Opinion & Analysis

Are we missing the forest for the trees? Opportunities in Sabah and the impact of the 1994 Conversion Rule
Andrew Ng ( Executive Director) · FSC Malaysia

In 2010 the estimated forest cover for Sabah was approximately 37,600 km2 or 50% of the entire state. The vast majority is under the management of Sabah Forestry Department (SFD) or Sabah Parks as protected areas.

zoomUnder SFD, the focus has shifted away from maximizing production potential by reclassifying Class II (production) forest reserves as fully protected Class I reserves. Reynolds et al. (2011) presents data for the period 1990–2010, showing a decrease of around 2,900 km2 of Class II (production) forest reserves and a concomitant increase of around 3,600 km2 in Class I (protection) forest reserves, noting the near fivefold increase in the extent of Class I forest reserves over this period. Sabah’s natural forest cover nevertheless reported a net loss of over 7,000 km2 (roughly 15% of forest cover) due to the near-complete clearance of forests outside of forest reserves and state parks. The authors additionally point out that the increase in Class I coverage is mainly a consequence of reclassifying logged-over Class II forests, rather than the establishment of new protected areas.

Of particular concern is the sharp decline in primary lowland forests, which for the main part were situated within Class II (production) forest reserves that are now severely degraded as a result of multiple cycles of extensive logging . Reynolds et al. estimate the about 700 km2 (of the original 5,000 km2) of undisturbed lowland forest remain in Sabah, with nearly two-thirds locked up within the totally protected areas of the Danum Valley Conservation Area and the lower elevations of the Imbak Canyon and Maliau Basin Conservation Areas. This threat of forest loss is consummated by the lucrative returns of large-scale plantations throughout the lowlands of Sabah, resulting in what is essentially a salvage logging operation clearing the way for the aggressive expansion of oil palm and, more recently, tree plantations. There continues to be fierce demand persistently focused on the conversion of existing forest reserves .

As highlighted by Reynolds et al., decisions and policies laid down for Sabah from the 1970s and 80s meant the pattern of forest loss through conversion was a fait accompli. While the politicians and bureaucrats responsible for those long-reaching decisions have long gone, the decisions drove further land clearing well past 1994. There is broad recognition that Sabah’s lowland forests are heavily depleted with yield data showing how historical highs in the 1970s to 80s have degenerated to current levels. The effects of unsustainable logging patterns, including shorter logging cycles, are mainly responsible for this. Forest plantations have become essential for replacing lost yield and, as a consequence, have been aggressively implemented in many forest tenures. This situation is not unique to Sabah but typical of the forestry pattern throughout Malaysia.

Sabah is unique in Malaysia as the only state currently questioning the wisdom of the trend towards large-scale conversion of forest reserves to tree plantations. FSC certification is an explicit target for SFD. SFD aims to commit forest companies and the Government to maintaining forestland, despite the overwhelming economic argument for plantations or oil palm. It is a unique and contrasting approach – recognizing that past policy has led the State’s forests and forestry sector to the precipice of collapse. Reynolds et al. suggest that, in 2014, yields would only amount to 5% of those from the 1970s. Such a staggering decline within four-decades is a sobering statistic and a precautionary tale. SFD recognizes that the survival of the forestry industry in Sabah – and indeed any future for that matter – must be built on the principles of sustainable development. The foremost imperative for the future would be arresting the current trend of unsustainable logging yields and the conversion of its remaining Permanent Forest Estate.

Sabah’s current forest management model

Sabah’s current forest management model is based on institutionalizing long-term forest planning against strong pressure for the extensive conversion of natural forests. The idea, using the Deramakot Forest Reserve as a model, calls for long-term tenures, with the extensive forest rehabilitation of core areas. This also entails a change in the status of logged-over Class II (production) forest reserve to Class I (protection) forest reserve, effectively removing these areas from production. It thus follows that in order to sustain the wood and forestry sector, some of these areas are inevitably converted to tree plantations. It is a trade-off that reflects the realities in Sabah, and likely mirrored in other tropical and Southern forests. Achieving FSC certification introduces transparency as well as economic incentives for maintaining forests. It also creates business opportunities for the sector, and ultimately secures a long-term future for the forests.

SFD aims support FSC’s global mission of promoting responsible forest management. In Sabah, FSC certification underpins the critical shift away from past unsustainable logging patterns towards long-term management. FSC certification works to prevent further forest excision while securing forest regeneration in areas that have been severely logged over. Ironically, adhering to FSC’s Forest Management (FM) Standards is more than just moving away from conventional logging, but functions as a bulwark to fend off competing interests and give the remaining forests a chance to regenerate. It is apparent that wide-scale adherence to FSC’s FM rules would cause a shift in perceptions and forestry practices in the state. If successful, it would be a clear model to other regions and countries for sustaining economic needs and protecting forests.

Taking a step back, it is worth reflecting and asking if Sabah’s plan for balancing forest conversion and protecting forests constitutes greenwashing? Sabah presents FSC with a unique opportunity to be a major reason for protecting the remaining forests in northern Borneo. Can FSC find the leadership and innovation to accept the challenge?

The 1994 Rule does not allow the unique case of Sabah to rectify past policy. Sabah’s Forestry Director and his Department have broken from the current position of other Malaysian forest managers and policy-makers. They have prioritized forests with a long-term view that unless there is a counter against overwhelming economic rationalization, Sabah’s remaining forests will cease to exist within a generation.

Excluding Sabah’s forest from this context is misguided. It would undermine a pragmatic, realistic approach for tropical/Southern forest management. We are faced with tough choices. The existing narrative will see Sabah’s forests continued to be logged at maximum yield without regard for sustainability and subsequent conversion (total forest loss). The alternative SFD envisions makes concessions that areas will be converted to meet pressure but tempers it through committing them to FSC standards while securing remaining lands from further conversion as long-term, FSC certified tenures.