KUALA LUMPUR: Plantation industries have been the principal driver of deforestation in Sabah and Sarawak over the last four decades, says a non-profit global research group.
Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor) said the two states had 15 million hectares of old-growth forest in 1973 (which accounted for 76% of their total land mass), but they lost 4.2 million hectares (28%) of forest between then and 2015.
Of the total deforestation of 4.2 million hectares, 2.4 million hectares to 2.5 million hectares (57% to 60%) were converted rapidly to either industrial oil palm plantation or pulpwood plantation, said the Indonesian-based organisation.
Total planted industrial oil palm area in the two states in 2015 was 3.1 million hectares, while the total planted industrial pulpwood area was 400,000 hectares.
“We conclude that plantation industries have been the principle driver of deforestation in Malaysian Borneo over the last four decades,” said David Gaveau, who led the study and production of a map charting plantations and the level of deforestation in Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan.
The study titled “Rapid conversions and avoided deforestation: Examining four decades of industrial plantation expansion in Borneo”, was published online last September.
The map explores delays between deforestation and establishment of industrial tree plantations using satellite imagery.
According to the study, the rapid “within-five-year” conversion has been greater in Malaysia than in Indonesia (57% to 60% versus 15% to 16%).
“In Indonesia, a higher proportion of oil palm plantations were developed on already cleared degraded lands [a legacy of recurrent forest fires]. However, rapid conversion of Indonesian forests to industrial plantations has increased steeply since 2005,” it added.
Elaborating on the matter, Gaveau told The Edge Financial Daily via email that in Malaysia, national and state-level government top-down planning seems to drive spatial planning for plantations.
“Long-term land title/leases are recognised and have been expanded into forest land to encourage commercial plantations.
“In such a formal and regulated context, the process of allocating and developing forest for oil palm has been more consistent and systematic and likely somewhat less prone to delays.
Another major difference between Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo, said Gaveau, is the much greater availability of degraded lands in Kalimantan, reducing the need for forest conversation in order to develop plantations.
Gaveau noted that with the anticipated considerable global growth in demand for palm oil and pulpwood, plantations are required to meet this need.
“Plantation companies and their shareholders, which include governments, seek to maximise marginal returns to their capital and seek access to large expanses of cheap, unencumbered land with access to reliable low-cost labour,” he said.
Gaveau noted that neither Malaysia nor Indonesia has enforced their land-use plans, and they have repeatedly modified their “permanent forest estate” to allow expansion of plantations.
Asked about logging activities, he contended that logging is not deforestation.
“Logging per se, does not cause forest clearance, because logging is done selectively, and only the large commercial trees are removed.
“After logging, the forest remains, but it has lost its original canopy cover because the large tress have been removed and networks of logging roads have been carved through the forest to extract timber from the forest.
“Therefore logging causes forest degradation. After logging, life can regenerate quickly; the logging roads become quickly overgrown, and within a year are no longer visible on satellite imagery,” he said.