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.