Malaysia: Conservation and development in tug-of-war

Posted on February 23, 2011. Filed under: Forestry/Wetlands |

Malaysia, February 23 – A recent report by an international environmental group flagging the alarming rate of deforestation in Sarawak did not surprise local activists – they have been saying the same thing for years.

‘If we look into the pattern of deforestation over the years, the only pristine areas left are probably the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries,’ said Mr Raymond Abin Bira, coordinator of the Sarawak Conservation Action Network, which groups 16 green non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the state.

One result, he said, has been landslides resulting from the felling of trees, which contributes to soil erosion. Last year, tonnes of logs were washed into Sarawak rivers in a landslip, causing the Rajang River to be impassable for days.

The deforestation received fresh attention recently when Wetlands International, an NGO based in the Netherlands, used satellite images to show large swathes of peatland being converted to oil palm plantations.

About 10 per cent of Sarawak, or 1.28 million ha, is peatland.

Wetlands International said two-thirds of it had been forested, but from 2005 to last year, almost 353,000ha were cleared.

‘In just five years, almost 10 per cent of all Sarawak’s forests and 33 per cent of the peat swamp forests have been cleared,’ it said in its Feb 1 report. Of these, 65 per cent was for oil palm plantations, it added.

It warned that at this rate, the whole of Sarawak’s peatland may be gone in 10 years, as they come under increasing pressure for agricultural land.

The tug-of-war between conservation and development is intense given the stakes: Malaysia produces 40 per cent of the world’s palm oil in an industry that is worth RM60 billion (S$25 billion) and provides 600,000 jobs.

It is the world’s second-largest producer after Indonesia, and palm oil has been identified as one of the key growth areas under Malaysia’s new economic plans to help double incomes in a decade.

Currently, about 4 million ha nationwide are planted with oil palm. But as land runs out in the peninsula, plantations have moved to East Malaysia where Sarawak’s plantations are growing the fastest.

Last November, Sarawak Land Development Minister James Masing told The Star that the state could be the country’s largest palm oil producer by the end of this decade.

Mr Balu Perumal, a botanist with the regional NGO, Global Environmental Facility, said there is now great pressure on ‘marginal areas’ such as wetlands as the prime growing areas have mostly been taken up.

Peatland is a type of wetland where the soil is made up of organic matter, unlike mineral soil. As it is permanently waterlogged, it has to be drained for planting.

This makes it difficult and expensive to convert to agricultural use, but despite the costs, it is not just in Sarawak that peatland is fast turning into plantations.

According to another report by Wetlands International last year, there are 281,000ha of peat soil under cultivation in the peninsula, 72 per cent of which is planted with oil palm.

All in all, about 20 per cent of Malaysia’s palm oil is produced on peatland. But in Sarawak, the figure is 44 per cent, it added.

This has dismayed some conservationists. Mr Balu said peatland, even including the logged areas, should be left alone. Clearing it releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Drained peatland is also easily combustible during dry spells, making it a fire hazard and a cause of noxious haze.

What’s more, Malaysia’s peat swamp forests are home to many endangered species, such as the Borneo pygmy elephant, the Sumatran rhino and the Bornean clouded leopard. The waters of the peat swamps are also known for the highest numbers of freshwater fish species in the world. Clearing the peatland puts their habitats and existence in jeopardy.

For these reasons, conservationists are raising the alarm and fighting to stop the deforestation. Mr Balu’s organisation, for example, is lobbying the Selangor government to cancel plans to turn a 900ha peat swamp called Kuala Langat South into an oil palm estate.

Both the federal and Sarawak ministers in charge of oil palm could not be reached for comment, but they have previously said Malaysia is working to strike a balance.

At present, only 157,000ha out of 4 million ha of oil palm plantations have been certified as sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-NGO association created in 2004.

But its secretary-general, Mr Darrel Webber, said interest in sustainability is growing rapidly because of greater consumer awareness. Most of the big Malaysian plantations such as Sime Darby Plantation and IOI Group are already members, joining the likes of global companies such as P&G;, Nestle, Johnson & Johnson and The Body Shop.

Its members pledge not to plant in high-conservation-value areas. These may include peatland, depending on the type of flora and fauna there, how the native community uses it, and if it is covered by primary forest.

Audits are conducted regularly on members, all the way along the supply chain, said Mr Webber. All audited findings are made available for public viewing and comment. When members fail to comply, they are asked to rectify areas where they fall short.

Mr Webber declined to comment on details of the Wetlands International report, but said it was worrying if it was accurate.

The fact remains that while RSPO member-retailers are stepping up plans to buy palm oil from plantations certified as sustainable, robust demand from India and China for unsustainably sourced oil means others can still avoid doing so. Big bucks or biodiversity? The battle over Sarawak’s forests continues.


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