The challenge in maintaining forest reserves amid plantation expansion

I read with interest the plea from several environmental NGOs for a halt to the expansion of rubber and durian plantations within permanent reserved forests (PRFs).

As the immediate past chairman of Forest Plantation Development Sdn Bhd (FPDSB) — the government’s special purpose vehicle to implement the Forest Plantation Development Programme (Program Pembangunan Ladang Hutan or PPLH), I would like to inform these concerned activists and the general public that under my truncated watch (Sept 27, 2018 to March 11, 2020), I had initiated a review of the programme with an urgency to address its sustainability challenges.

For the uninitiated, FPDSB is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Malaysian Timber Industry Board – the statutory body of the plantation industries and commodities ministry in charge of regulating and developing the downstream timber industry in Peninsular Malaysia.

Launched in 2006, PPLH (2006-2020) was bestowed with RM1.045 billion to be dispersed to private investors in the form of soft loans (3% interest rate) to promote the development of timber plantations.

The objective was to augment the shortfall of timber supplies from natural forests due to the implementation of sustainable forest management which translates to lower timber extraction with stricter allowable cuts.

Initially, eight fast-growing species were encouraged to be planted, including rubber (latex timber clones). The ambition was to develop 375,000ha of plantations but in 2010, the target was scaled down to 130,000ha following a rationalisation exercise on the high cost of development.

Of importance to these activists’ concern is the encroachment into PRFs. It has to be noted that initially PPLH was envisioned for development on alienated land (land outside the PRFs and totally protected areas), and state land forests.

Unfortunately, in its implementation, the sustainability consideration was ignored. In 2012, the Cabinet adopted the suggestion of the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia (with the buy-in of state governments) to allow up to 439,189ha of PRFs to be zoned for plantation development.

This approach was simultaneously factored into the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme’s (MTCS) Malaysia Criteria and Indicator 2012 document with a caveat that such conversion will be limited to no more than 5% of the respective state’s PRFs.

As a result, PPLH inevitably became a perverse incentive which saw the conversion of tens of thousands of hectares of natural forests into monoculture timber plantations and contributed to forest degradation.

And for the record, as Kelantan has exceeded the 5% threshold, it has therefore lost its MTCS’ certificate.

Govt to maintain existing 130,000ha

In July 2019, one of the key outcomes of the review of PPLH resolutely decided that the next phase of PPLH (post-2020) would not involve conversion of PRFs. The government would maintain the existing 130,000ha of which PRFs accounted for over 90% of coverage and would explore gradual restoration when the trees are harvested.

This was in line with realising the then Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto Janji 39 to balance economic growth with environmental protection. It also contributes towards meeting the National Biodiversity Policy (2016-2025) in addressing perverse subsidies in the forestry sector (Goal 2, Target 4 and Key Indicator 4).

The need to preserve the integrity of PRFs was a clear objective of the PH government. This is evident in the significant 4-point policy shift adopted in early 2019 with regards to the controversial oil palm industry. One of the points relates to no further conversion of PRFs into oil palm estates and this commitment extends beyond oil palm, tacitly.

As to the claims that plantations were established without environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports and proper procedures, it has to be clarified that those developments under PPLH are subjected to EIA and a series of rather comprehensive vetting processes, from land status to investors’ financial strength as part of risk assessments. After all, each loan is in millions of taxpayers’ ringgit.

Therefore, land security, uninterrupted growth and ability to pay back upon harvest after 15 years are crucial to the success of the programme.

In 2013, a further consideration was added to the approval criteria. Proposed development areas within the central forest spine (CFS) would be rejected. There had been pressures by investors to relax this rule but the management of FPDSB, supported by the ministry, had remained steadfast in respecting the directive from the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia, the implementing agency of CFS.

The ministry fully understood the importance of cooperation among relevant ministries and agencies in implementing national policies and of not undermining of each other’s policies.

Lastly, governments may change hands, but sound national policies should be respected in order for the country to move forward and prosper.

It is my hope that the next phase of PPLH will adhere to sustainability principles for the timber industry to prosper, without compromising the integrity of the remaining forest cover.

Hilary Chiew is currently a freelance environmental consultant.

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

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