October 10, 2015

Sustainable Forest Management in Malaysia

Sustainable Forest Management in Malaysia

A protected forest in Sabah, Malaysia gives a hopeful environmental example. Photo Credit: Pixabay

Known for its dense tropical forests, beautiful islands and staggering natural biodiversity, Malaysia has a reputation as an environmental treasure.  You’ll find pictures of Malaysian jungle in nature magazines, backgrounding vacation advertisements and pasted onto any website trying for some reason to remind readers of just how breathtaking a place our world can be.  But Malaysia has another reputation, as well.

But Malaysia has another reputation.  This one has to do with palm oil deforestation, slash-and-burn land clearing, illegal logging, unregulated mining, species extinction and hydroelectric dams that flood hundreds of kilometers of forest at a time.  Considering the world’s recent focus on environmental concerns, many would argue that Malaysia is more readily associated with the loss of its forests than with its forests themselves.

The focus on environmental destruction is warranted.  Malaysia’s rate of deforestation is accelerating faster than anywhere else in the world.  As this graph relates, that statistic has been true for most of the last decade.

Malaysia forest loss

What has been true during the early 2000’s, however, is starting to change.  Below the din of controversy, Malaysia has been making strides toward sustainability where its forests are concerned.

Deforestation in Malaysia is still high, but slowing down and becoming more responsible.  This is especially true in the eastern state of Sabah, which contains vital habitat for endangered species like the Bornean Orangutan, Pygmy Elephant and many others.  Sabah’s revenue from forestry dropped by 97% between 1979 and 2014 (from RM1.1 billion in 1979 – equal to RM5.8 billion or US$1.3 billion today – to just RM175 or US$41.4 million in 2014).  This kind of improvement is by no means uniform across the country, but there is an overall trend towards improvement.

The reason for the change is the rise of sustainable forest management.  Sustainable forest management is a broad term, but in a nutshell it means conducting business (and especially industry) in a way that protects, maintains and sometimes improves the state of local forests.  In Malaysia, this often means selective harvesting – logging only trees above a certain size – so that timber-producing forests remain habitable for animals, and extending sustainability through the supply chain to reduce emissions and raise awareness for green practices.  As a country Malaysia is still struggles mightily with environmental issues, but its forestry departments are showing glints of impassioned conservationism and more than a little commitment to sustainable forest management.

The Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) has been pushing for sustainable forestry since its inception in 1998.  The country-wide organization’s biggest success has been the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS), an initiative and national commitment towards sustainable forest management.  Since 2001 the program has seen a total of 4.66 million hectares of forest and 349 timber companies get certified for sustainability.

In 2009, the scheme was endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, which is the largest forest certification system in the world.  That means the certification MTCS offers Malaysian forests and timber companies is more than legitimate.  Indeed, MTCS-certified wood is recognized by sustainable procurement policies in Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

The council (MTCC) and its big initiative (MTCS) remain quite active – MTCC chief executive officer Yong Teng Koon recently spoke on the importance of using MTCS to approach forest sustainability from two sides.  Because the timber industry responds to demand, it is necessary to encourage both the export and local consumption of wood material sourced from sustainably-managed forests.

“This is where the Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS) plays a vital role in linking the upstream and the downstream sectors through forest management certification and chain of custody certification respectively,” Yong said.

MTCC also manned a booth at Kuala Lumpur’s massive business and green technology exhibition IGEM this year.  Yong was vocal in encouraging all companies dealing in wood-based products to visit the MTCC booth at IGEM 2015 and learn more about the importance and benefits of sustainable timber.

deforestation in malaysia

This sawmill is an example of unsustaianable logging – large old growth trees have been cut down. Photo Credit Stephen Codrington via Wikipedia

Yong must have had a lot to talk about – the importance of sustainable forest management is immense.  Dato’ Prof. Dr. Hj. Abd. Rahman Hj. Abd. Rahim, Director General of Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia, began to explain in a recent interview.

“…our tropical rainforests support so many things. We are very fortunate. They provide for our not only timber production, but also eco-tourism, water supply, controlling climate change. We, in the Forest department of Peninsular Malaysia, are responsible for the management and development of our resources. That is why we are committed to sustainable forest management.”

Indeed, forests are essential to Malaysia’s survival as a nation.  The support for tourism is critical – tourism is expected to make up 16.2% of Malaysia’s GDP this year, and wilderness is a big reason travelers make the journey to Malaysia.  Forested areas also act as water catchments and carbon sinks.  This means that they keep monsoon rains from stripping soil away, divert water into Malaysia’s dwindling reservoirs, and siphon pollution out of the air.

The country’s very weather depends on forests, which keep wet and dry periods regular.  This year’s prolonged dry season has resulted in what could be Indonesia’s worst peatland fires on record.  The costs of these fires are almost incalculable, but include an estimated 100,000 premature deaths, a huge contribution to global warming, and total economic losses of $10 billion across Southeast Asia.  In this way, Malaysia’s forests are important to the entire world.

The rise of sustainable forest management is a silver lining to a very dark cloud over Malaysia.  The country has a long road ahead to adequately protect its forests, but if leaders like Sabah and MTCC continue to raise the bar for forest protection, Malaysia’s future will continue to brighten.

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