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Is Sarawak deforested?

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Lim Swee Bin caught up with Brimas director Mark Bujang and seized the opportunity to find out the real extent of deforestation in Sarawak. Is it 30 per cent or 85 per cent of the state’s total land area?

Mark Bujang, executive director of Brimas

I met Mark Bujang, the Executive Director of Borneo Research Institute Malaysia Sarawak(Brimas) recently and seized the opportunity to clear some points with him, in light of the ongoing conflicting information on the extent of deforestation in Sarawak – with figures ranging from 30 per cent to 85 per cent of the state’s total land area.

Mark, who is a geologist trained in the University of Otago in New Zealand, has been with Brimas since 1998. This NGO is actively involved in defending indigenous communities against development intrusions onto their lands. Brimas does comprehensive mapping of traditional lands and forest use, and its maps are tendered as evidence in support of Native Customary Rights land claims in court.

Could you define deforestation?

Deforestation is an act of clearing the jungle either by logging or agriculture.

Does deforestation mean total decimation of the trees and other vegetation?

No, unless it is clear-cutting. Deforestation is a thinning of the forest.

Do you mean then that deforested areas still look green?

Yes. You can have deforestation and the area still looks green because smaller trees and other vegetation are still there.

Could you clarify what Brimas means when it says that 85 per cent of Sarawak’s land area has been deforested?

We mean the areas where activities have been carried out on virgin forest. The figure covers all types of activities – logging, plantations and farming. Logging and plantations contribute more to deforestation than farming by the communities, though the authorities like to lay the blame on the practice of shifting cultivation by local communities. Logging alone accounts for nearly 60 per cent of the areas deforested so far.

The 85 per cent figure includes areas of forest which have not been totally cleared but are thinner compared with pristine forest. As said earlier, deforestation does not mean everything has been cleared.

Some parties have expressed doubt and have even called your 85 per cent figure a “myth”. A friend who has worked in the Lun Bawan and B’ekalalan districts told me the forests are still there.

I am not surprised. Samling (one of the top five logging companies in the state and a global giant in the timber trade) just began logging in these two districts about two years ago. Of course, you still see trees and green. The community there – the Kelabits – are already affected. They have heard of other communities hit by loggers and are organising themselves. They have formed an NGO to stop the encroachment.

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We are not the only ones on this issue. The Bruno Manser Fund, for example, is active in highlighting deforestation in the state, especially with the Penans. In fact, they are having a “Stop Timber Corruption” petition campaign right now.

If I want to see for myself how things are, I guess I will have to fly over Sarawak in a helicopter?

A free and easy way is to go to Google Earth’s satellite images. You can see continuous light-brown lines curving, twisting and criss-crossing the forest. These are logging tracks and are usually found on the top of mountain ridges. They are the best evidence. Logging tracks means logging is on. The worst of these are in the Baram and Belaga districts in the northern and central regions respectively.

You can also see the contrasts. In Brunei, you will see dark green which shows pristine forests. Cross the border into Sarawak and you immediately see a lighter green which means thinner forests. Go along the coastal areas and you will see red and brown blocks. These are the plantations. For a view of this fact, please see these satellite photos here.

If you fly into Sarawak, the first thing you see is that all the land in the coastal areas has been cleared for oil palm plantations. As you go further inland, you see the tell-tale tracks which, as I have said, are the best evidence of logging.

But, if the forest areas are just thinned down and not cleared, are there effects on the wildlife?

Once there is logging, the environment is already affected and the bio-diversity is changed. Land is compacted by the Caterpillar tractors and heavy trucks moving up and down with the loads of timber. Rivers get silted, dirty and unfit for life. There is a Greenpeace report on Sarawak’s plantation areas which discusses the effects.

As we have seen, first there is logging. Then, when all the timber is harvested, the area is converted to plantations. That is when clear cutting, or total decimation of the forest, happens.

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I am thinking of your famous hornbills.

You seldom see them nowadays. Before, you can see them flying around, even in towns like Miri. Now, even in the rural areas, it is tough to spot them.

Let’s talk about plantations. What is the history on this? When did plantations start in the state?

The development of plantations became aggressive from 1997. Before that, the state government was experimenting but did not succeed until they came up with the new concept of NCR (Native Customary Rights) development. The said purpose is rural development and natives were promised 30 per cent of shares in joint-venture schemes.

Now, 10 to 12 years later, complaints are coming in from the communities that they did not get much benefit. To-date, they have only received irregular, small, one-off payments. The promised dividends never came and they kept being told year after year that the companies were not doing well. There is no transparency in the accounts of the companies, and the communities have been left in the dark though they are supposed to be shareholder-partners.

What is the total area already converted into plantations?

Our mapping puts this at about 30 per cent of Sarawak’s land area. The state authorities define plantations as “forests.”

You have mentioned that the state government intends to develop 5m hectares of plantation out of the state’s total land area of 12.4m hectares. How do you arrive at this figure? Are they to be found in any official source?

The development of plantations is now included in the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (Score) masterplan. The figure of 5m hectares cannot be officially found anywhere, even under Score. The Sarawak Ministry of Land and Development has said it is targeting to open up 3m hectares of oil palm plantations. The Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation has said it plans to develop 2m hectares of industrial tree plantations. Other than these, we have only conflicting information from the Chief Minister and his other ministers. So, we take 3 million plus 2 million and get 5 million hectares. Most information – on the target areas to be developed and actual area executed – is not revealed.

What is an industrial tree plantation?

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Industrial trees are those you plant for manufacturing purposes. In Sarawak, the main industry being supported by such plantations is paper-making. Two types of trees – eucalyptus and acacia – have been selected, and planting started in 2003. Both these trees are foreign to Sarawak and are a serious cause for concern. Acacia and eucalyptus trees are known to drain the moisture and nutrients of the soil preventing other plant life from growing in the area. These trees are also a fire hazard as their dried leaves catch fire easily – as in their natural habitats they need forest fires to propagate their seeds.

Your Brimas map showing the 85 per cent deforested areas and types of activity made an impact on a lot of people because it lays out in vivid and shocking proportion the extent of disturbed and destroyed pristine forests. How did you arrive at the demarcations shown on the map?

The information in our maps are derived from maps which we obtained from the Land and Survey Department, Forestry Department, EIA reports and also from restricted maps which we managed to get from friends. Unlike state authorities, we do not include plantations under the definition of “forests”. Our map shows only very few patches of pristine, virgin forests left – these are the green patches at our border with Kalimantan. Logging concessionaires are packed tightly like jigsaw pieces against each other. There is no area left untouched in between for the indigenous communities or wildlife. Please see the land use map below:

Map of forest use in Sarawak (click to expand) - Courtesy of Brimas

Finally, may I have your personal comments?

The government is always blaming the natives for the deforestation through their practice of shifting cultivation. We dispute this. The indigenous communities have been doing shifting cultivation since time immemorial, within their territorial areas. They did not impact the forest much. Ever since commercial logging and plantation began in the 1960s and peaked in the mid-1980s till mid-1990s, we have seen massive and systematic deforestation, which is not sustainable and which directly impacts the environment and the life of local communities.

Lim Swee Bin is an ex-journalist who left mainstream media because she could not practise real journalism. Her concern for the people of Sarawak has prompted her to take up her pen again. She coordinates an internet mailing list called Focus on Sarawak.

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