As Malaysia earmarks 2.3 million hectares for deforestation, country’s forest cover could drop to 47.35%

As Malaysia earmarks 2.3 million hectares for deforestation, country's forest cover could drop to 47.35%

RimbaWatch (formerly known as the Rimba Disclosure Project), as part of its efforts to monitor activities related to deforestation in Malaysia, has published a study entitled “State of the Malaysian Rainforest 2023” which collates and analyses all our data on past and potential future deforestation.

This is the first time a study has been attempted to identify the economic drivers of past and future deforestation, estimate statistics for future deforestation, and provide an overall assessment of forestry governance - all on a national scale.

RimbaWatch first analysed deforestation based on an interpretation of Global Forest Watch (GFW)’s tree cover loss data to estimate that, between 2017 and 2021, Malaysia deforested 349,244 hectares, with Sarawak and Pahang experiencing the highest rates of deforestation. The biggest driver of past deforestation that could be identified for this period was timber plantations, accounting for 41.6 per cent of deforestation, followed by palm oil which was responsible for only 15.5 per cent.

Secondly, using data collected from desktop research which includes official forestry maps, project descriptions, etc., we have analysed 438 alerts concerning areas at risk of deforestation in the future through 5 categories: (a) zoning of forested land for non-forest usage, (b) real estate listings of forested land, (c) forest reserve degazettement, (d) approved forest-risk environmental impact assessments and (e) miscellaneous data. From our analysis, we estimate that a further 2,346,601 hectares of forests in Malaysia have been earmarked for deforestation.

The Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment & Climate Change lists Malaysia’s 2017 forest cover at 18,332,583 hectares, which is 55.52 per cent of our total land area. In our final analysis, through combining our data for deforestation which occurred between 2017-2021 and potential future deforestation alerts, benchmarked against the 2017 forest cover as reported by the Ministry, RimbaWatch estimates that our forest cover could decrease to 15,636,737 hectares, or 47.35 per cent of our total land area, in the future. This is below Malaysia’s commitment to maintain 50 per cent of its land as forest cover.

RimbaWatch expresses our shock at these findings, and raises the following issues:

  1. The 2,346,601 hectares earmarked for deforestation is an area 100 times the size of WPKL and is larger than the size of Perak, Penang and Melaka states combined - if it was a state of its own it would be Malaysia’s fourth largest state after Pahang.
  2. The estimated top driver of future deforestation are timber plantations in forest reserves. These plantations fall under programs the forestry authorities refer to as “forest plantations”, however these programs actually involve the deforestation and conversion of forest reserve lands into industrial monoculture plantations for monoculture commodities such as rubber and acacia. The area at-risk from these programs amounts to 1,794,887ha; or 76 per cent of all future threats to forests.
  3. As part of its climate obligations, Malaysia has internationally and domestically committed to maintain 50 per cent of its land cover as forest, which has been further enshrined in a number of national policies. However, we estimate our forest cover is at risk of falling to 47.35 per cent in the future, which highlights the lack of proactive centralised monitoring of deforestation-related approvals and raises the question of how serious the government is to perform on that commitment.
  4. It must be noted that deforestation in Malaysia is plagued by regulatory, social and environmental issues. In relation to both past and projected deforestation, this study identifies a myriad of issues, which includes fatalities potentially linked to deforestation, forest reserves and Indigenous lands being sold openly on the internet, large-scale deforestation occurring without environmental impact assessments, projects ignoring environmentally sensitive area designations, non-transparency of information, state-sanctioned intimidation of activists, inadequacy of certification frameworks, potential inaccuracies in climate reporting, conflicts of interest, invasions of Indigenous territories and a general violation of their human rights, and a lack of ESG progress from the private sector.

In order to remedy these issues, RimbaWatch calls on the government to:

  1. With reference to the 1,794,887ha of forest reserves which have been earmarked for deforestation for timber plantations, the Forest Plantation in Peninsular Malaysia, Licence for Planted Forest in Sarawak and Industrial Tree Plantation in Sabah programs must all be ended, in order to preserve our forest cover above 50 per cent. Areas remaining under these concessions should be restored as natural forest, where a selective and sustainable logging system could be implemented instead.
  2. The government argues that timber plantations in forest reserves are considered “forest cover”. Some political actors have even referred to these projects as “restoration”. However, the reality is that industrial timber plantations are not natural forest cover. As stated above, these programs involve the deforestation and conversion of forest reserve lands into industrial monoculture plantations, which we consider a way of greenwashing deforestation. Therefore, the government should amend their definitions of forest cover to include only natural forests, and not plantations.
  3. To expand on the 50 per cent forest cover commitment and develop a time-bound strategy to maintain natural forest cover at its current maximum extent, including through enshrining key levers of the strategy in federal and state-level legislation, such as the upcoming Climate Change Act.

About RimbaWatch

RimbaWatch is an environmental watchdog building an independent, timely and open inventory of data and analytics on deforestation, climate change and human rights issues in Malaysia.

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