Deforestation in Malaysia

Palm oil is Malaysia’s largest agriculture commodity and has recently become Malaysia’s second largest income from exports. It is no surprise then that under the new 10th Malaysian Plan revealed today, Malaysia aims to increase the annual export earnings from palm oil by RM21.9 million to RM69.3 million. It is difficult to see how this target can be achieved without having to open up new lands for oil palm cultivation. Oil palm is a large tree; a single tree can occupy as much as 70 square meters.

Small patch of forest amid oil palm trees (photo from www.thestar.com.my)

Deforestation is a sensitive issue in Malaysia, as naïve Sahabat Alam Malaysia (an NGO affiliated to Friends of the Earth) soon found out. Their aggressive campaign against deforestation by the palm oil industry in Malaysia eventually risked their society being deregistered by the Registrar of Societies for threatening national interests.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia’s poster

In recent years, Malaysia is under huge pressure to stop the expansion of oil palm plantations through deforestation. Foreign NGOs, such as Friends of the Earth (FOE), Greenpeace, Wetlands International, Oxfam International, Sawit Watch, World Wide Fund (WWF), and Rainforest Action Network (RAN), are actively involved to apply pressure on the Malaysian government to declare a moratorium on oil palm expansion.

A poster to stop the use of palm oil in food

In some ways, the efforts by these NGOs are starting to bear fruits. Cadbury in New Zealand, for example, has stopped using palm oil in their dairy milk chocolate products, and Nestle is under pressure by green consumers to drop the use of palm oil in their food products. The Palm Oil Labeling Bill is also being proposed in Australia. If passed, this Bill would require all food products that use palm oil to be labeled as such, rather than classifying (or “hiding”) the palm oil ingredient under the more generic “vegetable oils” category. Even Malaysia’s palm oil export to the EU has fallen 12% a year since 2006.

So how bad is deforestation in Malaysia? Malaysia is over 58% covered by forest. Compare that figure with the meager figures for some countries. For instance, UK is the least forested country in Europe, and its land area is covered only by 12% forest. The land area of Australia, France, USA, and Germany are covered by 21, 28, 33, and 32% of forest, respectively.

World forest coverage by FRA 2010

Nonetheless, not all forests are created equally. The land area of Malaysia is merely 0.25% of the total land area in the world, but yet this tiny area contains over 10% of the world’s plant species and 7% of the world’s animal species. Tropical rainforests like those found in Malaysia also contain the largest store of carbon (and nutrients) than other forest types (like tundra, temperate forest, boreal forest, and shrub land). In other words, clearing one hectare of our rainforest destroys more plant and animal species and releases more carbon than clearing an equal area of other forest types.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently released the preliminary report called Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010 or better known as FRA 2010. According to this report, net deforestation for the world declined from about 8.3 million ha per year in the 1990s to about 5.2 million ha per year in the 2000s. This 37% reduction in deforestation was possible because of large scale reforestation and afforestation projects by several countries, particularly by China.

I decided to check the deforestation statistics for Malaysia by downloading the country report for Malaysia from FRA 2010’s website. In the country report, Malaysia loses an average of 102,000 ha of forest annually, the highest being in the 2000-2005 period which saw a deforestation rate of 140,000 ha per year. As at 2010, Malaysia is 62% forested, with a total forest area of 20.5 million ha.

Nevertheless, FRA 2010 oddly classifies rubber (but not oil palm) plantations as a forest. As Malaysian authorities do not wish to include rubber plantations in the calculations of forested areas, I recalculated the FRA 2010 figures for Malaysia to obtain the following:

Malaysia deforestation statistics (2010)

Forest area: 19.324 million ha (58.6% of land area)

Mean deforestation rate: 68,400 ha per year

Malaysia’s mean deforestation rate is 13% of 520,000 ha per year, the world’s mean deforestation rate. Malaysia’s deforestation rate is also equivalent to the forest size clearing of 11 football (or soccer) fields per hour.

At the Earth Summit, Rio de Janerio in 1992, Malaysia pledged to keep at least 50% of her land as forest, but these FRA 2010 figures show that Malaysia loses about 0.19% of her forest annually. At this current deforestation rate, Malaysia would be reduced to 50% forest cover by 2057.

There is some hope though. The deforestation rate in Malaysia has slowed down because Malaysia is actively involved in reforestation projects. FRA 2010 indicates that reforestation in Malaysia increased from an average of 989 ha per year in 1988-1992 to 6839 ha per year in 1998-2002. In 2003-2007, Malaysia’s reforestation rate increased to an average of 33,009 ha per year, an increase of nearly five times of that in 1998-2002.

FRA 2010 shows both the good and bad of Malaysia. The bad because it shows that although Malaysia’s forest area is less than 0.5% of the world’s forest area, Malaysia is responsible for 13% of the world’s forest loss every year. The good because it shows that Malaysia is taking an active role to “green” her economy through, among others, reforestation projects. But is reforestation projects enough?

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak tabling the 10th Malaysian Plan today (photo from www.thestar.com.my)

Under the new 10th Malaysian Plan announced today, Malaysia also aims to achieve an annual economic growth of 6% to push Malaysia into a high-income and developed nation. Just six months ago in the Copenhagen 2009 conference, Malaysia has also pledged to reduce her carbon emissions by 40%. This reduction is to be achieved mainly through the use of palm oil as biofuel.

So what we have here is more dependence on our golden oil. Greater economic growth requires greater amount of energy and in turn, greater amount of biofuel from palm oil, which ultimately leads to greater pressure to clear our forests for new oil palm plantations. Malaysia ‘s greatest challenge today is to balance her desire to be a high-income and developed nation and our environment. Is that possible? With our current priorities and technologies, no, I don’t think so.

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Comments

  1. “The Figures for Permanent Reserved Forest and National Parks 1990, 2000 and 2005 are available, while figure for 2007 have been assumed as 2010.
    The Figures for 2010 for State land Forest has been forecasted as 3077 („000ha) using linear trend (State land Forest, y= -113x + 230207)
    The figures for 2010 for Rubber Plantation has been forecasted as 1132 („000ha) using linear trend (Rubber Plantation, y= -25x + 51382).”

    Hi, the quoted above is from the link provided (thanks for that). However, would not the 2010 data be unreliable, seeing it was obtained merely from a rather simplistic linear assumption? I wonder what you think of that.

    • Yes, when you use estimates, there is always the risk that the error might be large. But when the data is unavailable or unreliable, it is better than nothing to use some sort of estimation, but we need to explain that the data was obtained through estimation and explain how were the estimations done. Data for 2010 may be too recent yet and all may not have been collected, so an estimate was done based on past trends. This is quite normal in scientific work.

  2. “…under the new 10th Malaysian Plan revealed today, Malaysia aims to increase the annual export earnings from palm oil by RM21.9 million to RM69.3 million”

    Felda has some 800,000 hectares of palm oil. Add to that oil palm plantations of Sime Darby, Golden Hope etc etc. Yet, Malaysia can only produce RM69.3 million worth of palm oil products!

    • It is not in millions but in billions: “…under the new 10th Malaysian Plan revealed today, Malaysia aims to increase the annual export earnings from palm oil by RM21.9 billion to RM69.3 billion””. Malaysia’s oil palm total land area is about 4.5 million ha. So, this is equivalent to RM15,400 export earnings per ha land area, or about RM105 in export earnings per oil palm tree.

  3. yes it is emotional and perhaps polarized. but hey… dont blame me for being link baited with the title of your choice. and next time if you really want to be neutral, try not to use pictures.. it sends mixed emotions up into my brain… i’m not as educated as you are, so pardon me.

    but i’m glad you are happy and well paid to be an academic, because in the real world, talk really does’t matter much. so excuse silly emotional me while i go out for a ciggie. i got to go check out my trees…

    and yes the whole agricultural industry is under extreme stress in malaysia. mayb you can write something that might help us farmers instead of highlighting problems that everyone already knows. and since green is so in nowadays… it will be worrying if everybody believes meat and vegetables and all the other produce they are consuming appears magically on supermarket shelves.

    so teach me, professor.

  4. Hey Christopher… thanks for regurgitating the article from whereever you CTRL+C it from.

    because you evidently have no idea what you are talking about.

    oil palm is one of the best things to have happened in terms of food crops, to malaysia.

    agriculture has relieved many families including mine from poverty. stop all this green peace and save the world bullshit. isn’t it evident all this bad mouthing of oil palm is politccally motivated by certain countries because they cant yield a cheap and efficient enough oil..

    you don’t think sunflower oil and castor oil is harvested from large tracts of land? and the same goes for any oil seed.
    why the sudden requirement for palm oil to be singularly pulled for compulsory labelling? why other oils can suffice to be labelled as vegetable oils? go think about it…

    oil palm oil is unhealthy… come on please! mc donalds and kfc and mid night supper is unhealthy.. go fight against that..

    sustainable oil palm.. we can do that, just teach us how to.. how hard can it be. do you know other crops can be grown together with palm oil… as well as other agriculture activities.. how about making use of leftover palm waste as fuel for electricity generation. lots of uses… we can make it sustainable… we just need to know how and the certification. theres no point bashing palm oil just because the West decides it bad oil.

    oh ya…. there were never any orang utans on my land for the past 100 years, and i don’t think there were any on peninsular malaysia either… so stop the orang utan BS too.

    people like us that live on agriculture need to eat too…. no all of us can dedicate ourselves to writing blogs and making ad $$$

    ~ from the other side of the “green” fence.

    • Thanks for your feedback, albeit it being emotional and polarized. I think you have incorrectly assume what my article was about. I believe you read my article way too quickly, and you assumed that when one names a blog entry as “Deforestation in Malaysia”, it must mean the article has to be “bashing” Malaysia, and the blog author must be on the side of international NGOs.

      For one, no where in my article did I mention about the health qualities of palm oil, whether bad or good. And no where did I mention about the loss of orang utans due to deforestation. In fact, I didn’t even talk about whether deforestation destroys orang utan habitat. Yes, I did put a picture of an NGO poster that had an orangutan in it. But that was because my article mentioned about some of the pressure Malaysia faces from foreign NGOs. No where in my article did I say I supported or I am against the destruction of orang utans due to deforestation. That wasn’t what my article was about.

      This blog entry was about explaining the current deforestation (and afforestation — yes, I wrote about that too in my article) situation and the kind challenges and pressure Malaysia’s palm oil industry faces.

  5. One Native American tribe leader said,

    Only after the last tree has been cut down.
    Only after the last river has been poisoned.
    Only after the last fish has been caught.
    Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

  6. Assalamualaikum,
    I would like to ask about the latest size of forest land in malaysia by logging activities.
    It would help me a lot if you could attach togather with the official data.
    Also I would like to know the relevant legislation pertaining to logging.
    Thank you so much 🙂
    Wassalam.

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