Malaysia: forest cover losses are masked by terminology

Tree cover-up
The Star 18 Oct 11;

Our forest cover is diminishing but the losses are being masked by terminology.

WHAT is a forest? For many of us, it would mean virgin forests, full of soaring trees and wild flora and fauna. But for the many international bodies and treaties found in the world, a forest can be that and many other things.

Various conventions such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and International Tropical Timber Organisation, all define the term “forests” differently.

These conventions and agencies have their own functions and objectives and therefore, have different forestry information needs. For example the choice of a definition of forest under the UNFCCC would be more related to the role of forests in mitigating climate change whereas the CBD takes a more ecosystem approach to defining forests.

At the same time, countries also develop and use their own definitions for their forests. A recent study found that there are more than 800 different definitions for forests and wooded areas used globally, with some countries employing more than one definition at the same time.

The FAO has been monitoring the usage and management of the world’s forests since 1946 and so, its definition of forest is widely adopted for global forest observation and reporting. The relevant government agencies in Malaysia also generally subscribe to FAO’s definition of forest and forest classifications. There are problems with FAO’s definition, however. Various environmental groups and scientific organisations have criticised it as being too broad for the purpose of promoting the conservation of natural forests.

The FAO definition is silent on the subject of forest type; it does not distinguish between natural, modified and planted forests. Similarly, there is no differentiation between a forest that is largely composed of indigenous species and one covered mainly with introduced species (such as monoculture plantations). In the eyes of the FAO, all these vegetation types are categorised as forests.

Better defined

The deforestation of intact, primary forests will release more carbon than the deforestation of open woodlands. Similarly, diverse ecosystems have vastly different biological and ecological values. Tropical rainforests support high levels of biodiversity, while other ecosystem types may not be rich in biodiversity but still support unique species. However, these differences in the ecological utility and value of the various forest types will not be captured and accounted for by FAO’s statistics.

Consequently, conservation organisations have called for the forest definitions to be on a biome basis (such as peatswamp forest, boreal forest or tropical forest) to reflect the broad differences in carbon and biodiversity values of these different biomes and at the same time clearly distinguishing between natural native forests and those dominated by monocultures and exotic tree species.

Going by FAO’s definition of forest, if logging results in the removal of significant canopy cover, the area concerned is not regarded as “deforested” as long as canopy cover does not fall below the minimum 10% threshold. Therefore, the canopy cover of a forest can be drastically reduced, negatively impacting biodiversity and ecosystem functions, but the area can still be classified as forest. This essentially means that a healthy pristine forest is not differentiated from a degraded, logged-over forest.

To ensure that biologically rich natural forests are not converted to biologically poor forest, other international organisations have adopted a differentiated criterion which looks at several thresholds. The TREES project classifies forest cover greater than 70% as “dense forest”. (TREES is a joint project of the European Commission and the European Space Agency for the development of space observation techniques to improve monitoring of tropical forests.) The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme uses a 60% threshold for forests while the United Nations Environment Programme uses 40% for closed forests and 10% to 40% for open or fragmented forests.

Forests vs plantations

Another grouse against the FAO definition of forest is that it includes planted forests (or forest plantations). Establishment of plantation forests can be either through afforestation on land that until then was not classified as forest, or by reforestation of land classified as forest – for instance, after a fire or a storm, or following clear-felling.

The inclusion of forest plantations in the definition of forests is of concern as it essentially means that statistics on the forest cover of a country can remain unchanged even if natural forests are replaced with forest plantations. As such, the true extent of natural forest loss might be hidden because it can be offset by the expansion of forest plantations. For instance, FAO’s Forest Resource Assessment 2010 reported that net forest loss in Asia was at an annual rate of 0.6 million ha in the 1990s but the region recorded a net annual gain of about 2.2 million ha of forest from 2000 to 2010. This was mainly due to large-scale afforestation efforts in China and despite continued high rates of net loss in many countries in South and South-East Asia.

The loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services provided by natural forests, especially tropical rainforests, cannot be replaced by forest plantations which are typically monoculture plantations and sometimes made up of non-native species. In tropical countries, including Malaysia, biodiversity-rich forests designated as permanent forest reserves are being felled and replaced by such plantations. The loophole in the definition means that such changes would be regarded as having caused no change in forest cover, thereby masking the loss and degradation of natural forests.

Forest plantations are not forests and should not be classified as such. Conversion of natural forests to plantations should always be regarded as deforestation, and the extent and establishment of plantations should be reported separately and not be considered as reforestation.


In 2000, about 18.5 million ha or 56% of Malaysia’s land was still forested but this decreased to 55% in 2007. If the declining trend continues, it is projected that forested areas will drop to 17.1 million ha or 51.8% of total land area come 2020. A study by WWF-Malaysia found a continual decline in forest reserve areas in Peninsular Malaysia – a nett loss of 1,696ha in 10 states, between 2001 and 2005.

In the peninsula, forests are protected under the National Forestry Act of 1984 by designating tracts of forest as Permanent Reserved Forest (PRF). Each PRF are then classified into any of these nine purposes: timber production forest; soil protection forest; soil reclamation forest; flood control forest; water catchment forest; forest sanctuary for wildlife; virgin jungle reserved forest; amenity forest; education forest; research forest; and forest for federal purposes.

Though the word “permanent” is used, there is nothing “permanent” about the designation as PRF. The state government can change the classification to any other class, albeit by notification in gazette. The situation moves to shakier ground under Section 11 of the Act which allows the state to excise land (wholly or partly) from a PRF if it is deemed to be no longer required for the purpose or is needed for a higher economic use.

In neither instance does the law require for public notification or consultation on the degazettement. This changed however, in the state of Selangor which in May, made an amendment in the Act requiring mandatory public inquiry before a PRF can be excised. There are no signs that a similar policy reform will be initiated by the Federal Government. The National Forestry Council has been urged to spur initiatives towards this significant reform that will empower the rakyat to make decisions that affect the nation’s rich forests. – Article courtesy of WWF-Malaysia

Forests to tree farms
The Star 18 Oct 11;

We are losing our natural forests to tree plantations yet on paper, all is well because these plantations are considered ‘forests’.

MOST of the wood-based products which we use in our daily life, be it paper or wooden furniture, are made from materials which have been sourced from forest plantations.

Forest plantations are known by many different names – industrial timber plantation, industrial tree plantation, planted forest or plantation forest. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines planted forests as “forest predominantly composed of trees established through planting and/or deliberate seeding”, while the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) defines them as “a forest stand that has been established by planting or seeding”.

In essence, they mean the same thing: areas in which trees, usually of the same species, are planted by man. The tree species can be made of indigenous, local or even exotic species such as rubber, acacia and teak. However, it does not include crops such as oil palm and soy. Based on the FAO definition of “forest”, widely used and accepted globally and in Malaysia, forest plantations are considered as forests.

Growing trees

Forest plantations have been established in parts of Malaysia since the 1990s but they were not an important feature in the forest industry as timber from natural forests was sufficient to cater for the demand.

Over time, this changed and timber from natural forests could no longer fulfil the rising demand for timber and wood-based products due to two major factors – the size of natural forests had shrunk and the industry itself started following sustainable forest management practices.

Therefore, forest plantations became a viable solution to fulfil the rising demand and at the same time reduce pressure on logging of natural forests. However, this is true only if the plantations are planted in non-forested areas. It becomes an issue of concern if natural forests are cut down to make way for forest plantations.

Since 2000, such planted forest have mushroomed. According to FAO’s State of the World’s Forest 2011, they make up about 264 million ha, which is nearly 7% of the world’s forest area of four billion ha.

In the Asia-Pacific region, forest plantations have increased by 29.33 million ha in the last decade, making up for 16% of forested area in the region and supplying 10% of total production resource in this region. In South-East Asia, planted forest cover increased by about 2.8 million ha over this 10-year period, an annual increase of 2.16%.

According to the Malaysian Timber Council (MTC), forest plantations in Malaysia have expanded from 250,000ha in 2001 to 310,000 ha in 2009, an increase of 24% in eight years. This accounts for about 1.7% of the country’s total forest land of 18.25 million ha.

While the percentage of forest plantations in Malaysia is still low, it is expected to increase rapidly by 2020. The government has taken steps to increase forest plantation to counter the shortfall of timber from natural forests. Timber and timber-based products are one of the major contributors to our economy, contributing between 3% and 4% of the annual export revenue from 2001 to 2010. The Third Industrial Masterplan has set an annual growth rate target of 6.4% for exports of downstream timber industry products, furniture and panel products, generating around RM53 billion in export earnings by 2020.

This target cannot be met if Malaysia depends on natural forests. In 2009, the government introduced the National Timber Policy to set the growth direction for the timber industry, and this includes aggressively implementing forest plantation programmes. The production of logs from forest plantations is set to increase from 3.3 million cu m in 2010 to 16.7 million cu m in 2020 – an increase of 400%. To achieve this, the target is to plant 375,000ha of forest plantations nationwide by 2020 with an annual planting rate of 25,000ha.

However, recent news reports indicate that Sarawak alone has designated 1.3 million ha for forest plantations with 262,686 ha already planted so far.

Most of the forest plantations in Malaysia are acacia and rubber (also known as timber latex clone plantations).

Estates in forests

What is alarming in Malaysia is that many forest plantations are being established in Permanent Forest Estates (PFE), also known as Permanent Reserved Forests (PRF). This means that forest plantations are replacing natural forests. Statistics from the Forestry Department show a steady increase in forest plantations within PRF in Peninsular Malaysia: from 47,154ha in 1990 to 163,529ha in 2009. From 2008 to 2009 alone, forest plantations in the peninsula grew by more than 62,000ha, a 61% increase within a year.

In Sarawak, most of the forest plantations are located within PRF as stated in the MTC factsheet. Sabah Forestry Department statistics show 244,722ha of forest plantations as of 2009. It is not clear if all these are within PRF but based on the department’s website, as of 2004, about 384,115ha within PRF have been identified for forest plantations. Another 163,578ha of forest plantations have been identified within state land and alienated land.

Whilst the current expanse of forest plantations is still small compared to about 14.52 million ha of PRF in the country, there is concern that the future expansion of forest plantations will be at the expense of natural forests due to for three main reasons: land availability, financial returns and government incentives.

> Land availability: Finding land for forest plantations is not easy due to limited land and other competing land uses such as oil palm plantation development. However, replacing natural forests with oil palm or any other land use is considered deforestation whereas replacing them with forest plantations is not. Statistics on forest cover for the country will remain unchanged even if forest plantations replace natural forests simply because of the way “forest” is defined by the FAO.

> Financial returns: Developing well-managed forest plantations is financially more attractive compared to implementing “sustainable forest management” (SFM) practices, introduced by the government in the 1990s.

Under SFM, clear-felling of forests is barred and only specific numbers and sizes of trees can be harvested. Plus, a 25- to 30-year gap is required to allow sufficient regeneration before the next round of harvesting. The government also limits the volume of timber that can be extracted annually.

On the other hand, trees in planted forests grow much faster and give higher yields compared to natural forests, thus shortening the “return of investment” period. This makes forest plantations a more attractive land use option as opposed to maintaining the area as natural forests.

> Government incentives: The Malaysian government is making plantation forests an attractive option by providing incentives to encourage private sector investment.

Companies undertaking forest plantation projects are given pioneer status and enjoy tax exemption for 10 years on their statutory income. Investing companies are eligible for tax deductions equivalent to the amount invested.

Loans are also available under the Forest Plantation Development Programme, whose criteria does not clearly prohibit forest plantation projects in PRF.

For Peninsular Malaysia, the criteria states that projects must be on state or alienated land and not on PRF that are gazetted for conservation and water catchment purposes. This can be interpreted as: forest plantations can be allowed in PRF that are for production purposes, which applies to most of the PRF in the peninsula.

For Sabah, forest plantations have to be in areas approved for Industrial Tree Plantation under the Sustainable Forest Management Licence Agreement. These agreements are made mainly for areas that are under PRF.

For Sarawak, only areas with Licence for Planted Forest qualify and these licences are also given out for areas within PRF.

The current definition of “forests” does not prevent biodiversity-rich natural forests from being replaced with biodiversity-poor forest plantations. Forest plantations should not expand at the expense of natural forests. In Malaysia, they certainly should not be allowed to be established in PRF, which account for about 44% of our land area.

Any attempt to change this could mean the loss of our rich natural heritage and the benefits derived from the forests, and many of our iconic species such as tigers and elephants.

Arguments that say planting forests in PRF is due to the poor quality of a logged-over forest hold very little water in the face of the loss we will see from such a move.

This really begs the question: If we have been practising sustainable forestry management for the last 15 years, shouldn’t our PRF be of good quality, and need not be replaced by forest plantations? – Article courtesy of WWF-Malaysia