Thursday, August 16, 2012

Latex timber clone plantations threaten natural forests

August 16, 2012
FMT LETTER: From Malaysian Nature Society, via e-mail

We wish to congratulate Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak on the various successes of his administration. You, Sir, have spearheaded the introduction of National Key Result Areas (NKRAs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which have been described as among the most effective methods to enhance the performance of the government.

Your Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) initiative with the 12 National Key Economic Areas (NKEAs) is also commendable and we join others in support of your efforts to lead Malaysia to new heights. The present efforts and noble objectives notwithstanding, we are concerned over the seeming lack of an environment component.

This is despite the widespread acceptance of, and several national policies on sustainable development as the over-arching and guiding principle for our country which stresses on the triple bottom line of people, planet and profits.

Malaysia needs urgent and decisive action to address several mounting environmental problems. Protection of our natural heritage needs the same emphasis as economic and human development. This has been enshrined and consistently followed in the previous Malaysia Plans. According to the latest IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 686 plants and 225 animals in Malaysia are at risk of extinction, placing Malaysia third in the list of countries with the largest number of threatened species, behind only Ecuador and the United States.

Charismatic and iconic wildlife species such as the Malayan tiger are disappearing while species previously thought to occur in abundance such as the sambar deer are becoming scarce. The main cause of this decline is undoubtedly the loss of habitats, in particular our tropical rainforest, and poaching. Despite Malaysia’s pledge to retain forest cover at 50% of our land area, there is tremendous pressure to convert these forested areas into other land uses, such as industrial “forest” plantations.

An independent study found that in 2010 the area of natural forest in Malaysia was 14,962,000ha or only 45%. Most of these remaining forests are within forest reserves and protected areas, with remaining state land forests unprotected in any way. The continued loss of natural forest will invariably lead to an increase in human-wildlife conflict, which will be a tricky challenge to tackle.

There is also frequent conversion of the legal status of so-called “permanent reserved forests” into state land forests for subsequent development. These forests are cleared for agriculture, property development or industrial development. Between 2001 and 2005, more than 40,000ha of forest reserves were excised in Peninsular Malaysia alone.

Forest excision or “degazettement” is the prerogative of the respective state governments and they are only required to notify such acts through individual state gazettes after the fact. A sterling exception, however, is the Selangor state government which has made it compulsory to hold public enquiries or open hearings before “degazetting” a forest reserve. In recent years, a new trend has emerged where natural forest is cleared without first excising the forest reserves concerned, followed by the establishment of monoculture plantations of mainly Latex Timber Clone (LTC) rubber trees and oil palm.

According to published Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia statistics, the area within forest reserves planted with LTC increased dramatically from 2,195ha in 2005 to 17,443ha in 2007, with other crops (including palm oil) increasing from 2,673ha to 21,944ha within the same period. This trend is driven by the high price of timber, soft-loans from the federal government and other incentives for the establishment of “forest plantations”.

While we recognise that these plantations do play an important part in the country’s economy, they should not be established at the expense of natural forests but instead should be created on degraded areas and idle land. Additionally, these plantations cannot mimic the diversity and complexity of a natural forest but in fact undermine the wider natural forests and species that live within them.

The root cause for the clearing of forest is the dependence of state governments on a very narrow revenue base, namely exploitation of natural resources and land taxes. This small revenue stream leaves states dependent upon over-extractive and exploitative activities for short-term gains. In today’s globalised economy, such perverse incentives stymie innovation and diversification at the state level and contribute to undermine your wider vision for Malaysia.

Furthermore as seen in Kedah, Johor and in various parts of Sarawak, land clearance of this nature has the added issue of incurring the wrath of local communities, whether they are Orang Asli, Penan, Bidayuhs or Malays. The increased siltation and contamination of the water catchments and the water source itself is a major concern as humans depend on it and it is a major ingredient to life itself. These plantations do not just physically affect the water quality, but also affect the long-term water source as there is continued pesticide, herbicide and fertiliser use which seeps into the soil and thereafter into the water courses.

We thus call on your premiership to walk the talk that you have portrayed to Malaysia by making the ETP more accountable to the people, who will all be affected by the loss of ecosystem services which forests provide. To reduce the further degradation of our natural forest, perhaps it is prudent to consider the following points:
•To freeze all new LTC projects, conduct a stocktaking of the locations of all LTC plantations and identify alternative sites for those slated to be developed inside forest reserves.
•Increase incentives for environmental protection, including protecting forests for their strategic role in water security, flood mitigation, climate, erosion control and biodiversity conservation. This can include a diversion of government revenue earned from visitors to natural areas towards the protection of these sites, to decrease the pressure to exploit them unsustainably (e.g., a portion of the service tax from tourist establishments can be diverted to state funds where their use can be linked to protecting natural areas crucial for tourism development.
•Increase disincentives for extractive industries such as forest clearance and mining (e.g., introducing conservation tax).

This letter is endorsed by the Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT), TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Programme,WWF-Malaysia

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

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