Let’s get on the same page and start anew!

Govt will fulfil its pledge of keeping at least 50% of the country’s landmass under forest cover to the international community

by WONG TACK / TMR file pix

LATELY, there has been a few statements made regarding the land use policies of the new government in relation to the forestry and oil palm plantation sectors.

On Sept 4, Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok reaffirmed that the Pakatan Harapan’s administration will fulfil its long-held pledge of keeping at least 50% of the country’s landmass under forest cover to the international community.

She further said that this would entail stopping further expansion of oil palm plantation.

This has generated immediate reaction from the Sarawak state government which opposes the move, citing the need to rely on oil palm cultivation to lift its rural populace out of poverty.

Then we also have a fellow of the government-sponsored Akademi Sains Malaysia (ASM) supporting Sarawak and encouraging other states to react likewise.

Earlier, we had the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources (KATS) Minister Dr Xavier Jayakumar announcing a reforestation plan with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called the Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC).

His interview with The Star was peppered with the word “deforestation” in support of the TRCRC plan.

I would like to weigh in with some of my views and observations of this development.

1) From the onset, I support Kok’s intention to uphold the 50% forest cover as I’d too raised this concern in my maiden speech in the last Parliament sitting.

More than just fulfilling our commitment to the world, this is also in the interests of our own wellbeing.

Retaining the forests is not just about saving the tigers as insinuated by the ASM fellow that the only difference between oil palm plantation and forest is the absence of tigers!

We all know that forests offer life-savings ecosystem services — water cycle regulation and flood management in river basins, micro-climate and global carbon cycle regulation, and sources of timber and non-timber products, as well as home to local indigenous peoples.

2) The term “deforestation” has been a misunderstood one. Rightly or wrongly, we are saying that the sustainable forest management system adopted since the mid-1990s is not working and therefore, instead of practising selective logging, we are allowing clear-felling or destructive logging practices to happen in our supposedly managed forests. And, therefore, we need to reforest.

There is a serious need for all to get on the same page on specific forestry

related terminologies to avoid further confusions that would have negative global implications on our timber and palm oil industries, as well as our climate actions commitment to control emissions from the forestry sector.

3) Forest cover statistics published by the then Natural Resources and Environment Ministry showed that we are currently at 54.6%.

According to the land size of the country’s three regions, Peninsular Malaysia will fall short of meeting the 50% target by approximately 0.83m ha, while Sabah and Sarawak are still comfortable.

The high land-use change in the peninsula is inevitable given its higher growth rate of population, industrialisation and urbanisation.

Therefore, we need to work out a burden-sharing mechanism to ensure that as a country, we will still be able to meet our collective commitment.

4) No doubt palm oil is a versatile and highly efficient vegetable oil in terms of yield per hectare, but we must not forget that we are no longer the world’s No 1 or the only producer.

Other countries are catching up and that has already contributed to an over-supply situation that is driving down the price on top of the sustainability challenges posed by consumer markets.

In fact, the previous administration had set a cap of six million ha for oil palm expansion by 2020 under the Economic Transformation Plan (ETP). It had to be pointed out that Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas was part of the Cabinet at that time in 2009 when the ETP was endorsed.

However, as a nation, we need to set politics aside and work together to find solutions to these emerging challenges.

5) The supposed reforestation deal proposed by TRCRC for both Malaysia and Norway is a strange one. TRCRC is the brain-child of former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Badawi and his wife Toh Puan Jean Abdullah.

This outfit has been lobbying western governments during the past few conferences of the United Nations

Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and positioning itself as a qualified entity for forestryrelated climate actions in Malaysia.

It is my understanding that Malaysia has already developed and submitted its action plan for the UNFCCC’s mechanism called REDDplus (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) declaring that we are ready to implement the mechanism with international funding including bilateral ones such as with the Norwegian government.

I am puzzled where will TRCRC proposed to run its reforestation plan, and the expertise and capacity it has as a relatively young NGO.

In conclusion, I would also like to propose my recommendations on the way forward.

Given the complexity of this land use issue, I would strongly call for a tri-ministerial advisory council involving the three ministries — Ministry of Primary Industries, KATS and Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change — that oversee the relevant agencies and divisions.

This advisory council will bring us up to speed on the challenges, get our acts together and start on a clean slate to protect our forests, ensure sustainability of the timber and oil palm industries, achieving poverty eradication and equitable distribution of wealth between regions and states.

Acknowledging that land is under the respective state jurisdiction, the National Land Council would have to step in to demonstrate the political will needed to resolve this longstanding issue inherited from the previous regime.

Wong Tack is the MP for Bentong cum chairman of the Malaysian Timber Industry Board. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the newspaper owners and the editorial board.