From Peter Leong
Recent revelations of licences issued for rock quarrying within the Bukit Lagong forest reserve (BLFR) have raised a major furore among environmental conservation groups.
Across Rawang and Kuang, quarries have greatly scarred the landscape, leaving no trees. How could these constitute parts of the forest reserve, and what is really going on here?
Members of the public could be excused for thinking that quarries are governed by one clear set of laws, but this could not be further from the truth. Rock can be commercially extracted from freehold or leasehold lands, state lands under temporary occupation licences, idle mining land, and permanently reserved forests.
Licences can be issued under either land or forestry laws, as the particular case requires.
Nothing in forestry law or policy requires a permanently reserved forest to be actually under forest cover (nor even in the process of growing a forest). It is simply land on which it is intended, presently or notionally in future, for a forest to exist.
Selangor logging moratorium
The year 2010 was a milestone one when several permanent reserved forests were consolidated under the National Forestry Act 1984 as a Selangor state park – a 93,000 hectare protected area contiguous to the Titiwangsa Range.
The Bukit Lagong reserve is not part of the state park but neighbouring ones such as Templer, Kanching and Serendah are.
Also in 2010, the Selangor government declared a 25-year logging moratorium at all forest reserves including Bukit Lagong. It was business as usual for quarries already operating since, prima facie, no further tree felling would be undertaken.
BLFR has six quarries, the oldest in operation since 1992. Apparently, quarrying has done very well as a ‘business’.
A study by environmental journalism site Macaranga showed that Selangor achieved the highest annual forest revenue KPI among all states (RM233 per hectare between 2007-2019) despite having no logging revenue and not starting up new quarries post-2010.
‘New quarry licences’
The widely reported 27 licencees for quarrying approvals in Bukit Lagong included the aforesaid six. We can logically assume that 21 are not formally approved to commence rock extraction.
It stands to reason that post-moratorium, no new forest reserve quarry started up in Bukit Lagong, nor anywhere else in Selangor since trees should not be felled. Between 2010 and now, the letter and spirit of the moratorium appear to have been upheld.
Selangor’s Forest Management Plan (FMP) 2021-2030 reported the post-moratorium growth of rock royalty income to the current level, just from existing quarries.
Selangor executive councillor Hee Loy Sian’s media statement of Sept 29 shines more light on this. In it, he asserts that the new concessions are a replacement programme in view of the current concessions imminently expiring (from 2023 onwards). Hee added that the quarries were approved as minor licences under the Selangor Forestry Act.
With the FMP proposing only to maintain royalty income at current levels through to 2030, the disconnect is in the number of new concessions being proposed. Assuming the six cease operating (presumably followed by soil and flora rehabilitation), surely there is no need to line up 19 more to replace them?
If six are needed for ‘sustenance’, where does that leave the other 13 (or 15) concessionaires? Are they (or their heirs) to wait around for the next renewal cycles in 2053 and 2083?
Perhaps their wait will end sooner if the moratorium is not renewed come 2035? Or heaven forbid, right after GE15 if a new state government sees no need to honour it?
It has already been widely exposed that most of the prospective concessionaires are not quarrying companies at all. For that matter, some existing quarry operators (including corporate big names) are not the originally awarded concessionnaires. How much easy money has been made in the resale market which did not accrue to the state’s coffers?
Be it 19 or 21 prospective concessionnaires in queue, it reeks of politicians in power pawning the state’s natural heritage for political capital.
Bukit Lagong a ‘sacrifice zone’?
The BLFR’s creation dates back to 1917, a decade after the advent of forestry law in the Federated Malay States. Somewhat larger back then, parts have since given way to historically important institutions such as the Forest Research Institute Malaysia, and the Sungai Buloh Leprosarium (which in turn has partially given way to the modern Sungai Buloh Hospital complex).
Incidentally, both of these have found tentative listings as Unesco World Heritage sites, ostensibly supported by the federal and Selangor governments.
Yet at the business end of things, Selangor seems to see nothing wrong in treating Bukit Lagong quarrying as its fallback cash cow.
A recent state assembly session informed the public of only eight operational forest reserve quarries. So with six being in BLFR, this implies something in the order of 75% of Selangor’s forest-derived rock products coming from a single forest block which is less than 2% of the state’s PRFs!
BLFR today is just a shade under 3,700 hectares. Many numbers have been thrown about, so for the sake of simplification, 1,000 hectares (28%) have been designated as quarriable – of which around 200 hectares are already being quarried by six operators
Playing with loopholes
A government’s honouring of policies and commitments should be a matter of simple morality, meaning no backroom scheming contrary to policy commitments by the PH government in Selangor.
This playing with loopholes appears to be a seamless continuation from the BN governance of decades prior. Quarrying within PRFs was indeed envisaged in the drafting of the National Forestry Act and its related state-level enactments and rules, but surely not at the massive scale to which such “Minor Licences” (sic) evolved?
“Minor” could hardly be a word to describe a 30-year enterprise by a public-listed corporation, similarly so of agriculture within PRFs, though that is another story in its own right.
Peter Leong is a committee member of Kota Damansara Community Forest Society.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.