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Malaysia's top forestry official steps down

Often blunt and outspoken toward critics, Datuk Sam Mannan won the ire of timber companies by declaring hundreds of thousands of hectares of rainforest as permanent forest reserves. It is unclear where he will end up.

A top official is out of his post as head of Sabah’s forestry department, which oversees forests in the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.

According to press reports, Datuk Sam Mannan will be removed from his role as head of the Sabah Forestry Department. No reason has been given for the action, but the director had been slated to step down. The Star reports that Mannan was given “three months’ notice effective August 1.”

The news follows revelations that Sabah’s former chief minister Musa Aman is being investigated by Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in the aftermath of his party’s poor showing in Malaysia’s May general election. Aman lost his position in June when Sabah’s state assembly backed rival Shafie Apdal as chief minister. Mannan served under Aman since 2003.

Mannan’s reign as Sabah’s top forestry official was not without controversy itself. Often blunt and outspoken toward critics, he aggravated timber companies—and won accolades from conservationists—by converting hundreds of thousands of hectares of rainforest in forestry concessions into permanent forest reserves, making them off-limits from logging and safeguarding them for Sabah’s endangered species like orangutans and pygmy elephants.

He angered environmentalists—but pleased palm oil companies—by re-zoning nearly 100,000 hectares of degraded forest land for oil palm plantations. He drew the ire of local community groups with what they saw as harsh crackdowns on forest “encroachers”, but won recognition internationally for his willingness to experiment with new approaches to tropical forest management, including biobanking at Malua and tropical timber certification at places like Deramakot.

Mannan said he managed Sabah’s forests with one overarching objective: sustainability. But sustainability in his eyes meant both protecting “good” forests—as he termed areas that while selectively logged, still afforded suitable wildlife habitat—and maintaining the economic sustainability of the state’s massive Yayasan Sabah concession, which by design was intended to fund social programs for its citizens into perpetuity.

These goals were made more difficult by rapacious logging in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, which both destroyed vast areas of primary rainforest and undermined timber productivity, sending revenues into a tailspin. The political pressures that created and enabled those conditions persisted throughout Mannan’s time at the department.

It’s unclear where Mannan will end up—reached by Mongabay, Mannan did not offer comment about his departure or plans—but it’s not the first time he has left the directorship. In the late 1990s, Mannan was relieved of his post by Sabah’s chief minister when he objected to a massive logging scheme that would have converted 300,000 hectares of forest into acacia plantations. That project, which came at a great cost to Sabah’s rainforests, ultimately proved to be a fraud: vast areas of forest were cleared but the acacia plantations were never developed, vindicating Mannan’s suspicions.

This story was published with permission from

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