The Oil Palm

Punching above its weight, part 2: Malaysia maintains globally important ‘Primary’ forests

Best available data indicates that Malaysia maintains vast forested areas. Recently activists have claimed that much of this forest has been degraded, and accused Malaysian industry and government of mismanaging forest resources.

One recent study claims that little of the forests in the Malaysian States of Sarawak and Sabah remain in a pristine condition. According to the authors, Malaysian forests have been degraded due to repeated logging or clearance over 20 years. The claim is based on spatial analysis of road building in close proximity to forest reserves, rather than detailed examination and monitoring of forest areas themselves.

There is little basis for the claim made by ‘activist-academics’. According to the United Nations agency tasked with assessing global forest resources – the FAO – approximately 20% of Malaysia’s vast forest resources are classified as “primary” forest, defined as “naturally regenerated forest of native species, where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities and the ecological processes are not significantly disturbed”. [1]

This is a globally significant area of primary forest. Malaysia is amongst the top 25 countries with the largest areas of primary forests. Most of these ‘top 25’ are significantly larger than Malaysia in terms of total land area. [2] This represents a considerable achievement for Malaysian forest management and conservation efforts.

In reality, Malaysia maintains vast forest resources, including primary forest areas and protected areas of virgin forest. Most European countries on the other hand, possess very little, if any remaining primary forests. [3]  Data shows that the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain have no recorded primary forests. [4]

Nonetheless, European activists continue to attack Malaysia, despite the country’s efforts to maintain a primary forest area approximately the same size as Switzerland.

In Sabah for example, almost 900 000 hectares of primary forests have been protected (including mangroves, virgin jungles and wildlife reserves) – equating to around 25 percent of the State’s total forest area. [5]

Table 1 Forest characteristics of countries closest to Malaysia in terms of total land area   [6]


Table 1 shows that Malaysia maintains considerably more primary forests than both wealthy and developing countries of a similar in size.

Activists in developed countries are clearly disconnected from the development aspirations of Malaysian citizens, who require some exploitation of natural resources in order to achieve comparable standards of living. Land clearing, for example, is required in some instances to open forested land for productive land uses such as agriculture. These industries provide food, jobs and livelihood.

At the same time, forest degradation has been associated with traditional farming techniques, such as swidden agriculture used in South East Asia for centuries, where farmers cleared land for short crop rotations, only to let it revert to secondary forest once left fallow.

These economic and cultural factors are frequently ignored by environmentalists when addressing drivers of deforestation and degradation. The campaign reached fever pitch when a recent ‘study’ compared forest inventories in Sabah and Sarawak, with neighbouring Brunei – a tiny state with high living standards on account of extensive petroleum and natural gas fields.

The authors argued that by excluding industrial logging from its borders, Brunei had succeeded in protecting its forests. This is a problematic comparison due to a range of factors, such as differences in size, population distribution, and mineral & oil deposits. Such comparisons are grossly misleading, and fail to take into account the complexities of both economic development, and of deforestation.

These campaign activities clearly highlight the agenda of radical environmentalists – absolute cessation of forest extraction, regardless of the needs of local populations. Despite maintaining a globally significant area of primary forests – far more than most European countries – Western campaigners insist on holding Malaysia to a higher standard. Malaysia may have achieved considerable successes in the pursuit of sustainable development, but aspirations and national development are threatened by current campaigning by environmental groups.

Malaysia is acting fully in accord with the principles of sustainable development which were re-endorsed at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro last year. There, calls by environmental activists to create a low-growth ‘eco-economy’, were firmly rejected.

1. Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Global Forest Resources Assessments (2010)

2. Malaysia is ranked 67th largest country globally

3. With the notable exceptions of Russia and Sweden

4. FAO, op.cit

5. Su Mei Toh, Kevin T. Grace, Understanding Forest Tenure in South and South East Asia – Case study: Sabah Forest Ownership, Prepared for the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO)

6. FAO, op.cit