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MALAYSIA: State of Sarawak Forests: Gov’t Agency Stands by Report

Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia, Nov 29 2009 (IPS) - For a long time, activists had believed that rainforests in the vast northwest Borneo state of Sarawak were being logged unsustainably, rapidly making way for tree (acacia) plantations, oil palm plantations, dams and secondary growth. But few listened.

Their position was confirmed when the country’s auditor-general presented to Parliament last month its 2008 annual report criticising forestry management in Malaysia's largest state as "unsatisfactory". Earlier this month Sarawak state authorities denied the auditor-general’s findings.

The report produced a host of findings to back up its conclusion: depleted permanent forest reserves had not been replaced while some proposed forest reserves had not yet been gazetted. There was also no compulsory requirement for all logging license holders to obtain approved environment impact assessment reports before proceeding. Annual cut rates had been exceeded, if all forests were taken into account.

It noted that poor enforcement and monitoring had led to illegal logging and contributed to environmental degradation, especially river pollution, erosion, landslides, mud deposits and floods.

Sarawak's Second Minister of Planning and Resource Management Awang Tengah Ali Hassan (the First Minister is long-serving Sarawak Chief Minister Taib Mahmud) expressed unhappiness with the report. He said it did not reflect the overall situation as the auditors made random conclusions about the long-term management of the state's forests.

"By taking the feedback of the Sarawak Forestry Department, I believe a more balanced and accurate perspective (on the state's forest management) will be registered," he was reported as saying by national news agency Bernama.

Awang Tengah claimed the auditor-general's department did not have the forestry management expertise, and information by the state forestry department was not taken into account in the audit report. He said the auditor-general had written to him on Oct. 29 and had agreed to take into account feedback from the forestry department.

When contacted, a spokesperson at the auditor-general’s department in Putrajaya said the matter has been "resolved"—the department is accepting a commentary from Sarawak authorities but the auditor-general's report still stands.

Senior officials at the Sarawak Planning and Resource Management Ministry and the forestry department could not be reached over the phone for comment at press time.

Sarawak has 12.4 million hectares of forest within its 124,450 square kilometres of territory, of which 4.6 million ha are permanent reserves, 0.88 million ha are fully protected and 4.30 million are state government forests, with the remainder being used for settlements, towns and agriculture.

Earlier this year, the state government announced a target of six million hectares of permanent forest reserve and one million hectares as totally protected areas for national parks, wild life sanctuaries and natural forest reserves. This was described as "clear testimony of the State commitment at sustainable forest management."

The state also announced the establishment of Transboundary Conservation Areas with Indonesia and Brunei encompassing national parks and a wildlife sanctuary. Sarawak has also endorsed 33 forestry-related international treatises such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Kyoto Protocol, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and the ASEAN Agreement on Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

But Raymond Abin, the coordinator of the Sarawak Conservation Action Network— a coalition of environmental and indigenous rights groups in Sarawak—is not convinced.

Logging is big business in Sarawak: it is the world’s largest exporter of tropical hardwood. It does not help that timber concessions are granted to well-connected parties. Oil palm is another major source revenue.

"We don’t have to go far if you see what is happening to most of the rivers in Sarawak, they are all muddy. If you fly from one end to the other, you can see many areas where the forests are being logged," said Abin.

For all the Sarawak government’s efforts, the auditor-general’s report noted that 139,680 ha of permanent reserves were lost between 2003 and 2005, with another 18,322 ha depleted during the period 2006-2008. Between 1990 and 2008, close to a million hectares of permanent forest reserve had been lost, with only 4.6 million hectares remaining. The report noted the state government's announcement of its targeted six million ha of permanent reserve, but pointed out there was no indication when this target would become official.

Auditors found that "logging activity near rivers is one of the main factors for deterioration in turbidity, total suspended solids and dissolved oxygen levels" in the main rivers of Sarawak. "This not only pollutes water resources but requires huge costs to restore." Indeed, the Rejang River (Sibu, Sarikei and Kapit regions), Kemena River (Bintulu), Baram River (Miri), Limbang River (Limbang) and Trusan Lawas River (Limbang) have exceeded acceptable water pollution standards.

Abin added that the indigenous groups could see what is happening around. "You don't need to be an expert: the local people who have been living in the forest or depending on the water for their means of survival—their way of life/livelihood is being gradually destroyed by the logging."

Auditors noted large deposits at the mouth of the Seduan River and Igan River in Sibu "as large as a football field," which it said caused frequent floods in the Sibu area during heavy rains. According to flood records, Sibu recorded a flood level of 0.9 metres in 1997 rising to 1.5 m in 2007. In December 2008, Sibu experienced its worst floods since 1963. The Sibu division of Sarawak had lost over 350,000 ha in permanent forest reserves between 1990 and 2008, the auditors recorded.

They also cited press reports earlier this year that logging activities in Bakun exceeding 40,000 ha had led to severe pollution and deposits at the mouth of the Balui River.

The law requires an environmental impact assessment to be prepared for all licenses in logging areas exceeding 500 ha before logging can commence. But in a sample of 30 permits of areas exceeding 500 ha, the auditors were unable to verify that EIA reports had been prepared before work began. Neither could they find any EIA approvals relating to those permits.

Air surveillance revealed that logging in certain areas had been carried out on slopes exceeding the 45-degree slope threshold allowed and close to riverbanks.

The auditors warned that Sarawak’s rich biodiversity would be gradually destroyed as a result of logging activities. It called for full records on flora and fauna species so that restoration work could be properly undertaken for threatened species.

One of the problems is poor enforcement and insufficient forest rangers, which Awang Tengah said was an "old episode" as corrective and improvement action had been taken.

But Abin belied his claim, saying that fear of harassment deters people from lodging complaints. "They cannot deny that there are a lot of illegal logging activities going on. The problem lies with the authorities, the people who have the power, because of their lack of enforcement."

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