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Timber plantations have surpassed oil palm as leading cause of environmental harm

PETALING JAYA: A climate watchdog has called on the government to halt extensive deforestation and its replacement with timber plantations.

RimbaWatch co-founder and director Adam Farhan warned Malaysia is set to lose 2.3 million hectares of its forests, which would reduce the nation’s canopy from 55.3% to 47.4%.

“This is according to a study we conducted in March 2023. We initially performed a deforestation analysis by interpreting data from tree cover loss provided by Global Forest Watch (GFW).”

Adam said GFW, which is an international online platform that provides data and tools for monitoring forests, estimated Malaysia experienced deforestation to the extent of 349,244ha between 2017 and 2021.

He said RimbaWatch’s “State of the Malaysian Rainforest 2023” study garnered positive feedback from the public and highlighted its relevance.

In the study, the predominant drive behind alarming deforestation figures, including the 2.3 million hectares marked for clearance in Sabah, Sarawak, Kelantan and Pahang, was to expand timber plantations.

“These plantations are only cultivated on previously cleared land, resulting in the repeated replanting of new trees within the same plantation footprint.

“The plantations predominantly target primary forests within forest reserves, converting them into single-species timber monocultures, which usually encompass rubber or acacia trees.”

He also said while the environmental impact of oil palm cultivation has garnered significant attention, timber plantations have overshadowed oil palm as the leading cause of environmental degradation.

“Sarawak, Sabah, Pahang and Kelantan are at the forefront of states witnessing extensive clearance for timber plantations.

“If Malaysia fails in its commitment to maintain at least 50% of its land mass under forest and tree cover, in line with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the repercussions would extend far beyond mere ecological concerns.”

Adam said beyond compromising vital carbon sinks, essential ecosystem services and causing local climatic instability, the shortfall would indicate a significant failure to uphold Malaysia’s international commitments.

Universiti Malaya Institute of Biological Sciences senior lecturer Dr Yong Kien Thai said to counter the projected decline in Malaysia’s forest cover, the government must transition from mere discussions to tangible actions.

“Key strategies that should be executed include expanding reforestation efforts beyond mere tree planting and launching initiatives like the ‘Five Million Tree Programme’.

“The government should also promote wildlife habitat and genetic exchange, described by the Central Forest Spine programme, which is under the UN Development Programme.”

Malaysia should prioritise the creation of more protected conservation areas, halt primary land mining and logging projects, and intensify forest patrols to curb illegal poaching, logging and mineral extraction.

Yong said Malaysia’s rapid deforestation poses a direct threat to the loss of biological diversity and ecological network disturbance that would result in a reduction in vital ecosystem services.

“Over the long term, this jeopardises the intricate biodiversity distributed across various forest types and regions in Malaysia.”

He said one of the country’s most pressing challenges is its entrenched dependence on natural commodities and resource extraction for economic development.

“This reliance has fostered a mindset that economic progress can be achieved primarily through the exploitation and trade of its natural resources.

“To transition towards sustainable land use practices, Malaysia needs a fundamental shift in this perspective.

“Priorities include diversifying the economy, investing in sustainable technologies, strengthening environmental regulations, fostering conservation partnerships and promoting sustainability awareness among Malaysians.”