Lim Teck Wyn, technical director of Resource Stewardship Consultants and a committee member of the Malaysian Nature Society, says that imprecise legal definitions exacerbate the issue.

“The current forestry and land use planning laws do not distinguish between natural forest and timber plantations,” he said. “The United Nations definition of ‘forest’ includes industrial monocultures. This means that rich jungle that is full of wildlife can be cleared and replaced with a crop of trees of all the same age and species. This goes against what most people would expect of a ‘forest reserve.’”

Peninsular Malaysia has some 5.8 million hectares (14 million acres) of forest, covering 44 percent of its land area. Between 2000 and 2012, Malaysia had the world’s highest deforestation rate, and it is estimated that 35 percent of timber produced in the country is illegal. In response to the growing loss of its forests, the federal government declared a 6-million-hectare (14.8-million-acre) cap on deforestation for palm oil in 2019. But at current rates of forest loss and with minimal enforcement, it’s unclear how such regulations will fare.

What’s more, the nation’s existing forest is particularly hard to protect. According to Malaysia’s Tropical Rainforest Conservation & Research Centre (TRCRC), approximately 60 percent of rainforests in Peninsular Malaysia are dominated by the Dipterocarpaceae family of trees, of which 93 species are considered threatened. Their reproductive cycle is unique and slow. Seeds are produced only every five to seven years. However, with increased forest fragmentation and the loss of tree biodiversity that occurs when forest reserves are repurposed and deforested, the number of trees that go into fruiting at any point is greatly reduced. Their seeds are also high in water content, which makes them unsuitable for storage in a seed bank, meaning they must be germinated immediately in the ground or not at all.

No buffer zones

What’s striking about Malaysia’s national parks, besides their obvious ecological value and beauty, is the lack of protective buffer zones or green belts around them. Consequently, as Lim points out, “logging often comes up right to the border of Taman Negara and often illegal tree-felling takes place ‘inside’ the park boundaries.”

The Pertang River, which crosses the Taman Negara’s northern stretches. Photo by Chris Humphrey for Mongabay.

Research has found that trees at the edge of a cleared area are much more likely to die than trees deeper in a forest. This means that protected areas without buffer zones, like Taman Negara, could experience collateral damage even if deforestation activities don’t technically encroach into the park.

Allie Subramanian, TRCRC’s stakeholder engagement manager, said that a lack of buffer zones between oil palm plantations and national parks can wreak havoc on protected ecosystems. “Boundaries between plantations and forests are usually hotspots for species that are capable of living and thriving within those ecosystems,” she told Mongabay. “We have seen higher frequencies in rodents, leopard cats and boars in these zones.

“Studies have shown that the population of wild pigs in a forest fragment increase during mast fruiting events,” she continued. “The decline of predators, and an abundant year-round supply of oil palm fruits can also attribute to increasing wild pig populations. It’s this combination of fragmentation and increase in seed predators in the forest that increases seed predation, thus reducing the forest’s ability to naturally regenerate.”

Matthew Luskin, who authored an academic article on oil palm plantations’ extensive ecological footprint, agrees. “Most of Malaysia’s remaining forests are too small to retain large, wide-ranging animals, such as tigers and elephants,” he told Mongabay. “These animals are crucial keystone species that maintain the habitat and food web structure for hundreds of smaller animals and thousands of plant species. Conserving the large size of Taman Negara plus surrounding forests is thus absolutely crucial for biodiversity in Malaysia.

Palm oil plantations stretch out across a Malaysian hillside. Photo by Chris Humphrey for Mongabay.
Oil palm fruit being transported away from plantations. Photo by Chris Humphrey for Mongabay.

“Logging and oil palm plantation expansion nearby Taman Negara also threatens biodiversity for two additional reasons. First, logging and oil palm roads improve access for hunters, leading to wildlife declines,” he added. “Second, some animals like wild pigs crop-raid in oil palm plantations. This allows the pig population in forests nearby plantations to increase to unnatural levels, upsetting the natural food chain balance and causing secondary problems in the forest.”

While NGOs such as WWF Malaysia are working with officials and stakeholders to improve the industry and increase the number of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) practices, palm oil clearly remains a contentious issue for the world’s second-biggest producer of the commodity.

‘Structural genocide’

Earlier this summer in Kuala Koh village, located near the site of the recent deforestation, at least 15 indigenous Batek lost their lives in a tragedy that made global headlines. More than 100 others were hospitalized after an outbreak of disease. Pneumonia, measles and societal neglect were all blamed for the deaths, although many, including the villagers themselves, suspected environmental causes for the loss of life.

Local NGO PEKA and government officials visit the village. Photo by Chris Humphrey for Mongabay.

Village leader Mohamad Pokok lamented the loss of forest in the area. “Loggers don’t inform us [before they log] nor offer us any compensation,” he said. “Since they logged this area, we have great difficulty finding food. The animals, which we usually hunt for food, have fled. They are gone because they cannot live here anymore.”

Logging is not the only issue of concern for Kuala Koh residents. Pokok points to a manganese mine that looms beside the village. “We believe the water at the dam is the cause [of the illness] because it smells of oil, diesel, petrol, batteries … it is where [the miners] excavate. The dam is where explosive activity was conducted.”

Mohamad Pokok stands in front of one of the village’s water sources. Photo by Chris Humphrey for Mongabay.

Malaysia’s environment ministry visited the area to carry out tests on village water sources and subsequently announced they met national safety standards. Others beg to differ. Steven Chow, a dermatologist and president of the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Association, Malaysia (FPMPAM), carried out extra analyses to be certain. In a press release and public forum, he revealed the results of his tests, which clash with the government’s claims.

While Chow agrees measles did cause some of the Kuala Koh deaths, he called on authorities to consider once again if this was the main contributing factor. “When our medical team was there on 28th April 2019, there were no cases of measles,” he said. “We saw many cases of children with upper respiratory tract infections, diarrhoeal illness, worm infestation, skin infections with scabies, Tinea imbricata (a widespread skin fungal infection) and malnutrition … Out of the 140 cases seen by the Malaysian Ministry of Health only 37, the minority, tested positive for measles.”

He went on to say the measles outbreak was a red herring, and suggested contaminated water was the culprit. “The water from three sources in the village,” he said “is equivalent to Class III and not suitable for human consumption unless it is extensively treated … The content of manganese were consistently above safety levels set by the Ministry of Health. In the study by the FPMPAM, one source was found to have manganese level that was 25 times (2,500%) above the safety level.”

Long-term exposure to high levels of manganese can cause ill health and damage to the brain, liver and heart. It’s also been linked to high infant mortality rates, an issue that has affected the Batek community. The mine supervisor, Tan, denied accusations the mine had led to the deaths, claiming they had been operating in the area for years without any issues.

Numerous others also suggest that destruction of forest is to blame.

“I consider deforestation that is against the wishes of indigenous communities to be structural genocide. The survival of the communities is so closely tied to the forest that loss of the forest effectively means that the community itself is extinguished,” Lim said.

Indigenous communities in Kelantan state have long protested against logging of their native forest by setting up blockades, but they continue to struggle in the face of what they say is corporate indifference.

The area where wastewater from the mine is released. Photo by Chris Humphrey for Mongabay.
Kuala Koh villagers use water pumped from a nearby river. Photo by Chris Humphrey for Mongabay.

In a statement about the recent deaths, Colin Nicholas, founder of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, echoed Lim’s sentiment. The deaths, he said, are “a direct outcome of what happens when an indigenous community’s rights to the customary lands are not recognized, and the land destroyed and depleted in the name of progress and development.

“Without an intact resource base for their subsistence needs, without the ability to practise their traditional way of life, without full control of their lives, they became malnourished, underweight, and depressive. And their body resistance dropped,” he said.

“With their resistance being low, many diseases — whether it’s pneumonia or tuberculosis, or even diarrhoea — can be fatal.”

Additional reporting by Tracy Toh.

Chris Humphrey is the Managing Editor of Urbanist Hanoi and a Vietnam-based freelance journalist. You can find him on Twitter at @ChrisMHumphrey 


Banner image: A young Batek boy plays with a slingshot. Image by Chris Humphrey for Mongabay.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis
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