Malaysia: Paying to conserve the forest

Natalie Heng The Star 21 Feb 12;

Paying for ecosystem services – more people are up for it than you think, if the right conditions are put in place.

WOULD you pay to stop logging and poaching in the Belum-Temengor forest? That question was posed to 1,300 households in Kuala Lumpur and the suburbs and rural outskirts of Selangor, to determine the use value of the 300,000ha of forest reserves in upper Perak.

From the answers given, it appears that some Malaysians are a generous lot when it comes to shielding Belum-Temengor, one of the richest forested areas in the country – they are willing to pay a mean amount of RM4 to protect it against logging, and RM3 against poaching.

The survey was conducted as part of the Conservation Of Biological Diversity Through Improved Forest Planning Tools Project (CBioD Project) and implemented by the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM).

Investigations into the recreational use and watershed values of Belum-Temengor were also conducted. All these studies are being used to develop tools for the economic valuation of goods and services.

To maintain accuracy, an immense amount of time and effort went into designing the survey, which was contracted out to PE Research. Participants were made to understand the costs and benefits of two scenarios: one where Belum-Temengor is protected from logging and poaching, and one where it is left as status quo (Belum-Temengor are forest reserves which are earmarked for logging, and the wild flora and fauna there are currently heavily poached).

They were informed on the benefits of logging the place such as potential employment and timber revenues for the state government and the costs (soil erosion, reduced water quality, potential flooding and species extinction).

The respondents had to consider how much they could actually afford to pay each month. Some are willing to fork out as much as RM15 to ensure that the forest remains intact.

However, 9% of the respondents do not want to pay anything. Using the mean amount people were willing to pay (RM4 against logging and RM3 against poaching), the aggregate amount added up to RM441,554,169 per year (based on the total of 1,736,200 households in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor in 2009).

With state revenue from logging estimated at RM31,977,703 per year, and the cost of enforcement against logging and poaching at about RM11,766,000 per year, this means that there is ample funds for protecting the reserve. And even if only Kuala Lumpur and Selangor participated in the scheme, more than enough money would be generated to protect wildlife, reduce the risk of flooding and also safeguard water sources.

The survey specifically excluded Perak because it looked purely at passive values (no direct usage of the resources) and to avoid bias (Perakians might have a vested stake in the forest reserves, for example, as employees of logging companies or as operators of resorts there).

Lead CBioD international collaborator Jeffrey Vincent says funding limitations prevented extension of the study to other states. Nevertheless, looking at the data they analysed, he says an increased sample size will not make any statistical difference in terms of results.

Raising the money

To raise the money needed to protect Belum-Temengor, the survey offers an interesting suggestion: through charges to the monthly water bills of households and businesses.

This can work since there is a tangible link – the forest acts as a water catchment capable of providing emergency supplies to states like Selangor during times of water shortage. The money can be used to compensate the state government for the loss of timber revenue and to set up a forest management programme.

The survey results promise to be a useful tool for decision-making at policy level. It has been shown that conservation decisions can be improved if there is information on the total economic value of alternative management options.

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) conservation advisory committee chair Tan Chin Tong says copies of the report will be distributed to the communities around Gerik in Perak, the nearest town to Belum-Temengor, to raise more awareness on the types of value the forest holds.

“Generally, when people think about the value of the forest, they tend to associate this with logging income,” he says.

He says MNS has regular meetings with the Perak Government and hopes to communicate the report findings at the next opportunity.

Likewise, CBioD project national project director Dr Shamsudin Ibrahim says FRIM will explore the possibility of presenting the findings to the Economic Planning Unit. “In principle, I think such a plan could work.”

Certain elements are crucial; these include an effective communication campaign to explain how the scheme will work and benefit people.

“Education is important, payment for ecosystem services is something new in our society,” says Shamsudin.