Satellite images show BLD Plantation Bhd has cleared 900 hectares of forest since June.
The plantation is located on peat forest, which as the potential to release significant greenhouse gases if drained and developed into agricultural land.
The permitted clearing appears to go against a pledge by Sarawak’s Chief Minister to help preserve the Malaysian state’s remaining forests.
Local and international environmental activists have alleged that BLD Plantation Bhd, a Malaysian palm oil company with a less than stellar sustainability record, is relentlessly deforesting a peat-rich land concession it holds in the country’s vulnerable and oft-exploited Sarawak State.
Satellite images provided to Mongabay by Friends of the Orangutans (FOTO Malaysia) appear to show that the firm is significantly revving up its destructive operations on the Lassa Land District concession, located in Sibu, Sarawak. BLD is thought to have felled some 10,600 hectares of the 20,466-hectare plot since it obtained the lease in 2000, and new data and images suggest the company has continued clearing about 11 hectares per day between June 30 and September 18 of this year, or over 900 hectares in roughly two and a half months.
BLD’s rampant deforestation was among the topics brought up in an October meeting between Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan and a coalition of activists and specialists from NGOs including FOTO Malaysia, the Center for International Policy (CIP), Borneo Resources Institute (Brimas) and Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (SATIA), among others.
The group sought to encourage Adenan, who has drawn praise for his willingness to address and acknowledge the state’s alarming forestry situation, to put into practice more sustainable initiatives in Sarawak. Tied into that discussion were BLD’s plans to expand its operations.
“We were inspired to hear you say that, ‘We should all look at forests as a naturalist would, not just a source of dollars,” the NGOs wrote in a letter to Adenan after the meeting. “Of course, as you said, what counts is not the commitment, but the implementation.”
However, in the case of BLD, it seems that if a tree falls in Sarawak and somebody is around to hear it, the government will still not make a sound.
“It appears that [the Sarawak government] will neither take any action nor even reply to our emails,” said Upreshpal Singh, Friends of the Orangutans (FOTO) Director.
Sarawak’s tacit approval of BLD’s continued clearance of this valuable forestland — an area listed in a 1982 report by Sarawak’s Agriculture Department as nonetheless unsuitable for agriculture — will likely have drastic ecological and social consequences down the road, Singh said.
“This concession sits on very deep peat so that deforestation results in massive CO2 emission, and [increases] the severity and frequency of flooding,” he said in an email. “In addition to that, local communities are being threatened and kicked out from their ancestral lands by BLD.”
Malaysia’s natural resource-driven industries have consistently devastated its invaluable forests and peatlands. Last year, according to data from the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch, Malaysia experienced deforestation and plantation activity on more than 493,000 hectares of its land area, with 171,743 hectares affected in Sarawak alone. Furthermore, nearly all of the timber being felled in Sarawak in recent years is believed to derive from natural forests rather than plantations, potentially destroying habitats for threatened species such as hornbills, orangutans and Borneo pygmy elephants.
It’s not just wildlife that is crucially affected by Malaysia’s often-unrestrained deforestation. Land cleared for palm oil and timber is often inhabited by human communities, and the powers that be have used their positions to force out people who have been dependent on the forest for generations.
Activist Nicholas Mujah, of SADIA, said two indigenous communities, the Iban and the Melenau, are currently embroiled in land disputes with BLD, and members are being arbitrarily arrested for attempting to protect their crops and prevent further encroachment.
“It’s a hard battle down here because land investment companies are supported by the government and elected representatives [politicians] at [the] policy level, while at [the] ground level, they are protected by gangsters and, [in] many cases, by police,” he said in an email.
BLD did not respond to multiple requests for comment
A major issue, Mujah said, is that customary lands are usually not legally demarcated.
Since he started compiling court cases in the year 2000, Mujah said indigenous peoples have filed more than 400 lawsuits against companies due to land grievances. And while he said customary communities have come out on top in about 85 percent of the cases he’s seen, the legal process remains a huge hurdle, with some cases taking up to eight years to be resolved.
“Only international pressure can [stifle] the arrogant actions [of] our regime and save [the] environment,” Mujah said, adding that consumers have a special ability to publicly shame such companies into operating more ethically.
Still, Malaysia’s forestry and agriculture industries remain incredibly lucrative. The forestry sector, fuelled by Malaysia’s extensive tropical tree cover, contributed $5.7 billion to its economy in 2011 and employed 210,000 people.
And then there’s palm oil. Malaysia produces 39 percent of the planet’s palm oil, and 44 percent of its palm oil exports — numbers made even more impressive given palm oil is a $44 billion dollar industry that is continuously growing.
BLD, for its part, netted a profit of just over $7.6 million in 2014.
These economic realties offer a possible glimpse as to why Adenan, a self-described “amateur naturalist” who openly discusses undertakings such as orangutan conservation, has thus far failed to stem the tide of plantation development in his state, especially by firms like BLD.
“I think the Sarawak government has taken some actions to curb illegal logging, but it’s unclear what the scope of those are, and how much of a long term thing it will create,” said Glenn Hurowtiz, a senior fellow at CIP who also participated in the meeting with the Chief Minister. “I think there were other indications that it was business as usual. “
Though Adenan gave indications that he’s ready to move in a more ecologically sensitive direction, Hurowitz explained such a shift is crucial both in environmental and fiscal terms: More and more major palm oil companies, such Cargill and Bunde, have committed to sustainability pledges and are refusing to buy crude palm oil from growers who destroy forests and peatlands.
“I think Sarawak as a state is at risk of losing its market share,” he said.
But given the current state of affairs, with companies like BLD running amok in Malaysia’s forests and public officials showing signs of sitting back at letting it happen, Hurowitz expressed doubt over Adenan’s ability to rein in Sarawak’s bad actors.
“If the Chief Minister won’t even stop a company that’s engaged in as egregious behavior as BLD, it sort of puts into question his ability to fulfill his promises,” he said. “It’s disappointing.”