Forest walkabouts with the indigenous children of Malaysia have always been full of adventure and enriching education.
I visited and stayed with many families among the indigenous communities, especially for field trips I undertook over many years and for various reasons. I recall with fondness the little girls and boys who often accompanied me as guides and interpreters and “helped me take good pictures with my camera”.
I watched the children on these walkabouts and was fascinated by them. So alive, intelligent and eager to teach me the skills necessary for a day in the forest (for me) and for daily living (for them and their families). Skills like finding food, making traps, hunting small game and catching fish, tracking animals and reading the signs of the forest. I reminisce with fondness their forest songs, dances and games.
The older children knew the local names of the many species of trees, plants and animals – birds, insects, bats, snakes and fungi – in the forest habitat, all of which invariably have diverse uses (see photo at top).
The adults, especially the women and the elders, narrated a wealth of stories of their ancestors, taboos, ritual ceremonies and legends associated with their culture and customary practices (adat).
This deep knowledge of the forest is passed on from generation to generation. It’s the ethos that ensures the survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem with its remarkable abundance and diversity of flora and fauna. At the same time, the people and the myriad of forest species benefit sustainably from this ecosystem.
What forests definition tells or don’t tell
At this point I started asking myself: am I being biased when looking at forests by taking my experiences as a yardstick?
So I began a search on the different definitions of forests to know ‘what is a forest’, who is doing the defining, the way different people (ordinary people, naturalists, economists, politicians and others) and countries define what constitutes a forest.
Importantly too, I looked at how different individuals, groups and countries see forests, and the interests and reasons behind it.
To date, there are over 800 different definitions of forests and wooded areas! Rather than confusing you with a literature review, I will just highlight some entertaining examples.
In several countries in Europe, apple tree plantations are legally classified as farmlands or agricultural areas, since they are treated with fertilisers and pesticides, like in a farm environment.
Although they comprise the same species as traditional forests, Christmas tree plantations too are classified as farmland.
An amusing example is the Quiver Tree Forest in Keetmanshoop in southern Namibia. It comprises about 250 specimens of aloidendron dichotomum, locally known as the quiver tree. One only has to look at the scientific name to know that the quiver tree is not really a tree but a plant of the genus aloe.
Yet, this small privately owned quiver tree farm is called a ‘forest’ and was declared a national monument of Namibia in 1995. The purpose: to make this small desert area attractive internationally for tourists to explore this famous Namibian “ancient forest”.
The Malaysian government adopts the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s definition of a forest to define what constitutes a forest in Malaysia. The FAO has defined forests in developing countries as areas of land with 10% tree cover, with tree heights of at least five metres and a minimum forest size of 0.5 hectares. Both natural forests and forest plantations are counted as ‘forests’ (see page 15).
The government therefore claims that Malaysia is on track to meet the pledge made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to ensure that at least 50% of the country’s land mass is under forest cover.
The adoption of the FAO’s forest definition has also allowed the government and elite owners of vast swathes of land in the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak covered by oil palm trees to call their plantations ‘forests’, thus projecting a positive image of forests. This is not new: ‘greening’ Malaysia by planting oil palm trees and other monoculture tree species.
Plantations are not forests!
So is an oil palm monoculture plantation really a forest?
For the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities and major stakeholder groups in the forestry and oil palm industry, large-scale commercial plantation owners and companies (government and private), and even many ordinary people, planted oil palm trees are increasing Malaysia’s forest cover. That is the extent of their understanding of ‘forests’.
Isn’t it ironic that the Malaysian government and many large oil palm schemes now claim to be promoting ‘forests’? This is happening even as local communities and indigenous peoples have tried to draw attention to their land and forests rights being annulled and replaced by the development of big plantations – leading to their displacement from their own lands?
The gateposts to big plantations are tightly controlled. It is not hard to imagine that the power imbalances inherent in the big plantations model can create so many possibilities for violence and sexual exploitation and other abuses against workers and their families living or working in remote plantations, in particular.
There are ample documented cases of women and men from communities who, in defending their territories and livelihoods, are consistently threatened by government and private oil palm corporations.
Moreover, monoculture tree plantations are considered forests when, in fact, these plantations cause deforestation. Evidence-based research and high-resolution satellite data have tracked Malaysia’s accelerated forest loss and land degradation, driven largely by activities such as the conversion of forests to monoculture plantations.
When forests are replaced by monoculture plantations, it is a direct cause of biodiversity loss. So how can a biodiverse tropical forest be equated with a monoculture alien tree plantation?
A publication of the World Rainforest Movement, an international network of citizens’ groups of North and South involved in efforts to defend the world’s forests, summarised it aptly:
It is plainly clear that monoculture tree plantations have nothing in common with forest ecosystems. While the latter provide habitats and food to countless species of native flora and fauna, the former are basically void of biodiversity. While forests regulate the hydrological cycle, plantations deplete water resources. While plantations result in the export of soil nutrients, forests recycle them constantly. While forests provide livelihoods to forest-dependent peoples, plantations destroy the resources they depend upon.
For many decades, many NGOs, social movements, scientists, indigenous groups, farmers, foresters and concerned people have been calling on the FAO to change its definition of forests that allows plantations to be mislabelled as forests.
Yet, the FAO continues to provide a ‘green’ disguise to the large-scale monoculture tree plantations industry by defining them as ‘forests’.
Another minister, another slogan – is this the right way ahead?
The new plantations minister is calling Malaysians to “mari kenali sawit” (let’s get to know palm oil).
It’s still a long way to go for the people to “sayangi sawitku” (love MY palm oil) because – for over a century after these “sawit anugerah Tuhan” (oil palm, God’s gift) alien species were brought to Malaysia – the ministry still needs to spend big money on ‘educating’ the common people about what palm oil is.
The change in federal government in the 2018 general election saw the appointment of a new plantations minister, with a seemingly activist-NGO background prior to her political career.
Many indigenous and local communities, NGOs and concerned citizens might have wondered if this minister would do things differently and bring meaningful changes, including reforms, in the plantations sector.
There was hope that she would secure the land rights of indigenous and local communities and not allow land to be ‘forcefully’ acquired for large-scale oil palm development.
That she would ensure the basic rights of plantations workers (locals and migrants) and their families, including basic security, healthcare, a minimum living wage, safe and adequate housing, and the children’s right to go to school.
That plantation workers – especially women, young girls and boys, and migrant labourers in isolated plantations – would be shielded from gender and social exploitation.
Finally, that palm oil export revenue would be used, with accountability, for real development, especially in the deserving poor regions and communities in Malaysia.
People’s hopes turned to disillusionment. Read their keynote addresses and speeches, or just do a quick word search for ‘Malaysian minister for plantation’ and their allies, and we will find a repeated pattern of all of them always bringing up the plight of the smallholders, stressing Malaysia’s model for sustainable palm oil production (certification scheme) and protecting Malaysia’s revenues from palm oil exports.
Add to the mixture – a bunch of academics, journalists, consultants and others as mouthpieces of the large palm oil developers, companies and industry, and influential members among the political and business elite.
Hmm, I wonder if the current Malaysian plantation industries minister and her large pool of experts can impress us with how many types of forest fruits, plants, tubers and mushrooms they can find and collect from oil palm plantations? Can the ministry’s ‘expert’ actors collect a plethora of forest products among the planted trees for varied use, other than for income?
If a forest is defined as something that makes Malaysia formally reach over 50% forest cover but otherwise triggers the destruction of diverse ecosystems, then oil palm plantations are just that. If forests are what children mean when they say, “Let’s play in the forest,” they for certain do not mean plantations.
Carol Yong is an independent researcher and writer