How transparency can protect Malaysian forests

Michel Gary is Programme Coordinator in TI’s Forest Governance Programme. In the wake of a new report by TI Malaysia, he discusses the urgent need for transparent forest governance to safeguard the country’s timber.

Logging is big business in Malaysia. Stretching across more than half of the country, Malaysia’s vast forests don’t just define the landscape, they also drive the economy. But they’re shrinking fast. Taking advantage of poor oversight mechanisms, loggers have felled 8.6% of the total forest in the last twenty years. According to reports, as much as 25% of this was extracted illegally.

Photo:Okko Pyykkö

For those battling climate change, these figures are worrying. Deforestation is already responsible for 18 per cent of annual greenhouse emissions, and illegal logging is speeding up the process. It is estimated that, should a future REDD mechanism be agreed, over US$28 billion per year could be channelled to developing countries for REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) activities. Without addressing corruption in the forest management sector, they may reap little return on their investment.

In response to these concerns, Transparency International has created a Forest Governance Integrity Programme. Its latest report, produced with Transparency International Malaysia, calls for strong transparency and integrity rules to make sure that sensitive forest areas in the country are properly protected.

Take, for example, Belum forest in the Malaysian state of Perak. Belum forest is often cited by the local press in reports on illegal logging and land clearing. However, such illegality applies only to the Royal Belum State Park which hosts lush biodiversity and is known as a haven for wildlife. While the park is a protected area, logging is allowed in the majority of the southern part of the valley.

A local newspaper reported that logging operations were taking place in state-land forest in Perak for conversion into oil palm plantations. It seems, however, that this occurred outside of the State Park, where logging is actually legal, although the whole Belum Valley could arguably be considered as a sensitive area due to its biodiversity and the risks that deforestation entail, such as soil erosion. This raises the question of how the environmental impact of such activities are assessed, and how this is factored into decisions on whether logging is allowed or not.

The case of the Belum valley shows that the zoning of forests – defining what can be logged and what should be left untouched – and the issuance of logging licenses – deciding what companies have the right to log – are particularly crucial issues. These are two of the major governance risks identified in the report, which also comprises concrete recommendations to support anti-corruption efforts in forestry in Malaysia – such as resorting to open tenders to award logging concessions.

The full report is available for download here.


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