Deforestation rate in Malaysia more than triple that of Asia combined: report

The destroyed rainforests are mostly converted to palm oil plantations
Associated Press Business Times 2 Feb 11;

(AMSTERDAM) New satellite imagery shows that Malaysia is destroying forests more than three times faster than all of Asia combined, and its carbon-rich peat soils of the Sarawak coast are being stripped even faster, according to a study released yesterday.

The report commissioned by the Netherlands-based Wetlands International says that Malaysia is uprooting an average of 2 per cent of the rainforest a year in Sarawak, its largest state on the island of Borneo, or nearly 10 per cent over the last five years. Most of it is being converted to palm oil plantations, it said.

The deforestation rate for all of Asia during the same period was 2.8 per cent, it said.

In the last five years, 353,000 hectares of Malaysia's peatlands were deforested, or one-third of the swamps which have stored carbon from decomposed plants for millions of years.

'We never knew exactly what was happening in Malaysia and Borneo,' says Wetlands spokesman Alex Kaat. 'Now we see (that) there is a huge expansion (of deforestation) with annual rates that are beyond imagination.'

'Total deforestation in Sarawak is 3.5 times as much as that for entire Asia, while deforestation of peat swamp forest is 11.7 times as much,' the report says.

Malaysia's peatland forests are home to several endangered animals, including the Borneo pygmy elephant and the Sumatran rhinoceros, as well as rare timber species and unique vegetation.

Mr Kaat says that the study shows deforestation was progressing far faster than the Malaysian government has acknowledged.

Scientists say that the destruction of the Amazon and the rainforests of central Africa and South-east Asia accounts for more than 15 per cent of human-caused carbon emissions blamed for global warming.

Live forests soak up carbon from the atmosphere, while burning trees release that stored carbon - contributing to climate change in two ways at once. But the emissions effect is amplified when trees are felled from the peatlands and the swamps are drained for commercial plantations.

Malaysia and Indonesia produce about 85 per cent of the world's palm oil, an ingredient in cooking oil, cosmetics, soaps, bread, and chocolate. It is also used as an industrial lubricant and was once considered an ideal biofuel alternative to fossil fuel, but has fallen out of favour because of earlier reports of widespread rainforest destruction for the expansion of plantations.

Indonesia has pledged to slow deforestation in its territory, and last year Norway pledged to give Jakarta US$1 billion a year to help finance an independent system of monitoring and quantifying greenhouse gas emissions. -- AP

Malaysian peatswamps obliterated for palm oil: study
(AFP) Google News 1 Feb 11;

KUALA LUMPUR — Peatswamp forests home to such species as the Borneo pygmy elephant are being obliterated in Malaysian Borneo to make way for palm oil plantations, according to a new study.

The Netherlands-based Wetlands International said that the ecologically important forests could disappear from Sarawak state by the end of the decade if the destruction does not cease.

After harvesting much of the valuable timber in Sarawak -- part of Malaysia's half of Borneo, which is shared with Indonesia and Brunei -- companies are now completely clearing the forests to plant oil palms.

"As the timber resource has been depleted the timber companies are now engaging in the oil palm business, completing the annihilation of Sarawak's peat swamp forests," Marcel Silvius from Wetlands said in a statement.

"Unless this trend is halted, none of these forests may be left at the end of this decade."

The environmental group said that until recently two thirds of Sarawak's peatlands were covered with "thick, biodiversity-rich rainforest" but that in the past five years one third of it had been cleared, mostly for conversion to palm oil.

It said that Malaysian government figures seriously underestimated the extent of the problem, and that studies it conducted using satellite images and field surveys gave a very worrying picture.

"The new studies conclude that 20 percent of all Malaysian palm oil is produced on drained peatlands. For Sarawak, this is even 44 percent," it said, adding that the percentage for new plantations was even higher.

Wetlands International said that the forests are home to many endangered species including the pygmy elephant -- the smallest elephant on earth -- the clouded leopard, the long-nosed tapir and many rare birds.

The draining of peatswamps and their conversion to plantations also causes huge carbon dioxide emissions.

"The production of palm oil is welcome only if expansion can be done in a sustainable way," the group said, calling for a complete ban on production on peatlands.

Malaysia is the world's second-largest exporter of palm oil after Indonesia, and the industry is one of the country's top export earners.

The boom in palm oil -- used extensively for biofuel and processed food like margarine -- has not only seen swathes of jungle felled in Borneo, but also threatened the existence of indigenous rainforest tribes.

Malaysia Rapidly Destroying Forests For Palm Oil: Group
David Fogarty PlanetArk 1 Feb 11;

Malaysia, the world's second largest palm oil producer, is destroying large areas of carbon-rich peatswamp forests to expand plantations, a leading conservation group said on Tuesday.

Wetlands International and Dutch remote sensing institute Sarvision said palm oil plantations are being expanded largely in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo island.

"Unless this trend is halted, none of these forests will be left at the end of this decade," said the report released on Tuesday.

It said between 2005-2010, almost 353,000 hectares (883,000 acres) of species-rich, peatswamp forests were opened up largely for palm oil production.

"In just 5 years time, almost 10 percent of all Sarawak's forests and 33 percent of the peatswamp forests have been cleared. Of this, 65 percent was for palm oil conversion," said the report, which cited a lack of verifiable government figures on land use in relation to soil type or deforestation.

Palm oil firms in Malaysia and Indonesia are under increasing pressure by major Western buyers to halt expansion through forest clearance. But India and China remain top buyers of the oil for cooking, biscuits, cosmetics and biofuels. Malaysia produces about 45 percent of the world's palm oil.

CHALLENGING OFFICIAL FIGURES

The report said official Malaysian government figures stated that only 8 to 13 percent of Malaysia's palm oil plantations were on carbon rich peat soils, with 20 percent for Sarawak.

Wetlands International and Sarvision said they used satellite images combined with existing data and field surveys to challenge the official figures.

"The new studies conclude that 20 percent of all Malaysian palm oil is produced on drained peatlands. For Sarawak, this is even 44 percent. For new plantations, the percentage on forested peatswamps is even higher."

Government officials weren't immediately available to comment on the report, which also cited the threat to rare species such as the Borneo pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhino and Borneo clouded leopard.

Deforestation and particularly clearing, draining and burning of deep peatswamp forests is responsible for about 10 percent of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions. Neighboring Indonesia has come under intense international pressure to halt the destruction of peatswamps in the fight against climate change.

Wetlands and estimated that the 510,000 ha of peatlands in Malaysia drained for palm oil production led to the release of 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

The group called for an immediate halt to peatland clearance and an end to incentives for biofuels in the European Union.

(Editing by Niluksi Koswanage)

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