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Story Publication logo March 2, 2022

Forest Plantations in Reserves: Quick To Cut, Slow To Grow


Aerial view of the green trees of a palm oil plantation at a verdant rainforest's edge.

Yao-Hua Law's project investigates the sustainability of forest plantations in Malaysia and...


This is Part 2 of our four-part #LadangHutan series. The series investigates forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysia.

IN MALAYSIA, forest reserves can be selectively logged. Clear-felling was prohibited in forest reserves (“reserves”) except for developing limited plots of forest plantations. That changed when the National Land Council extended a warm welcome to planters.

In 2012, the Council, chaired by the Prime Minister and comprising Menteris Besar and Chief Ministers, approved forest plantation zones of 439,189 ha within forest reserves in Peninsular Malaysia. That covers 9% of forest reserves.

It was a clear call by the country’s highest-level body on land-use policy for more forest plantations inside reserves.

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And just a few years before, in 2007, the federal government had started issuing loans for forest plantation projects (see Part 1: Tree Farming Gone Wrong).

State governments, who oversee land-use and forests, stepped on the throttle. They approved more licenses to clear reserves for forest plantations. Between 2007-2020, a total of 256,769 ha in reserves was cleared. That is 5.2% of reserves in Peninsular Malaysia.

Use the tool below to visualise 256,769 ha.

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The momentum for forest plantations has been building for decades. Since the 1980s, Malaysian government agencies and wood industries touted forest plantations as a sustainable supply of timber. They also argued that this would reduce the need to log natural forests.

By 2020, there were 121,147 ha of forest plantations established inside forest reserves in Peninsular Malaysia. These include areas from government projects decades ago (see Part 1).

In this investigation, Macaranga

  • traces how this happened,
  • how forest plantation projects — approved by state governments — are clearing natural forests much faster than can be replanted, and
  • how no one knows how much wood can be delivered or when.

Almost 70,000 ha inside forest reserves in Peninsular Malaysia are planted with rubber trees. This is allowed because the trees are perceived as timber trees, though latex sales are crucial for the planters. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2022.

How Forest Plantations Ate Into Reserves

Macaranga sets the start of our investigation in 2007. That year, the Malaysian Timber Industry Board (MTIB) launched the Forest Plantation Development Programme to disburse government loans to planters. So far, the Programme has financed 64,863 ha or 53.5% (2019 data) of the 121,147 ha of established plantations in Peninsular Malaysia.

Aside from MTIB, another agency has a bigger say over forest plantations: state forestry departments. These departments regulate forest plantations inside reserves. While planters can operate without the Programme’s loans, they must get the forestry departments’ nod to do so.

It must be noted though that state governments have the final say on land-use.

The reserves take all

Initially, foresters had not meant for planters to take up so much of reserves.

In 1997, the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia and the Forest Research Institute Malaysia surveyed land suitable to be turned into forest plantations.

They found about 296,000 ha of idle land outside of reserves, owned by either state governments or agricultural agencies like FELDA and FELCRA.

And inside reserves, they identified only 78,090 ha or 1.7% of the reserves then. These were “degraded forests.”

(The 1997 study is the most recent land availability survey for forest plantations that Macaranga could find.)

Yet, compared to the 1997 projection, an area three times larger has been cleared inside reserves, and the National Land Council’s 2012 forest plantation zone is almost six times larger. Forest plantations outside of reserves are few, perhaps none. (FELDA did not respond to questions for this story.)

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When asked, the Forestry Department did not explain why so much more of reserves are being turned into plantations than they had earlier identified. They told Macaranga in April 2021 that the National Land Council’s 2012 decision followed national policies for forest plantations to support domestic wood industries and replace degraded forests.

What are “degraded forests,” really?

The issue is what constitutes “degraded forests,” and if they should be replaced with single-species tree farms?

In each state, forestry departments draw up zones for forest plantations inside reserves. Forest plantations can only be established within these zones, and only with the approval of state governments.

These zones must meet Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia criteria laid out in a circular from the director-general in 2010.

The criteria restrict forest plantations to “degraded forests” damaged by illegal logging, shifting cultivation, pests, or fire. A “degraded forest” is also one where the average volume of harvestable timber per hectare is less than 153 m3.

That last – and only quantifiable – criterion is concerning. According to the latest National Forestry Inventory (2010-2013), the forests in all states but Melaka have averages below the 153 m3/ha threshold.

This means that most forests in Peninsular Malaysia are considered “degraded” and — by extension — eligible to be turned into forest plantations.

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The ‘153 m3/ha’ threshold had also puzzled Abdul Khalim Abu Samah, Kelantan state forestry director. He had thought it was too much timber to be considered degraded.

He tried to explain the rationale of the threshold to Macaranga, and eventually referred us the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. (The Department did not reply to requests for an explanation.)

And in practice, foresters inevitably include “good forests” into forest plantation zones, says Abdul Khalim. For a network of only degraded forests would be too patchy for plantations to be efficient. Kelantan has zoned about 199,000 ha of reserves for forest plantations.

But it is myopic to replace forests with monoculture plantations simply because they are degraded, says forestry consultant Lim Teck Wyn.

When forests are evaluated only by their monetary values, it sets them up to be turned into plantations and onto “a slippery slope for future development,” says Lim.

In contrast, “If the place is barren, it doesn’t mean it has no ecological value.” Empty land would grow into a forest over time, he says.

Furthermore, research shows that sustainably logged forests could harbour thriving wildlife, even tiger densities higher than in protected forests.

A bulldozer clearing a forest reserve approved for forest plantation. But most of such areas across Peninsular Malaysia have not been replanted after the natural forests were removed. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2022.

How Trees Were Cleared but Not Replanted

One could use the need for economic progress to justify replacing degraded forests with forest plantations. After all, wood is an essential material and exports of wood products rake in more than RM22 billion a year for Malaysia.

But clearing reserves — and quality ones at that — for plantations incurs unnecessary and huge environmental damage when idle land abounds. In 2019, the Department of Agriculture reported about 102,000 ha of idle agriculture land in Peninsular Malaysia.

Cutting forest reserves also sabotages the country’s economy at a time when forests could fetch millions of ringgit without losing a tree. For example, healthy forests could earn carbon credits and tourism revenue — more than 3 million people visit forest parks in Peninsular Malaysia every year.

And it could get worse: when planters log but do not replant as promised. They would abandon the land after they have cleared the forests and sold the timber. Whatever the state of the forest before, it ends up degraded.

Sadly, that is the norm, Macaranga finds.

Between 2012-2020, about 67.9% of the 185,413 ha of reserves cleared for forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysia have not been replanted. The biggest gaps are in Pahang and Kelantan.

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This startling gap has prompted questions about whether forest plantations are being exploited to clear-fell reserves which otherwise could only be selectively logged. Loggers and foresters told Macaranga that clear-felling yields more than twice the timber and income. States would get more forestry revenue.

Some of the strongest criticism of forest plantations specifically in Kelantan appeared 16 years ago, in the Auditor-General’s 2006 report. The report concluded that many projects lacked economic feasibility and that developers “paid more attention to harvesting logs” than planting trees.

Acacia Industries Sdn Bhd was one of the companies named in the report. The company was given leases by the state government to establish 8,800 ha of forest plantations. The current managing director, Er Ka Wei, who bought over the company with his partners in June 2006, agrees that the previous owners had their eyes only on clearing the forests.

Er and his team planted rubber trees within 3 months of their new ownership. “We are planters,” he emphasises.

Dishonest developers could be penalised. In Kelantan, developers who fail to plant would forfeit their deposit of RM3,000 per hectare to the forestry department.

But the profits from clearing a rich forest could more than offset the penalty, says Corinna Cheah. She manages several logging and forest plantation companies in the state.

“Many people do it that way because it’s a way to get quick profit,” says Cheah, but “the real gold mine is in the second and third harvest (of the plantation).” She has invited Macaranga to visit her plantations.

Then there are the loggers who did plant but only to reclaim their deposits. They would then abandon the site, says Mr Lai, who has been logging for 40 years in Kelantan and Pahang. He declined to give his full name.

He has been paid to clear reserves for forest plantations. He says “many” rubber plantations are too remote to access and have been deserted. He further criticises the state government for approving rubber plantations in vast areas of forest reserves.

Forestry department and MTIB officers told Macaranga they lack the workforce to regularly audit field sites. The offices of the Kelantan Menteri Besar and state EXCO did not respond to requests for comments.

Who’s accountable?

On their part, MTIB assures Macaranga that all the forest plantations financed by the Forest Plantation Development Programme in Peninsular Malaysia – 64,863 ha since 2007 – have been planted. While Macaranga cannot verify MTIB’s claim, planters have independently said that MTIB officers disburse loans only after auditing planted plots.

Based on MTIB’s claim, it would mean that most – if not all – of the cleared but unplanted land falls outside of the Programme. That would leave the forestry departments and the state governments bearing full accountability for these underperforming projects.

The Forestry Department in Kuala Lumpur did not respond to Macaranga’s questions about MTIB’s claim. But they acknowledge the vast tracts of unplanted land. The Department’s deputy director-general, Zahari Ibrahim, told Macaranga in April 2021 that they had proposed interventions to protect the forests.

Following that, the National Land Council on 3 December 2021 set a 15-year moratorium on new forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysian reserves. This directive applies to the 127,050 ha of forest reserves zoned but not yet licensed for forest plantations (presumably out of the 439,189 zoned in 2012).

However, the National Land Council’s decisions are not legally binding. It remains to be seen if the moratorium will be respected by state governments who hold ultimate authority over land-use and forests.

Meanwhile, in Kelantan which has cleared the most reserves for forest plantations since 2007, foresters want to speed up replanting.

Abdul Khalim, the state forestry director, says his office is cancelling about 30,000 ha of forest plantation projects that have been cleared but not planted after 3 years. That’s 37% of the reserves cleared from 2007 to 2017, the cut-off date according to Abdul Khalim’s criterion.

“[In the past] when we got loggers, they didn’t plant, they cut and cabut lari (ran),” says Abdul Khalim.  Now he wants to reallocate these areas to the many “genuine planters” who have approached him. He laments that the loggers who didn’t plant had caused the state to lose revenue and timber.

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Kelantan’s southern and more forested neighbour, Pahang, is likely grappling with the same issue. Since 2012, Pahang has approved the clearing of 73,360 ha more for forest plantations than was replanted in forest reserves. That is the biggest gap among all states. The Pahang state forestry deputy director did not respond to questions.

The government promotes forest plantations (right and background) to replace natural forests and expects planters to harvest every 15 years. But planters say they will delay harvest until market conditions are favourable. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2022.

What and When Is the Harvest?

Forest plantations, with their neat rows of fast-growing trees, can produce wood more reliably and faster than natural forests. But when reserves are cleared but not replanted, and with inadequate manpower to audit fields, can forest plantations ensure a sustainable supply of wood?

The truth is that even without the abovementioned issues, nobody can say how much timber could forest plantations produce or when. There is too much uncertainty and not enough data.

This problem is best reflected in the rubber forest plantations. These constitute 57.4% of all established forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysia. Past studies had led the government to expect planters to harvest 200 m3 of timber out of every hectare on a 15-year cycle.

But planters cannot be forced to harvest, not even by the state forestry departments or MTIB.

Acacia Industries Sdn Bhd, for example, has borrowed about RM56 million from MTIB via the Forest Plantation Development Programme. The company has rubber trees ready to cut, but they told Macaranga they will not do so for another 5-10 years.

The reason is simple: rubberwood is currently too cheap, and the trees are worth more alive as latex cash cows.

Sia Beng Hock, the Kelantan Forest Plantation Association president, agrees. He owns about 5,000 ha of forest plantations in Kelantan, mostly of rubber trees. “If you cut the tree [now], wouldn’t you be wasting it?”

MTIB expects planters in the Programme to deliver their first timber crop this year. But MTIB cannot guarantee harvest yields or when logs can be produced. That is a problem that they may rectify in the future, says Kamaruzaman Othman, deputy director-general of MTIB.  

For now, they can only, at best, provide a timeline of expected timber harvest estimated from the age of plantations.

The Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia did not reply to questions on forthcoming timber supply from forest plantations.

Such vague projections are grossly insufficient for wood industries.

Yoong Hau Chun is the group executive director of furniture and particleboard manufacturer HeveaBoard Bhd. The company is one of the largest wood product companies listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange. About 70% of the company’s products are made of rubberwood bought from conventional rubber estates.

Yoong has no idea if forest plantations are successful. He looked slightly puzzled when asked if he plans to use rubberwood from forest plantations. “If and when it’s available, we can use it too.”

In Gemas, Negeri Sembilan, a truck delivers a full load of rubberwood logs to HeveaBoard Bhd, a company that makes particleboard with the timber. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2022.

Goh Chee Yew, who chairs the Malaysian Wood Industries Association, says his colleagues cannot plan to use timber from forest plantations due to lack of data.

He further questions the accuracy of MTIB’s forest plantation data. He was a MTIB’s board director between 2010-2015, and had requested the officers to verify the areas planted with the loans. When no action was taken, “I got so fed up, I just didn’t want to be in the Board,” he says*.

MTIB refutes the claims that wood industry players are clueless about forest plantation data. They say they talk to the industry, and their directors and working committee include wood industry representatives.

But given that the Programme — and therefore the forest plantations — is funded by public funds, would MTIB make public detailed forest plantation data?

Not yet, says deputy director-general Kamaruzaman. “Until we are very certain of things, I don’t think it’s advisable to publish; otherwise [there will be] backlash [to] us.”

Neither MTIB nor the Forestry Department agreed to Macaranga’s request for maps and lists of forest plantations. The Kelantan state forestry department is sorting out its forest plantation database and will share when it is ready, says state director Abdul Khalim.

Macaranga’s investigation shows that the development of forest plantations in the last two decades has caused large-scale forest loss with few signs of commercial success.

Nonetheless, as the call for forest protection gathers momentum, forest plantations will be the future, say both the Forestry Department and MTIB. They aim to improve monitoring and enforcement to correct flaws in the system.

For now, neither agency could name a successful commercial forest plantation in Peninsular Malaysia, mainly because none has harvested timber yet.

The best examples would be in Kelantan where rubber forest plantations started the earliest, suggests the Forestry Department’s deputy director-general Zahari Ibrahim. The 10-year-old rubber plantations there are “truly beautiful, pleasant with fresh air,” he says.

In Part 3 of #LadangHutan, Macaranga follows Zahari’s tip and visits Kelantan for a close-up of forest plantations.

This is the second of our 4-part #LadangHutan series investigating forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysia.

Part 1: Tree Farming Gone Wrong

Disclaimer: In his field reporting, the reporter was treated to lunches separately by Sia Beng Hock and Abdul Khalim Abu Samah; the reporter’s requests to pay for his own meals were declined.

*Updates: 2 March 10:58am — Goh Chee Yew’s quote replaces our initial paraphrasing. Post-publication, he clarified to us that he left MTIB’s Board when he was asked to join that of another wood industry agency.


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