Land use: We need to get on the same page

Several statements have been made of late regarding the land-use policies of the new government in relation to the forestry and oil palm plantation sectors.

On Sept 4, Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok reaffirmed that the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration would fulfil its long-held pledge of keeping at least 50% of the country’s land mass under forest cover to the international community. She said this would entail stopping any further expansion of oil palm plantations.

This generated an immediate reaction from the Sarawak state government which opposed the move, citing the need to rely on oil palm cultivation to lift its rural populace out of poverty. We also had a fellow of the government-sponsored Akademi Sains Malaysia (ASM) supporting Sarawak and encouraging other states to react likewise.

On the other hand, we had Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Xavier Jayakumar announcing a reforestation plan with an NGO called the Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC). His interview with The Star was peppered with the word “deforestation” in support of the TRCRC plan.

I would like to weigh in with some of my views and observations on this development.

1. From the onset, I support Kok’s intention to uphold the 50% forest cover as I too raised this concern in my maiden speech in the last Parliament sitting. It is not just about fulfilling our commitment to the world – this is also in the interests of our own well-being.

Retaining the forests is not just about saving the tigers as insinuated by the ASM fellow, as though the only difference between oil palm plantations and forests is the absence of tigers!

We all know that forests offer life-savings ecosystem services – water cycle regulation and flood management in river basins, micro-climate and global carbon cycle regulation and sources of timber and non-timber products. They are also home to local indigenous peoples.

2. The term “deforestation” has been a misunderstood one. Rightly or wrongly, we are saying that the sustainable forest management (SFM) system adopted since the mid-1990s is not working, therefore instead of practising selective logging, we are allowing clear-felling or destructive logging practices to happen in our supposedly managed forests. And, therefore, we need to reforest.

There is a serious need for all parties to get on the same page on specific forestry-related terminologies to avoid further confusion that would have negative global implications on our timber and palm oil industries as well as our climate actions commitment to control emissions from the forestry sector.

3. Forest-cover statistics published by the then-natural resources and environment ministry showed that we are currently at 54.6%. According to the land size of the country’s three regions, Peninsular Malaysia will fall short of meeting the 50% target by approximately 0.83 million ha while Sabah and Sarawak are still comfortable. The high land-use change in the peninsula is inevitable given its higher growth rate of population, industrialisation and urbanisation. Therefore, we need to work out a burden-sharing mechanism to ensure that as a country we will still be able to meet our collective commitment.

4. No doubt oil palm is a versatile and highly efficient vegetable oil in terms of yield per hectare, but we must not forget that we are no longer the world’s number one or the only producer. Other countries are catching up and that has already contributed to an over-supply situation that is driving down the price on top of the sustainability challenges posed by consumer markets. In fact, the previous administration set a cap of six million ha to oil palm expansion by 2020 under the Economic Transformation Plan.

It must be pointed out that Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Amar Douglas Uggah Embas was part of the Cabinet at the time in 2009 when the ETP was endorsed. However, as a nation, we need to set politics aside and work together to find solutions to these emerging challenges.

5. The supposed reforestation deal proposed by TRCRC for both Malaysia and Norway is a strange one. TRCRC is the brain-child of former prime minister Abdullah Badawi and his wife Jean Abdullah. This outfit has been lobbying Western governments during the past few conferences of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and positioning itself as a qualified entity for forestry-related climate actions in Malaysia.

It is my understanding that Malaysia has already developed and submitted its action plan for the UNFCCC’s mechanism called REDD-plus (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) declaring that we are ready to implement the mechanism with international funding, including bilateral ones such as with the Norwegian government. I am puzzled over where TRCRC would propose to run its reforestation plan as well as its expertise and capacity as a relatively young NGO.

In conclusion, I would also like to propose my recommendations on the way forward.

Given the complexity of this land use issue, I would strongly call for a tri-ministerial advisory council involving the three ministries – primary industries; water, land and natural resources; and energy, science, technology, environment and climate change – that oversee the relevant agencies and divisions.

This advisory council would bring us up to speed on the challenges, get our acts together and start us on a clean slate to protect our forests, ensure sustainability of the timber and oil palm industries, and achieve poverty eradication and equitable distribution of wealth between regions and states.

Acknowledging that land is under the jurisdiction of the respective states, the National Land Council would have to step in to demonstrate the political will needed to resolve this long-standing issue inherited from the previous regime.

Wong Tack is Bentong MP and chairman of the Malaysian Timber Industry Board.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.