NST Leader: Malaysia's forests

Does the forest have a future? It better, otherwise we wouldn't have ours. But the strange thing is we often give the connection a miss.

Want evidence? Go no further than deforestation in our own country. Research fellow Dr Rulia Akhtar of Universiti Malaya, the premier higher-learning centre in the country, provides the numbers in a letter to this newspaper.

Between 2002 and 2022, the country had lost 2.85 million hectares of primary forest, accounting for an 18-per cent loss.

To lose such huge chunk of the forest in just 21 years is appalling. But deforestation persists, ominous though it is. There are three reasons for this.

One, policymakers and environmentalists seem not to "see" the same things. Take the discord between RimbaWatch, a Malaysian climate watchdog, and the Kedah government over whether there is logging within the proximity of the Tasik Muda Reservoir.

It is elementary, we would have thought. There is or there isn't logging there. An aerial picture taken by RimbaWatch and shared with this newspaper does indeed appear to show the muddied waters of Sungai Ulu Muda.

Proven? No, according to a few Kedah officials who matter, because no approval for logging has been given in the protected Ulu Muda Forest Reserve. So why the muddied river? Illegal logging?

RimbaWatch and the Kedah government will do well if they worked together to find out why instead of muddying the waters further.

Two, state governments, which have full authority over land use, are often driven by the need to generate revenue to develop the economy and create jobs.

Forests become an easy target. In the 1970s, they certainly were. Today, after Malaysia turned to manufacturing, forestry still contributes a substantial revenue to many states — ranging from tens of million ringgit to more than hundred million.

Kelantan, Pahang and Perak top the list. States, especially poorer ones, see logging as a do-or-die revenue stream.

There are two solutions to this. One, Putrajaya should channel more federal allocations to struggling states.

Two, states must find ways to make lawful loggers pay more than they are doing now.

Industry studies show that the state's take is a mere 10 per cent of the revenue, with the rest going to the loggers. This must change.

The oil and gas industry used to suffer the same fate before Petronas appeared in 1974 and changed all that. The oil majors didn't like it, but they had no choice.

Loggers must be given the same Hobson's choice. Logs and oil may look different, but they are natural resources.

Do not get us wrong. We are not calling for a state logging company to be set up to operate the timber industry. On the contrary, we are suggesting that it be guided by the same principle.

Oil majors used to rob Malaysia of its hydrocarbon wealth. We stopped it. The same can be done to loggers.

Finally, protected forests are not being protected as they should be. Two things stand in the way.

One, existing laws bark more than they bite. They must do both. Two, enforcement, like in all things regulatory, has a homegrown laxity.

This, too, must change. Forests are the stuff of life. Our future depends on theirs.

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