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Illegal felling claims will harm conservation efforts

An allegation has been made that large scale and rampant illegal felling of timber has been ongoing in Sabah, the proceeds of which, are purportedly to have been laundered outside the country, as widely reported by blogs and surprisingly thereon by various international press agencies, in print and online.

A figure of US$90 million has been quoted as the nest egg, or close to RM300 million.

If this allegation was true it implies that not less that 1 million cubic metres of timber have been illegally felled. That represents plundering of at least 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of well-stocked forest

This scale of logging if true would represent 50 percent of the timber produced from natural forest in the year 2011 or about 30 percent of Sabah’s timber production in 2010.

The Forestry Department acknowledges that illegal felling does exist in Sabah but nowhere near the scale and extent as allegedly reported. The allegations are therefore baseless and made with bad intentions (mala fide) to discredit and lessen the effort and sacrifices made by the state government of Sabah, to achieve good forest governance and Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) in the shortest time possible, despite the economic financial and social challenges.

The facts to discredit these wild and malicious allegations are as follows:

  1. The enormity of the alleged extent of illegal felling (1million cubic metres) could not have escaped the attention of the world at large. A well-stocked forest of 20,000 hectares badly logged because of illegal felling would have been easily detected by satellites and attract the attention of NGOs, environmentalists and the communities living nearby. No way could have such acts be committed and passed without notice.  Unless and until the burden of strict proof is shown the allegations are baseless and untrue.
  2. If 50 percent of the annual production of timber from Sabah was alleged to be illegal, world markets especially sensitive ones like Europe, North America and Japan, would have long ago stopped buying timber from Sabah and the enormous economic and financial implications would have been dire to the state as a whole. This never occurred because the alleged large-scale illegal logging never happened.
  3. Sabah’s long-term licences have been subjected to third party auditing (independent audit) since 2010, under the Malaysia-EC Timber Legality Assurance Programme (TLAS). The independent auditors would have detected such large scale illegal felling. On the contrary, Sabah has always been transparent and letting her forest management be opened to public scrutiny and third party auditors to attain world recognition an credibility.
  4. Reduced Impact Logging (RIL) has been introduced in 2009 with full implementation in 2010, again verified independently by third party auditors. Such an allegation of rampant illegal felling (20,000ha at least) would have been impossible to escape the attention of the auditors who are well-renowned international players.
  5. At least 800,000 hectares of Sabah’s forests are partially or fully certified under various internationally-recognised systems such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS), or the Pan European Forest Scheme (PEFC). This also covers the Sabah Foundation with at least 250,000 hectares of fully certified and 150,000 hectares partially certified forest. Many more forest areas are being earmarked for certification as Sabah has set 2014 as the year for all long term licensed areas to be fully certified. The process of certification means independent third party auditing on the ground. If such an allegation was true, why does Sabah continue to attract the attention of certifying bodies and NGOs, who want to be our partners and to assist us in obtaining verifiable and certifiable good governance?
  6. It is not lost to the world that Sabah is the first tropical region in the whole world to have a tract of rainforest certified under the Gold Standard of the FSC in 1997 i.e. Dermakot Forest Reserve. This is a model area not just for Malaysia but the tropical world.
  7. Sabah’s Ulu Segama-Malua eco-region bordering Danum Valley, is also home to the world’s Great Apes Succeed Project (GRASP) model under Unesco, whereby not less than 3,000 orang utans are now protected in an FSC-certified forest for which the state government under the leadership of Musa Aman, put a total halt to logging on Dec 31, 2007, after the policy announcement was made on March 15, 2006. This bold decision was made despite the enormous financial implications - loss of potential revenue of at least RM4 billion. Why lock up valuable rainforests forever if the administration was bent on organising illegal felling?
  8. The area of Totally Protected Areas (TPAS) reserves in Sabah is now reaching 1.3 million hectares or about 20 percent of Sabah’s total land area, even exceeding the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) standard of 10 percent. The latest addition is about 180,000 hectares - the 55,000 hectare wildlife corridor linking Maliau Basin, Imbak Canyon to Danum/Ulu Segama and the re-classification of Ulu Segama (130,000 ha) to total protected status. It must be put on record that the leadership of the current Chief Minister Musa, has seen the greatest extent of TPAS expansion in the history of Sabah, despite enormous opportunity cost of conservation.
  9. Under his leadership, SFM has improved by leap and bounds. Short-term licences that cause tremendous damage to the environment are being drastically phased out and Sabah’s forest management credibility is at its highest - an open-book philosophy whereby logging and forest management areas are all open to third party and NGO scrutiny. The good, the bad and the ugly are laid bare with the intention of improving standards and practices on the ground.
  10. The planned drop in forest revenue is also a deliberate strategy to ensure that the forests are given a chance to recover (about RM150 million a year today as opposed to RM500 million previously) and the stocks are rebuilt again in the next 20 years and this will benefit those generations to come. It would have been too easy to liquidate more forest for revenue solely and to abandon conservation and raising standard in the short term. If such a policy was pursued then there will be absolute depletion in the future. This is commonly known in economics as “The Tragedy of the Commons”.
  11. The wild and baseless allegations actually do a lot of harm to the rainforest of Sabah, not help it. A gullible audience would have stopped buying timber (most valuable resource financially in a forest) from Sabah, rendering the rainforests and the SFM efforts worthless and of no economic value. Once rainforests have no more economic value and the timber therein unsalable, then they will be threatened by alternative land uses. If SFM and conservation no longer sell or bring benefit to society, then it will inevitably be dropped as policies, despite the progress painfully gained over the years.
  12. It is hoped that those who have projected the unfounded allegations realise the enormity of misinforming the world and in the process, they have in effect hurt our conservation effort as a whole.
  13. We have reason to believe the unfounded allegations are politically motivated and not driven by any love for the environment. It distorts with the motive of derailing Sabah’s efforts and frustrating the momentum of forest management reform. The public should discard the reports as malicious and harmful to Sabah.

SAM MANNAN is director of the Sabah Forestry Department.