Forest Rangers – Unsung Heroes Of The Wilderness

Posted on July 16, 2010. Filed under: Forestry/Wetlands |

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By: Ramjit

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Zahari Ibrahim (right), talking about the job of Forest Rangers. Pic: Forestry DepartmentBy Salbiah Said

CHERATING (PAHANG), July 16 (Bernama) — They are trained law enforcement officers and ecologists, and their work demands that they spend long hours alone in the forest.

These men in forest-green uniforms are our very own forest rangers, the human face of the jungles of Peninsular Malaysia, and who are at the battlefront against illegal loggers, many of whom are organised syndicates, who plunder the nation’s forests for selfish gains.

They are Malaysia’s unsung heroes who spend days in the thick forests, with only the moon to light up their nights and pray that they do not fall prey to wild beasts, or other creatures of the third kind.

But having close encounters with the wildlife or creatures of the third kind are not their area of concern, as their chief mission is to ensure that Malaysia’s pristine natural tropical forests are sustainably managed and conserved, with illegal logging remaining a major challenge for these rangers.

According to the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia (JPSM)’s Director of Forest Enforcement, Zahari Ibrahim, while illegal logging in Peninsular Malaysia was under control, constituting less than one per cent as against those allowed by law, it was not sitting on its laurels.

“There are still illegal logging operations which are being conducted in small patches and organised manner in preserved and remote areas. Our target is towards zero illegal logging by 2016,” he told Bernama at the Forestry Department’s workcamp here recently.

TOWARDS ZERO ILLEGAL LOGGING BY 2016

The objective of the workcamp was to conduct a post-mortem and an analysis into the factors contributing to the occurrence of illegal logging activities and to review the Action Plan to Combat Illegal Logging in Peninsular Malaysia (2008-2020).

At the end of the four-day programme from May 24, the department was expected to formulate an Action Plan (2001-2015), which is more practical, with the targeted year to rid off illegal logging shortened from 2020 to 2016.

According to Zahari, illegal logging was primarily driven by socio-economic factors, stimulated by encouraging demand for timber, especially from timber-based and furniture factories which depended heavily on natural forests.

As a result of depleting resources, these factories had look for alternative sources to sustain their operations, he said.

Some villagers, he added, took advantage of the situation and chose the easy route by felling trees in forests which had been gazetted as permanent forest reserves.

ORGANISED SYNDICATES USING ‘TONTO’

“At present, these illegal logging activities are more organised, with syndicates managed by those familiar with the forests, using sophisticated communication system and ‘tonto’ (abetters) to foil operations conducted by our rangers,” said Zahari.

“They have a strong network, ranging from the tree cutter, who hands over the logs to the lorry driver who ferries the goods to the buyer. The buyer then sells the timber to the factory.

“The dilemma we are facing is how to crumble their modus operandi, and it is rather difficult for us to identify the culprits as there are syndicates who use children, villagers and Orang Asli folks who are ignorant of the law,” he said.

“It is planned in such a way that each tonto will immediately inform the syndicate of the presence of enforcement officers who are patrolling their areas of operation, and there are also syndicates who confuse our officers by getting the public to falsely report ‘illegal’ logging,” he said.

The World Bank estimates illegal logging is costing producer country governments between US$10 billion and US$15 billion a year in lost revenue from taxes foregone.

ILLEGAL LOGGING STATISTICS

Under Section 15 of the National Forestry Act, 1984 (Amendment 1993) illegal loggers can be fined up to a maximum of RM500,000 and mandatory imprisonment of one year minimum and a maximum of 20 years.

It is an offence under this section to take forest produce from the permanent forest reserved forest or government – owned land without a valid licence.

According to JPSM statistics, a total of 163 cases of illegal logging were reported throughout Peninsular Malaysia from 2006 to May this year.

Of the total, 34 cases were reported in 2006; 38 in 2007, 42 in 2008, 30 in 2009 and 19 as at May this year.

Of these, 109 were reported in areas with permanent forest reserve status and 54 government-owned land.

The department data also showed that 179 have been arrested for illegal logging between 2006-May 2010, while compounds and compensation from illegal logging cases amounted to RM11.7 million and 276 units of machines and heavy equipment were seized during the period.

PUBLIC AND MEDIA PERCEPTION

According to Zahari, there was still misconception among the general public and the media that all forms of logging were illegal.

“Not all logging activities are illegal. There are licensed logging and allowed by the law such as in permanent forest reserves based on the principles of sustainable forest management, and government-owned forest land areas, for agriculture, development, etc. What is disheartening is when a wrong report makes headlines in the media, only a small space is given for its correction,” he said.

Land — government-owned or given ownership by the government — developed for agriculture lies outside the permanent forest areas under the country’s land use policy. This means up to 50 per cent of the country’s land area can be developed into various land uses for national development.

Based on the national land use policy, about 25 per cent of the country is allocated to agriculture and the remaining 25 per cent is for the other uses, with a minimum 50 per cent already locked in for conservation purposes such as permanent natural forests.

Media reports on corruption cases involving its forestry officers also gave a negative perception of the department, and affected the morale of other staff, he said.

The workcamp also stressed on the need to improve the department’s relations with the media, he said, noting that the media’s role as an effective platform to realise its zero illegal logging target, would also be highlighted in the new action plan.

Integrity of its enforcement officers was also a vital element in the plan, which focused on attitude, discipline and responsibility, especially in managing and protecting the national forest heritage, he said.

JPSM’S RESTRUCTURE

To strengthen its forest enforcement, said Zahari, the government had approved 62 new posts from June 1 2008 under JPSM’s restructure. Of the total, 44 posts were created to beef up its enforcement unit

At the same time, the government has agreed to establish a new unit, the legal and prosecution unit, with the creation of 18 new posts, and among others, consisting of legal officers, and the unit provides advice on investigation and handles prosecution.

Under the revamped department, 18 enforcement officers (investigation) are assigned to the various states, especially in probing cases related to forest offences.

“However, due to the economic situation, the government has decided to freeze all applications for additional enforcement staff and officers at the states level,” he said.

Malaysia experienced the full impact of the global recession which set in during the third quarter of 2008 and continued into the first quarter of 2009.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shrank 6.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2009 from a year earlier, after a 0.1 per cent gain the previous three months.

The contraction was the first since 2001 last quarter as exports slumped, pushing the nation towards its first recession in a decade.

Zahari said, JPSM at its head office, decided to set up an internal investigation panel to conduct cases of illegal logging, to ascertain whether there were any cases of negligence or abuse by its staff and officers while carrying out their duties.

At the same time, he said, the panel will also study the issue and provide recommendations for improvement which calls for the department’s immediate action.

However, for corruption cases, the department will leave the matter to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) to conduct investigations.

RANGERS’ HEAVY RESPONSIBILITY

For the new action plan, the workcamp in Cherating proposed the JPSM ranger should work as a team and not alone in carrying out its task of protecting the preserved forest.

According to Zahari, “A ranger has to manage thousands of hectares of forest reserves, and this certainly takes a heavy toll on him. Not many people know this.” Peninsular Malaysia is covered by some 4.7 million hectares of permanent reserves.

To carry out its duties, JPSM’s enforcement unit has 214 full-time staff and officers, including at the headquarters, with only 37 vehicles in its stable.

“It has been an uphill task for both our men and officers who have to monitor and control the thick forests as well as the mills. There are 491 main processing industries in operation,” he said.

This does not include other forest areas, such as government owned forest land and those owned by both the private sector and individuals.

“These figures speak for themselves,” said Zahari.

Also on JPSM’s radar screen are traditional and downstream timber industries which use forest products, such as wood as raw material for processing.

LATEST TECHNOLOGY TO COMBAT ILLEGAL LOGGING

To combat illegal logging, JPSM recognises the importance of high-end technology in its operation.

The department, he said, had identified Forest Monitoring Remote Sensing (FMRS), Geographical Information System (GIS), Hyperspectral, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), camera trapping and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), to be widely used in its forest enforcement and management activities.

Todate, technology used is the FMRS, a web-based application using high resolution satellite images and GIS.

“FMRS is used to monitor any changes occuring in forest areas, including those which are not easily accessible to vehicles, while helping to prevent illegal logging,” said Zahari.

Others such as UAV, RFID and camera trapping, he noted, were still in the experimental stage.

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