Environmentalists should get their facts and figures right before bashing Sarawak’s record.
In an article published on the Borneo Post website today, Datu Len Talif Salleh, deputy permanent secretary to the Ministry of Planning and Resource Management, spoke out strongly against the ridiculous claims made by Western media and blogs that Sarawak is aiming for 90% deforestation by 2020.
Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in an article published on March 10 in the British newspaper The Independent, wrote that “only five per cent of the primary forest is left where it was nearly 100 per cent untouched in the 1960s”.
Len, quite rightly, regards this as a claim that “even small children would find preposterous”.
He is quoted as saying that 80% of Sarawak’s 12.4 million hectares is forested, making the total forested area of Sarawak just under 10 million hectares.
Those who claim that only 5% of the natural forest is left say everything else is secondary growth since logging.
So the argument must centre on the composition of this forest. Several sources mention a figure of 70% as being the portion of Sarawak’s landmass that was once covered in natural tropical forest, which would have been 8.7 million hectares. Gordon Brown says this was virtually intact in the 60s. So now let’s take, say, twelve years of logging before 1981, at the rate which Brown mentions of a square mile (260 hectares) per day. That comes to a little over a million hectares. So let’s assume Taib came to power with 7.5 million hectares of primary forest left in Sarawak.
That means his contribution to the destruction of 95% of the original forest would have had to be 233,000 hectares each year, nearly two and a half square miles a day, for thirty years.
Is that possible?
Let’s say the forest has been disappearing at a rate of one square mile a day for 45 years. That would still only account for 4.3 million hectares, just under 50% of the original primary forest.
The UN estimates total forest loss in Malaysia since 1990 to be around 2 million hectares. Even if that figure was applied to Sarawak only, and expanded to 3 million since the start of Taib’s rule, that would still only be 34% of Sarawak’s virgin forest.
Whichever way you look at it, that figure of 95% simply does not compute.
Len maintains that “Sarawak wants to turn only 25 per cent of its vast forest into agriculture land”. So should we believe him? He goes on to say:
“The state’s land use policy is drawn to make sure 6 million hectares out of 12.4 million hectares are under permanent forest estates and 1 million hectares under totally protected areas (TPA).
“Over and above, the state has native customary land (NCL) which is in fact agriculture land by definition and part of state land which are still under secondary forest to make up that 80 per cent forest.
“We want to open some of this secondary forest area for oil palm which is a strategic crop by way of oil palm development as well as smallholding estates in 2 million hectares out of the 12.4 million hectares.”
So of the 10 million hectares of total forest, that’s 7 million that’s permanent or protected. All news sources put the current figure of deforested NCR land for palm oil at around one million hectares, so that leaves two million to be developed, one million of which will be the continued clearing of land for palm oil plantations and the other million will be smallholding estates, some of which will be agricultural joint ventures. The government has said many times that its target for palm oil is two million hectares.
So if, eventually, between two and three million hectares of forest is cleared for cash crops, that would make Len’s figure of 25 per cent about right.
Total revenue from palm oil was 4.56bn ringgit last year, making it the third largest foreign exchange earner behind petroleum and liquified natural gas. The expansion of the palm oil industry is vital to maintaining the pace of development until electricity generation, and the high-tech and other specialist industries taking shape in SCORE – aluminium, manganese, polysilicone – are established enough to become the main engines of growth.