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The Forestry Department estimates that more than 45,000ha of forest have been cleared and logged in Kelantan.

This is a story about the Kelantan flood; about how a natural disaster could have been mitigated by humans but wasn’t, and even worsened by them.

In 1990, Pas took over the Kelantan government from Barisan Nasional. Three years earlier, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the then prime minister, had marginally defeated Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in a bitter fight for the Umno president’s post. Tengku Razaleigh, still fresh with wounds from the fight, had his revenge in the 1990 general election when he and his newly formed party, Semangat 46, helped Pas defeat BN to win the state. Dr Mahathir had lost Kelantan to Pas and Tengku Razaleigh, and he was upset and angry.

Subsequently, throughout the 1990s under Dr Mahathir’s administration, the federal budget allocation to Kelantan was significantly cut. Between 1991 and 1995, under the 6th Malaysia Plan, less than one per cent of the RM116 billion federal development expenditure was allotted to Kelantan, the lowest allocation compared with all other states. This practice continued until 2003.

Consequently, there were very few development activities in Kelantan during the 1990s. Highways, roads and dams that were supposed to be built were cancelled. Economic growth was inhibited, and job availability was limited. As a result, there was a mass exodus of locals out of Kelantan during this period. Hundreds of thousands of Kelantan folk had to emigrate to find jobs. Currently, it is estimated that one in three of the 1.5 million Kelantan people live and work outside the state. If Dr Mahathir had intended to punish Pas and Tengku Razaleigh, the Kelantan people were collateral damage.

The lack of economic activities and growth following the restricted financial support from the Federal Government left the Kelantan government and its leaders scrambling to keep the state afloat in the 1990s. And they resorted to the easiest and quickest way to generate income and to ease the financial burden of the state: logging.

Since the 90s, logging in Kelantan has been rampant. On paper, only a small forest area was approved for logging in the state. However, the Forestry Department has estimated that in Kelantan more than 45,000ha of forest have been cleared and logged, almost equivalent to an area double the size of Kuala Lumpur. And more forest areas have been cleared in Kelantan recently, compared with other states in the peninsula. This was mostly done legally. How did they do it?

Under the National Forestry Act 1984, it is mandatory for trees located in logging areas to be selected, tagged and catalogued. However, this requirement presents a hindrance to the loggers in terms of time, cost, effort and the number of trees that could be cut. It is much easier and quicker for loggers to bulldoze and clear the whole area and remove the logs. To do this and to circumvent the law under the act, the state government exercised its power, provided for in Article 74 (2) of the Federal Constitution, giving it priority jurisdiction over land matters, including the forest.

In the late 1990s, instead of issuing logging licences under the National Forestry Act, which the Kelantan government does for only about 2,000ha annually, it reclassified a large part of the forest reserve as “forest farm”. Under this reclassification, the forest can be totally cleared without the tree-monitoring requirements, such as tagging and cataloging.

This “forest farm” is supposed to be for agricultural development, such as oil palm and rubber plantations, and it was originally meant for only “poor forest”, being the low-density forest with small- to medium-sized trees. But, this “poor forest” could still churn out a highly lucrative 40 tonne of timber per hectare.

To date, 199,000ha of forest in Kelantan has been classified and approved as forest farm, an area about three times the size of Singapore. This is roughly one-third of the total Kelantan forest reserve area. It is the largest forest farm in Peninsular Malaysia, bigger than all the forest farms in other states in the peninsula combined.

There is logging and land clearing activity in Pahang, the largest state in the peninsula, too. However, land-clearing there pales in comparison to what has happened in Kelantan in the past years. Pahang, with the largest forest reserve in the peninsula, only classifies five per cent of its total forest reserve, or 80,447ha, as forest farm, compared with Kelantan at about two and a half times the size.

The forest farm practice has exacerbated land clearing activities in Kelantan at an alarming rate. One estimate from an ex-executive councillor of the Kelantan government, from a recently published interview, said 200,000ha had been cleared under forest farming in Kelantan in the last 15 years.

Cleared forest farm areas are supposed to be replanted. However, this has not been done in most cases in Kelantan. According to the Forestry Department, to date, only about 10,000ha of cleared forest farms have been replanted, a mere five per cent of the estimated 200,000ha cleared in the state. Even with an annual quota for land-clearing imposed, the replanting rate remains disproportionate to the annual quota of cleared land, leaving tens of thousands of hectares of forest now open soil or bare terrain in Kelantan.

The state government keeps blaming the Forestry Department for lack of enforcement on land clearing. But, to what extent is the department able to enforce when land clearing is done legally under state law and sanctioned by the state government?

In Part II tomorrow: Evidence and proof linking land clearing and the worsening floods

Isham Jalil has experienced the floods in Kelantan since the 70s.
He is president of Sukarelawan Malaysia, which has helped flood
victims in Kelantan over the years, including rebuilding homes
destroyed by floods. The writer holds a master in public policy degree in politics, economics and law from Harvard University

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