Saturday, January 16, 2021

Forests under-represented and under attack, green groups say

Peka says Malaysia's natural forest cover is nearer to 18% than it is to the public target of 50%.

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An environmental group has challenged the official numbers on Malaysia’s natural forest cover, saying areas that should not fall within the category appear to have been included to meet the government’s target of 50%.

Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (Peka) president Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil said the 50% figure was being touted on the international level.

“But our forest is less than 18% and dwindling very quickly,” she told MalaysiaNow.

“It looks like Malaysia is including plantation cover as forest to meet the 50%, which should not be accepted.”

“A well-planned attack on forests and wildlife.”

Malaysian Nature Society past president Maketab Mohamed meanwhile said the government had been misinforming the people about the country’s forest cover, including in Sabah and Sarawak.

By definition, he said, plantation forests which are planted instead of naturally regenerated, and agricultural plantations for crops such as oil palm, rubber, durian and cacao, are not considered as forest cover.

Both blamed the deterioration of forest cover on what they said was intentional deforestation due to logging activities.

“Logging under the pretence of revenue for states has come closer, and is happening in many areas near important water supply bodies such as rivers, water catchment areas, critical wildlife sanctuaries and dams,” Shariffa said, calling it “a well-planned attack” on forests and wildlife.

Andrew Sebastian, who heads the Ecotourism & Conservation Society of Malaysia, agreed that logging and plantation activities seemed to have increased over the past 20 years, even more so during the movement control order which effectively locked down all social and economic activities in the country.

“There has been no effort whatsoever to reduce these,” he added.

“In fact, states like Selangor have even reversed their policy to stop logging in the state.”

Problems and solutions

For Maketab, a main underlying problem in dealing with deforestation is the fact that matters concerning land and water come under individual state governments.

He gave the example of Indonesia, where forests are under the federal government.

Forest reserves are de-gazetted, often without checks and balances.

“When President Jokowi dictated that there would be a moratorium on forest clearing, all of the provinces had to comply,” he said.

In Malaysia, though, the decentralised nature of authority on the matter also means that the success of forest conservation efforts varies from state to state.

“Pahang has been the worst – natural resources such as timber and minerals have been severely exploited,” Maketab added.

Similarly, it makes acting on the situation a lot harder as confusion arises on whether the land in question is under federal jurisdiction, state law or even local district authorities.

In the meantime, forest reserves are de-gazetted, often without checks and balances.

“The federal government has failed to offer incentives or push the agenda of sustainability,” Sebastian said.

“Politics, mismanagement and corruption seem to rule the day.”

In order for any real change to take place, there needs to be a comprehensive effort from the top down.

Shariffa called for laws related to conservation to be amended and updated to reflect total public oversight on forest de-gazettements, mining and single-crop activities as well as developments and the construction of new dams.

She also suggested that the forestry department and Perhilitan be given veto powers to object to and cancel any plans that touch remaining forest areas, whether state forested areas or forest reserves.

Still, not all is bleak for forests as public awareness on the need to protect the natural environment, according to Sebastian, has been encouraging.

With the necessary political will, compliance with the law, and a long-term ecotourism plan in place, he believes a balance can be struck between development projects and forest conservation.

Of course, this is likely harder than it sounds.

“We have to stop forest conversions and limit logging to areas outside of water catchments, hills, and the main range as well as high conservation value forests and their buffer zones, and protect all existing forest reserves,” he said.

A tall order, and time will tell how well Malaysia does.

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