The overall area of Malaysia is approximately 330,000 square KM (gov.my) subject to the climate of Tropical East Asia; a forest climate which “…without human impact, would be covered in some sort of forest” (Corlett, 2014, p.22). Garrett Hardin described, in a 1968 paper, a concept to help understand natural resource use in general, and forestry in particular; “The Tragedy of the Commons” relates to the conflict between individuals pursuing their own self-interest and the existence of mutually beneficial resources of a society. The degree, structure and plausibility of sustainable forest management depends upon multi-faceted aspects of a particular nation including the degree of poverty, maturity of agricultural practices and level of corruption. Palo and Lehto (2012) note that in Malaysia the replacement of forest with rubber and oil palm was already well underway by the mid nineteen seventies. Thus, not only corruption, but institutional and socio-economic processes affect biodiversity, particularly related to forestry.
Trade-offs between sustainability and gross domestic product have often been used as justification for depletion of natural resources worldwide: Indeed, more than most tropical countries, the exploitation of tin, rubber and palm oil under stable political systems in Malaysia has allowed development and alleviation of poverty (Palo and Lehto, 2012, p354). This topic examines some aspects of forests applicable to many territories in the world but with particular focus on Malaysia.
Transparency International Malaysia (2013, p3) outlines the official definition adopted by Malaysia of a forest as deriving from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization: “Land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10 percent, or trees able to reach these thresholds ‘in situ’. Orchards, urban parks and other agriculture tree crops are excluded as a forest”. Malaysian forest is 130 million years old and can be divided into three types: inland forest, mangrove forest, and peat swamp forest.
Three basic forest functions have been suggested as pathways for consideration of forest biodiversity and linkages with human activity: productive functions, protective functions and socio-economic functions (FGI, 2014). Productive functions refer to wood and non-wood forest products, the latter including food, medicinal plants and animals, aromatics for cosmetics and perfumes and fibres for fabrication. Protective functions refers to the moderating role of forests and their surroundings in soil and hydrological systems; maintaining stability in clean water, and reducing impacts of flood, erosion, avalanches and drought. This forest function also applies significantly to agricultural biodiversity and rural livelihoods. Socio-economic forest functions refer to the role forests play in protecting employment and cultural, spiritual and recreational value.
Malaysian inland forest zones can be categorised as developed from climatic regions as follows: “lowland Dipterocarp forest (0-300 m above sea level (a.s.l.)), hill Dipterocarp forest (300-800 m a.s.l.), upper hill Dipterocarp forest (800-1100 m a.s.l.), oak-laurel forest (1100-1600 m a.s.l.) and montane ericaceous forest (above 1600 m a.s.l.)” (Suratman et al., 2015, p.491 and see also Corlett, p40). Forests at these elevations are characterized by a variety of structural features and an attendant variety of threats from human populations. More generally, Malaysian forests are comprised of, in order of ascending altitude: mangrove forests, peat swamp forests and inland forests, and all of these are threatened by diverse processes.
Mangrove forests occupy nearly 600 thousand hectares, half of which lies in the state of Sabah. The low-elevated peat-swamp forests occupy around 1.5 million hectares in Malaysia, 70% of which lies in Sarawak. Inland forests (Lowland, hill and upper Dipterocarp forest) occupies the remainder of the total of 18 million hectares of forests in Malaysia (Transparency International Malaysia, 2013, pp4-6).
Towards the closing of the 19th century, as the coffee harvests of Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and Malaya were ravaged by the Bee Hawk Moth and Brazilian production drove down the price of that commodity, the rubber plant was imported to Malaya. At around this time the automobile industry began fitting pneumatic tyres to wheels and the price of rubber exploded. Zainal (2011) notes that the combination of Charles Goodyear discovering vulcanization in 1839, J. B. Dunlop developing the pneumatic tyre, and North America’s production of 8 million cars with air-filled tyres in 1910 led to a shortage of rubber and a surge in price per pound to 5USD.
Henry Ridley, the first Scientific Director at the Singapore Botanic Gardens (1888 to 1911) had been a strong advocate of rubber, known to have carried packs of seed which he would place into the pockets of potential cultivators (Kelly, 1993, p.66). ‘Rubber Ridley’ was responsible for establishing mechanisms by which a tree could be tapped for as long as 30 years, as well as propagating the crop, physically and socio-politically, in Malaya. Rubber was even more profitable than tin and has been a generator of substantial revenue and accounted for a high proportion of total Malayan exports. At one time (1973) Malaysia’s contribution of natural rubber accounted for almost half of the world’s supply (Cho, 1978).
Army Salvage Depot, 1942. Public Domain.
Most of the profit from this rubber boom was received in Penang (Goh, 2014) the then Federated Malay States government encouraging rubber growing via low land rents, low duty on rubber and productivity experimentation. The predominantly British-owned estates, accounted for the vast majority of production; 60 percent of the planted area was estates, 75 percent of these European-owned, with 40 percent smallholdings (Drabble, 1991). These estates benefitted from economies of scale and used cheap Indian labour shipped in under the auspices of the government and sometimes suffering appalling conditions. Today Malaysia continues to excel in rubber research, both synthetic and natural. Ritchie, 2004 notes that recently a Malaysian inventor patented a process to transform old tires into the equivalent of virgin latex. Malayan Independence in 1957 did little to affect the general trajectory of tin and rubber mining in Malaysia, though the destination of profits to non-Malays continued (Drabble, 1991).
Legislation effectiveness and ecological risk in Malaysia can be observed through the lens of the feasibility of sustainable living by indigenous populations, whose lives are structured around natural resources. In Malaysia, amongst the Orang Asli, Aziz et al. (2013) note ambiguity in policy has led to degraded and unbalanced biodiversity in the following four specific areas: hunting, fishing, harvesting of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), and land use. In terms of land use, forest conversion to plantations constitutes a clear threat to both biodiversity and livelihoods of forest-dependent people as discussed above. Other than the general threat to biodiversity, the immediate resource depletion is reflected by availability of NTFPs: such products such as rattan, honey, bamboo, forest fruits, Rafflesia buds and so on.
The National Forestry Act of 1984 permits Orang Asli to collect NTFPs but practically there exist significant obstacles to this, not least, their diminishing existence. Fishing and hunting have depleted stocks of animals throughout remaining forests (Mohd Azlan, 2006). Attempts to make provision for an increasingly marginalised and concentrated Orang Asli have seemingly been ad hoc and not sufficiently complex; stocks of fish and terrestrial animals have radically reduced. The present situation of the Orang Asli, who traditionally have lived in balance with nature in this area, might be viewed as reflecting facets of ecological development, causes and effects. Effective strategy to decrease ecological damage while developing monocrop agriculture, particularly rubber and palm is in in its infancy and, it is sometimes argued, subjugated to economic growth: “In the developing world, agriculture is a socioeconomic activity commonly driven by technocratic economic planning known as development policy” (Abdullah and Hezri, 2008, p908).
Sakurai (2006) highlight wide-ranging facets to deforestation in Malaysia, amongst them: the lengthened lifespan of humans has increased population and led to great global changes in the provisions they demand (cosmetics and processed foods for example); after World War II, especially during the seventies, Japanese demand for wood was exceptionally high. Indeed, the deforestation in Malaysia is systemic, the dimensions of that system spatio-temporally diverse in origin and scale. Local responses to systemic demands must radically reform through good governance if they are to preserve and replenish already severely depleted Malaysian forests (Transparency International Malaysia, 2013). Tropical tree species genetic variability is high, in order that particular species can cope with changing conditions. Thus, forest tree species are highly adaptable, if given time to adapt. Yet wholesale removal of species does not allow for adaptation without a reinstatement of a population capable of adapting (Lee et al., 2000). The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has recorded the steep downward trend of forest cover in Malaysia between the 1990s and early part of this century. This trend has continued and 18 million hectares of forests in Malaysia remain (Transparency International Malaysia, 2013, pp4-6). Malaysia had the world's highest rate of forest loss between 2000 and 2012 (Butler, 2013).
Ambiguity in classification makes it extremely difficult to determine actual rate of deforestation in Malaysia. However, the UN states that “Malaysia's deforestation rate is accelerating faster than that of any other tropical country in the world” and notes that in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010 Malaysia lost an average of almost 100,000 ha (0.43% of its forest cover) per year, or a total of nearly 9 percent of its forest cover (UNREDD,2015). The remaining forest faces threats from unsustainable logging, the illegal removal of forest products and encroachment.
In 2012 to 2013 nearly seven (6.6) million cubic metres of logs or sawn timber was produced in Malaysia (forestry.gov.my) with the attendant reduction in the chemical complexity of forested areas (Nykvist, 1998). in showing the Contributions of the Agricultural and Manufacturing Sectors to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Malaysia, Ratnasingam et al. (2013, p601) highlight the effective swap that has occurred over the last fifty years; in 1970 the agricultural sector contributed 29% of GDP, falling to 8% in 2010: over the same period the manufacturing sector moved from 14% to 25%.
This trend away from traditional agriculture towards manufacturing has undoubtedly affected the logging scene in various ways. Commercial logging "has become exacerbated by the complex dynamics of Malaysian federal-state fiscal relations, monetary politics, cronyism and international demand for tropical timber" (Jomo et al. 2004, p1).
Given this complex and dynamic situation the distinction between well-intentioned innovations and lobbying activity can seem blurred, as interests and stated interests are manifested through popular media (Pinso and Vun, 2000; Lagan et al. 2007). The commercial sector, for example, plays a part in setting parts of the academic agenda through strategically supporting specific projects with which benefit current stakeholders sometimes to the detriment of biodiversity. Knock-on effects can exacerbate systems which support logging, cleared land, for example influencing plantation economics through land availability. One response to runaway logging is the practice of certification, a market-driven, institutional system that provides some assurance that a particular producing organisation is managing forests with a particular quantifiable level of sustainability (Shiraishi and Tachibana, 2003).
The extent of impact of cash crops on the forest is significant:
“The total area of oil palm plantations increased from 3.5 to 13.1 Mha between 1990 and 2010 at a mean annual rate of approximately 7%. Over this 20 year period, the direct conversion of natural forest preceded the establishment of approximately 3.5 Mha (36.6%) of new oil palm plantations, with the remainder resulting from the conversion of moderate to low biomass vegetation types, including 1.7 Mha of shrub and grassland habitats (17.6%) and 3.5 Mha of land cover types (37.5%) that had been converted previously to field crops, agroforest or other types of plantations, and 0.9 Mha of other land cover categories (9.5%).” Agus et al. (2013 p65)
Indeed, much of peninsular Malaysia has now been extensively deforested.
The effect of regional expertise and financing for cash crops has led to Land Grabbing. In parallel, agribusiness schemes following a model described as a ‘guided yeomanry’ combine central supervision with quasi-independent small farm units enabling high rate expansion of monocropping agriculture using local farming expertise and labour (Bissonnette and De Koninck, 2015, pp2-3). Much of the accessible part of Malaysia (Peninsular Malaysia and coastal Borneo) has had its forest cover converted by the interrelated sequential processes of logging and palm oil planting,
Indonesia is being used as the theatre of expansion for this timber and palm production process. In Indonesia palm oil increased by tenfold between 1985 and 2007 to over 6 million hectares. Forest protection measures in place in Indonesia are inadequate and frequently violated, usually without consequence. Nearly 60% of protected lowland tropical rainforests in Kalimantan were cut down between 1985 and 2001 (WWF, 2015).