Scepticism over Wetlands report

Posted on February 7, 2011. Filed under: Forestry/Wetlands |

The Sun
Natalie Heng

newsdesk@thesundaily.com

High resolution images from Google Earth of an area north of
Miri illustrate the impact logging has had on peat swamp forests
between 2005 and last year.

PETALING JAYA (Feb 7, 2011): A report that says Malaysia is destroying its forests at three times the rate of the rest of Asia has been received with scepticism.

The basis of the report by Wetlands International was questioned by Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Douglas Unggah Embas in a newspaper report last week.

Malaysian Nature Society president Prof Dr Maketab Mohamed was also sceptical of the figure.

He raised doubts over the conclusion that Malaysia’s rate of deforestation was higher than neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and said data derived solely from satellite imagery or GIS (geographic information system) may not be accurate.

“From the sky, even rubber trees may look like forest; how can you be sure satellite imagery is able to accurately distinguish between land cleared for replanting and land that is being deforested?”

Maketab said reports using aerial imagery would have to involve ground truthing, which involves the use of ground surveys to confirm the findings of an aerial survey or to calibrate quantitative aerial observations.

When contacted, Wetlands International global advocacy and communications manager Alex Kaat said satellite imagery was a reliable method of distinguishing between vegetation used for crops and other types of forest areas.

“We used a very conservative estimation methodology. Nobody has so far questioned us about the data; in fact, many were surprised at the rapid loss of peat swamp cover,” he said in a telephone interview.

“Malaysia is in a state of denial; it never provides reliable maps and tries to disqualify good work done on gathering deforestation data.”

Wetlands International disclosed that the data was derived from studies conducted by Wetlands International and SarVision, a satellite monitoring and mapping company.

The methodology used in the study, Kaat said, had involved the use of satellite imagery with a 0.6-1m spacial resolution covering the entirety of Sarawak from 2005 to last year, which was cross-referenced against soil maps and new palm oil concession data.

“It is very easy to see whether something is forest, a timber plantation or an oil palm plantation before and after,” Niels Wielaard of SarVision said in an email reply.

“It can also irrefutably show logging patterns inside national park boundaries, for example. This very high imagery was the main basis for our accuracy assessment,” he said.

Asked if ground truthing had been used in the study, Kaat said it had, through local partner organisations, including the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association and the Borneo Resources Institution.

The report which came out on Feb 1 was first reported in an article on the online news site The Huffington Post, in which it was stated that Malaysia is uprooting 2% of rainforest a year in Sarawak, with almost 10% having disappeared over the past five years.

It also said deforestation was especially concentrated around peat swamps along Sarawak’s coastline, with 65% of land cleared for palm oil production.

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