The Oil Palm

Punching above its weight, part 1: Malaysia maintains vast forest resources

Malaysia, although relatively small in size, is endowed with some of the largest tropical forested areas in the world – according to the best available scientific data, including satellite imagery and international monitoring programs. Nonetheless, Western activists have attempted to deny this fact, as part of a campaign to oppose productive Malaysian industries.

The campaign is an attempt to stymie Malaysian development by limiting Malaysian extractive and agricultural industries. It lacks scientific basis and fails to consider the social and economic needs of Malaysian communities. In contrast to the Western development model – where forests were cleared during industrialisation without regard for conservation – Malaysia is following a sustainable development path. Agricultural expansion is limited to designated areas, and biodiversity is supported by vast forest reserves and strict forest protection in areas identified as particularly important for achieving targeted conservation outputs.

The United Nations agency responsible for monitoring global forest resources – the FAO – recorded Malaysia’s total forest area at over 20 million hectares in the latest Global Forest Resource Assessment (2010). [1] This equates to 62% of Malaysia’s total land area. This is ignored in anti-forestry rhetoric. The FAO’s Global Forest Resource Assessment is generally accepted as the best available global forest inventory.

Almost 20% of Malaysian forests – equalling an area roughly the size of Switzerland – are classified as primary forest. [2] These forests are the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forest, providing a range of environmental services.

Other datasets corroborates that Malaysia maintains vast forest reserves. Peer reviewed studies of Malaysian forests using satellite imagery shows over 70% of Malaysia was covered by forests during 2000-2005. [3] This is supported by satellite imagery collected and analysed by NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory. It shows that over 25 million hectares – or around three quarters of Malaysia – is covered by a significant forest canopy. [4]

Those familiar with Malaysia can attest to the rich forest landscapes, and the environmental benefits they provide. These forest landscapes include a flora, estimated to contain about 15,000 species of higher plants, with diversity of vertebrates including about 300 species of wild mammals, 700 to 750 birds, 350 reptiles, 165 amphibians and more than 300 freshwater fish species. [5] Many of these exist only in Malaysia (i.e. endemic).

Malaysia has protected significant forest areas to safeguard this vast biodiversity. It has designated more than 5 million hectares of forests – over 15% of its total land area – as formally protected areas.

In doing so, this exceeds protected area requirements for conserving national biodiversity as specified under the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). [6]

Forested lands which do not fall under formally protected areas are managed sustainably by state forestry authorities, using Sustainable Forest Management Practices such as ‘selective harvesting’, which ensure that only certain species are harvested while maintaining the forest characteristics in the surrounding area.

The environmental campaign against Malaysian land-use not only conflicts with the best available data – it is also callous, demanding Malaysia forego the economic benefits secured by Western nations through utilising forest land for development.

Despite the campaign, Malaysia has embraced the challenge, acknowledging that national development cannot follow precisely the same model enjoyed by western countries during their rapid industrial revolutions. In contrast to Western countries, who developed on the back of extractive industries for raw materials such as natural forests, Malaysia’s land use planning demonstrates strong commitment to sustainable development and maintenance of its forests & associated environmental benefits.

1. Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Global Forest Resources Assessments (2010)
2. ibid
3. Namita Giree, Stephen V. Stehman, Peter Potapov and Matthew C. Hansen, ‘A Sample-Based Forest Monitoring Strategy Using Landsat, AVHRR and MODIS Data to Estimate Gross Forest Cover Loss in Malaysia between 1990 and 2005’, Remote Sensing (2013), 5, 1842-1855.
4. Sassan S. Saatchia, Nancy L. Harris, Sandra Brown, Michael Lefsky, Edward T. A. Mitchard, William Salas, Brian R. Zutta, Wolfgang Buermann, Simon L. Lewis, Stephen Hagen, Silvia Petrova, Lee White, Miles Silman, and Alexandra Morel, ‘Benchmark map of forest carbon stocks in tropical regions across three continents’, Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2011), vol. 108 no. 24
5. ‘Malaysia – Country Profile’, Convention on Biological Diversity, accessed at:
6. ibid