only terrestrial areas, there are those that regulate only marine areas. Then, there are those, such as the National Parks Act 1980 and Sabah and Sarawak conservation laws, whose jurisdiction extends to both terrestrial and marine areas.
As a result, while most conservation areas are located either exclusively on the land or in the seas, there are also those that traverse both the land and the seas. State jurisdiction on the seas extends only up to three nautical miles from the low water mark in Peninsular Malaysia. Sabah and Sarawak meanwhile has shared jurisdiction over marine areas with the federal government up to 12 nautical miles from the low water mark. The remaining marine territorial waters of Malaysia is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government.
However, the tabulation of conservation areas in the Compendium of Environment Statistics for example, does not note such information, except for protected marine areas in Peninsular Malaysia under the authority of the Department of Fisheries.
To summarise this matter, before the tabulation of totally protected areas in Malaysia can become truly reliable and final, there needs to be a comprehensive definition of its legal constitution, which at the very least, must ensure that the boundaries and size of each of the listed areas have indeed been properly determined, where the size of terrestrial areas can be distinguished from marine areas, and where periodic and systematic updating is conducted.
IUCN conservation area categories
For the purpose of reporting at the international level, our state and national categories of conservation areas must also be aligned with internationally accepted definitions of totally protected areas. The most authoritative international definition of totally protected areas is the one developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as shown in table 1 below. As a conservation area may correspond to more than one of the IUCN categories, our federal authorities must therefore establish an efficient methodology to prevent statistical overlaps from occurring during its reporting process to various international bodies.