Malaysia to phase out Borneo logging in parts of Sabah state
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
March 16, 2006
The Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo announced it will phase out logging in large parts of its remaining rainforests.
Sabah, once home to some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, was largely logged out during the 1980s and 1990s but some parts of the state still support wild populations of endangered orangutans. In recent years, the Malaysian government has set aside protected areas and sponsored reforestation projects in the state.
The state government plans to phase out logging in Ulu Segama and Malau forests by December 2007. The area covers more than 200,000 hectares of forest and, according to the conservation group World Wildlife Fund (WWF), is home to about a third of the wild orangutan population in Sabah. WWF estimates that there are some 30,000 to 40,000 orangutans left in the wild, but these are threatened by habitat loss, poaching as bushmeat, and the illegal wildlife trade. The group says that 1,000 orangutans are poached annually from the wild, often for sale as pets for the wealthy.
Borneo, the third largest island in the world, was once covered with dense rainforests. With swampy coastal areas fringed with mangrove forests and a mountainous interior, much of the terrain was virtually impassable and unexplored. Headhunters ruled the remote parts of the island until a century ago.
In the 1980s and 1990s Borneo underwent a remarkable transition. Its forests were leveled at a rate unparalleled in human history—perhaps 80 percent of the island’s forest were lost since 1980. Borneo’s rainforests went to industrialized countries like Japan and the United States in the form of garden furniture, paper pulp and chopsticks. Initially most of the timber was taken from the Malaysian part of the island in the northern states of Sabah and Sarawak. Later forests in the southern part of Borneo, an area belonging to Indonesia and known as Kalimantan, became the primary source for tropical timber. Today the forests of Borneo are but a shadow of those of legend.
(top)Orangutan in Kalimantan, photo by Rhett A. Butler. (bottom) Oil palm plantations in Borneo, image courtesy of Google Earth.
Presently Borneo’s remaining forests are giving way to oil palm plantations. Indonesia’s oil-palm plantations grew from 600,000 hectares in 1985 to more than 4 million hectares by early 2006 when the government announced a plan to develop 3 million additional hectares of oil-palm plantations by 2011. Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is an attractive plantation crop because it is the cheapest vegetable oil and produces more oil per hectare than any other oilseed. In the current environment of high energy prices, palm oil is seen as a good way to meet increasing demand for biofuel as an alternative energy source.
While clear-cutting virgin rainforest is illegal in Indonesia and oil-palm plantations can be planted on degraded forest lands, forest clearing is permissible as long as the process is declared to be the first step in establishing a plantation. Thus oil-palm plantations often replace natural forests. Of particular concern to forest watchers is a 2-million-hectare project planned for central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. The plan—funded by China and supported by the Indonesian government—has been widely criticized by environmental groups who say that the conversion of natural forest for monocultures of palm trees threatens biodiversity and ecological services. WWF, which has been particularly vocal in condemning the scheme and has a number of scientists on the ground assessing the potentially affected region, has issued several reports on the region’s biological diversity (361 species were discovered between 1994 and 2004 in Borneo, including a mysterious fox-like carnivore).
Conversion of natural forest for agricultural purposes is also a concern in Malaysian Borneo. According to data from the United Nations, Malaysia’s deforestation rate is accelerating faster than that of any other tropical country in the world. Analysis of figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) shows that Malaysia’s annual deforestation rate jumped almost 86 percent between the 1990-2000 period and 2000-2005. In total, Malaysia lost an average of 140,200 hectares—0.65 percent of its forest area—per year since 2000. For comparison, the Southeast Asian country lost an average of 78,500 hectares, or 0.35 percent of its forests, annually during the 1990s.