Malaysia: Corruption and the illegal timber trade

Harnessing 21st century technology to tackle an old problem.
Natalie Heng The Star 26 Mar 12;

DESPITE efforts to ensure the legality of timber harvests, an unwanted spectre looms: corruption.

Somehow, illegally sourced timber always seems to find a way into consumer markets.

The unfortunate flip side to conservation efforts is that as the price of legal timber increases, the incentive and financial benefits of illegal logging go up.

There have been numerous attempts to address this. The European Union’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade initiative, for example, aims to improve standards of governance in key producer countries and exclude illegal timber products from entering the market.

However, as Transparency International (TI) points out, even if customs agencies and government procurement policies are strengthened, corruption can all too easily circumvent such changes, undermining legitimate processes.

A 2011 paper by TI alleged that Malaysia is one of the main timber laundering centres in the region, playing a large role as a transit country in a network that also involves China and Singapore. A recent spate of news reports on corrupt practices seem to support this. In January, a senior Perak Forestry Department official was detained by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) after RM720,000 was found in his house in Gerik. Later that month, a 40-year-old suspect was nabbed after offering a RM3,000 bribe to forestry officials in Port Klang, Selangor to recover some 110 seized mangrove logs.

People sitting at home reading about such cases often feel frustrated and powerless about these trends, but thanks to TI’s new Forest Watch Project, everyone can now participate in the fight against illegal forestry activities. With part of its over-arching Forest Governance Integrity Programme focusing on forest governance, anti-corruption advocacy, analysis and monitoring, Forest Watch allows anyone to become the eyes and ears of the forest.

Its premise is simple: If you chance upon a bald patch which you suspect has been illegally logged, all you have to do is go to the Forest Watch website and submit a report, which will then be investigated. The beauty of the project is how it uses the genius of 21st century technology – Google Earth – to empower the masses. A virtual global map and geographical information programme that can be downloaded for free from the Internet, Google Earth displays satellite images (of varying resolutions) of the Earth’s surface.

Users can browse certain regions by entering a general area and scrolling with the mouse, or search for specific locations by keying in the address or co-ordinates. For example, if you happen to be at the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve in Kedah and spot bald patches of forest and lorries with covered loads travelling in and out of the site, all you need to do is go into Google Earth to pinpoint the location. Then, you submit the co-ordinates along with a description of what you saw, to the Forest Watch website, and it would be investigated.

The project monitoring team consists of members from the Forestry Department, MACC, Institute of Foresters Malaysia and TI.

“We (TI) act as a facilitator. The monitoring team will go through the submitted reports every two weeks to a month, and the information will be passed onto relevant agencies, such as the Forestry department and the MACC, for investigation,” says project manager, Victor Soosai.


One advantage of the programme is that people can submit reports anonymously; so whistleblowers need not be fearful of repercussions.

“One of the ways to fight against corruption in the forestry sector is the offer of rewards to informants. This requires one to disclose one’s identity. Forest Watch presents another alternative. It’s very important that forestry staff know about the tool because many times, they may have information but don’t feel like they can do anything about it.”

The project was launched early last month. If many reports come in, Soosai says, they will install a coordinate-based filter to streamline the process.

The project will be replicated in Sabah and Sarawak by June. Should it be viable, he says, a later goal will be to replicate the system at state levels, where individual monitoring teams will handle reports from areas under their charge.

TI is encouraging local conservation groups to use the tool. After Malaysia, it intends to initiate the programme in China, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Soloman Islands.

There are however, some hurdles to the success of Forest Watch. One is that isolated communities – often in a good position to witness any illegal logging – may not have access to the Internet.

Institute of Foresters Malaysia vice-president Datuk Baharuddin Ghazali says getting the public interested is crucial.

“Young people, in particular, are good with technology. We need to instill in them a love for our forests. We need to help them understand the importance of keeping our forests intact, so they too will act accordingly when they realise that they can do something about this.”

He says that although channels such as the Whistleblower Protection Act 2010 already exists to protect informants, the Forest Watch reporting tool presents an additional, straightforward avenue for reporting.


With so many ways in which malpractices can occur within the forestry industry, the website is a welcome platform to information sharing. Malpractices include logging timber species protected by national law, harvesting logs outside concession boundaries, logging in prohibited areas such as steep slopes, river banks and catchment areas, extracting under-sized or more trees than is authorised, and obtaining concessions illegally.

“The root cause of corruption is based on a formula … power plus discretion, minus transparency and accountability,” notes MACC director of investigations Datuk Mustafar Ali, who was present at the project launch.

The equation is embodied by a number of situations, such as political interference, abuse of power and influence for personal or political gain, or a bias in decision-making, resulting in unjustified procurements.

Personnel holding the same job or position in high risk areas for an extended period, a high level of interaction and frequent contact with would-be criminals, poor monitoring and a lack of severe penalty, as well as procedures with no stipulated governance processes, also create conditions ripe for corruption.

Mustafar cites a recent case, providing a clear picture of what anti-corruption efforts are up against: RM700,000 in cash and RM2.6bil in 11 fixed deposit accounts were discovered during investigations into a Perak forestry official.

Indeed, corruption can be lucrative but there are other, wider costs.

“Not only does corruption in the forestry sector act as a direct impediment to achieving sustainable forest management, it undermines the World Bank’s objectives of poverty reduction and sustainable development,” says Mustafar. “And as the statistics go, for every crime that is uncovered, there may be 10 more that are not.”

> For more information on Forest Watch, go to