Lopsided Study on Rajang Delta (and a deplorable proposal)

Wetlands International, a European NGO, has received significant press in Malaysia and around the world in claiming that Malaysia’s longer term ecological and economic prospects are threatened by the establishment of agricultural plantations, particularly on delta and peatland areas.

Delta lands have long been exploited for agriculture. The Nile and Mekong Delta areas immediately spring to mind. Such lands are a significant resource for economic growth.

Most emerging economies also rely heavily on rivers for transport and commerce. The Rajang River in Sarawak – Malaysia’s longest river – is no exception. It has a long history of use as a vital route for public transportation and in serving the state’s economic sectors, including agriculture.

The new study by Wetlands concentrates on the Rajang Delta, which is consequently being turned into a political, economic and environmental football. Wetlands argues that agricultural expansion and drainage of peatlands in the delta will result in flooding that will effectively make the land unsuitable for agriculture within the next few decades.

The study highlights ‘failures’ in the US and Europe around land subsidence related to drainage. There is no doubt that land subsidence is a problem. However, land reclamation or swamp drainage for agricultural purposes has been a consistent feature of western and agricultural development.

The Netherlands – where the lead researcher for the study is based – pioneered the effective drainage of swampland for agricultural purposes. Over a period of nearly 500 years, the country has begun to successfully manage land subsidence processes.

Another example cited in the study is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region, which is one of the most productive agricultural regions in California. It contributes significantly to the US economy – and this has all been due to draining.

The other major example used by the researchers is the Florida Everglades, which similarly underwent a draining process more than a century ago for sugar production. The Everglades have been the subject of significant advocacy and attempts at rehabilitation – largely because the historical management of the area is likely to result in both economic and ecological failure, not just the latter.

But the larger point of these examples is that all three have provided a significant return to the regional economies, and that the process of environmental degradation is currently moving towards more sustainable management.

One reason that these areas have managed to remain productive for as long as they have, is through the use of levees and other water management systems. There has not – for the most part – been the suggestion that agriculture should be removed from the equation altogether.

To argue that those areas should never have been turned over to agricultural use in the first place is simply not logical. Any argument that this should apply to the Rajang Delta is equally spurious. There simply aren’t sufficient viable alternatives for people in the Rajang Delta region to contribute productively to the economy and raise their living standards.

Radical notion

The recommendations that the report makes are for the most part sensible. They basically involve gathering as much knowledge as possible about the existing peatlands.

Yet among the recommendations is this:

‘There remains, therefore, a fundamental choice that will need to be taken at some point by businesses and farmers, supported by government policy makers and politicians, between abandoning plantations or moving towards a more sustainable type of plantation using flood tolerant species with very limited drainage.

In practice, this generally means utilising local swamp species with valued timber and/or non-timber products that can be grown without drainage (see Giesen, 2013). However, this choice is best made before the land is prone to such severe flooding, which may preclude the planting and re-establishment of indigenous productive and valued swamp tree species in the area.

This will also mean that the oil palm sector, and other plantation industries dependent on drained peatland for production, will at some point in time need to relocate to suitable mineral soils. Such a transition is best undertaken sooner rather than later and managed over the medium term.’

What the authors are implying is that the peatlands should be conserved and restored, and that local farmers and communities should somehow return to subsistence lifestyles by living off plants that occur naturally in swamp forests.

To substantiate this somewhat radical change in living standards, the report draws on a study by Giesen (2013) – which appears to be publicly unavailable – and indicates that among the 1,000-plus species in peat forests, 95% can be used for other purposes such as medicine, food or timber, and therefore can represent an economic value to local communities.

But as with most studies that attempt to value the biodiversity of natural forest areas, this kind of thinking is dangerously flawed. If all of these forest products have such great value, why weren’t local communities exploiting them in the first place?

If valuable species exist and there is a market for them, they are worth extracting, no matter where they are or how hard they are to find. Eaglewood is a clear example of such a product. It is difficult to find and hard to get to market – but it is nearly extinct because of small-scale commercial exploitation.

This report, as technically sound as it might be in terms of projecting floods in the Rajang Delta region, smacks of the kind of research that is determined to ignore the needs of local communities.

This, in some ways, is not surprising. The report was commissioned by Norway’s development agency, Norad, under the auspices of its climate and forest programmes. These programmes have effectively paid groups such as Rainforest Action Network to lobby against palm oil consumption in western countries.

Its work in Indonesia on REDD under this programme was roundly criticised in its own internal review. The reason? In attempting to set forest areas aside to reduce carbon emissions, the Norad programme had not, apparently, considered the role of land tenure in Indonesia.

We can only assume that, like most western crusaders, Norad had simply assumed that property rights were functioning well in Indonesia, and that simply paying people not to deforest would be a reasonably straightforward process.

This is exactly the same flawed thinking that appears to be infecting the report on the Rajang Delta. The message from Norad and Wetlands International is simple: don’t let the poor develop their peatlands; let them eat trees.

#Policy News