Forest loss appears to be accelerating in peninsular Malaysia in 2019. Much of this deforestation is happening in “permanent forest reserves,” which are supposed to be under official protection. However, Malaysian state governments have the authority to spontaneously degazette forest reserves for development. Sources say this has created a free-for-all, with loggers rushing to clear forest and sell timber.Satellite imagery shows logging happening right up to the border of Taman Negara National Park, which lacks the buffer zone typical around national parks in other countries. Researchers say this is likely to have detrimental impacts on the parks’ wildlife.Sources on the ground say deforestation is also affecting forest-dependent indigenous communities. Residents of one such community say mining – which often follows on the heels of logging in Malaysia – is also harming them.Earlier this year, 15 Batek residents of the village of Kuala Koh died and more than 100 others were hospitalized due to mysterious illnesses. The government claims the deaths were caused by a measles outbreak, but outside experts say extremely high and unhealthy levels of manganese in their drinking water due to nearby mining may also be to blame. Advocates say the loss of their forests make indigenous communities more vulnerable to disease and illness, referring to the deforestation of their homes as “structural genocide.” KUALA KOH, Malaysia — On a daytime flight into Kuala Lumpur airport, it’s hard not to feel a certain sense of despair. The land, at times adorned by jungle-clad mountains, all too often descends into rows as uniform as those on a corduroy jacket. These endless green lines, comprised of the unmistakable presence of oil palm plantations, represent agriculture that’s systematically stripped away native jungle. Many plantations appear in Malaysia’s forest reserves, which, in theory, should protect high conservation-value jungle. Yet malleable laws and vague government structures mean they are regularly degazetted. This leads to widespread deforestation and, thanks to a lack of buffer zones, harms nearby national parks. Malaysia’s marginalized indigenous people, known as Orang Asli, also live in these areas and depend on the forest to maintain their traditional way of life. When it’s cut down, they are left in poverty, stripped of their means of survival and increasingly susceptible to deadly illnesses. Some even say this amounts to a form of structural genocide. A group of Batek children living in the village of Kuala Koh. The Batek is a tribe of the Orang Asli. While widespread throughout peninsular Malaysia up to the 1970s, logging has confined Batek communities today to Taman Negara National Park and the area surrounding it. Photo by Chris Humphrey for Mongabay. Kelantan state, four hours northeast of Kuala Lumpur, provides a typical example. Around one-third of Taman Negara, peninsular Malaysia’s largest national park, fills the state’s southern stretches. At 130 million years old, it’s considered one of the world’s oldest rainforests, and is a vital haven for endangered species — vast, sprawling tropical jungle forms a home for tigers, macaques and rare birdlife. It’s also considered customary land for a number of Malaysia’s Orang Asli. Although the area remains protected, timber criminals still hack away at bordering forest, and the rest of the state has faced rampant deforestation over the last 20 years. Between 2001 and 2018, Kelantan lost around 28 percent of its tree cover, according to data from the University of Maryland (UMD). Two regions — Tanah Merah and Gua Musang — accounted for 71 percent of the state’s tree cover loss during this time. This trend shows no sign of slowing, and only appears to be getting worse. UMD detected more than 33,000 deforestation alerts in Kelantan in July this year, which was higher than in July 2018 — but not to be eclipsed by August. With more than a week left in the month, UMD has detected around 45,000 deforestation alerts in the state. Of these, some 33,500 occurred in the Gua Musang region, with many alert hotspots occurring very close to Taman Negara National Park. There, satellite imagery shows plantation expansion and logging roads denuding large areas right up to the park boundary. Satellite data from the University of Maryland show large areas of recent tree cover loss in forest reserves that border Taman Negara National Park. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch; forest reserve boundaries are from Forest Trends. This area of clearcutting in a forest reserve directly abuts the park and is actively expanding. Imagery from Planet Labs. Logging roads and deforestation have proliferated right up against the park border. Imagery from Planet Labs. Satellite images show this area is in the process of being cleared. Imagery from Planet Labs. The problem with forest reserves Beside the road leading to one of Taman Negara National Park’s northern entrances, an ochre dirt track peels away to the left. At its base, a huge tree trunk has been dumped to prevent access to vehicles. Walking up the muddy road behind it, however, leads to a storage area for timber cut down during recent clear-cutting in Lebir Permanent Forest Reserve that stretches north of the village of Kuala Koh. Behind these piles, the track stretches beyond sight into the hills, leading to the deforested area. Tan Dok Fung supervises the Syabas Tiara mine in the area. He said that his company’s mining concession comprises 100 hectares (250 acres) adjacent to a 200-hectare (500-acre) logging concession. According to Tan, loggers are clearing forest within the concessions where it’s allowed, as well as illegally outside of concession bounds. “My boss was offered the opportunity to mine within a 1,000-acre [400-hectare] area outside the National Park,” he said. “However, because a licence hasn’t been issued, my boss refused to mine without a permit. The 1,000 acres hasn’t been cleared but they have furtively gone in and [started logging] in a 500-acre area… Next to this 1,000-acre area outside the park, 500 acres has already been logged.” A long dirt road connects the storage site with the logging area. Photo by Chris Humphrey for Mongabay. The trunk of a recently felled tree in Kelantan State. Photo by Chris Humphrey for Mongabay. Tan said that government intervention to stop the logging has been largely unsuccessful. “When the government officials turn up, the [logging company] staff do the disappearing act — they have informants … They have gone beyond the 500-acre concession area and they have trespassed into the 1,000-acre zone,” he said. During a recent visit, Mongabay asked Tengku Zulpuri Shah Raja Puji, the deputy minister for water, land and natural resources, if he knew about the recent logging. “Might be; sorry, not sure,” he said and laughed. “In Malaysia, we have two powers. One is federal power, another is state power. To allow them to make the mining or timber is under state power. It’s not under federal power. But my side is under federal power. We just can only give guideline[s] to them. Whether they want to follow or not is up to them.” The lack of authority of top-level ministers highlights a growing issue with Malaysia’s “Permanent Forest Reserves,” which cover a large portion of the country’s land area, including about half of Kelantan. Malaysian governance is divided into federal and state powers, and state governments have the power to degazette reserves without any approval from the federal government, experts or the general public. And they do so seemingly at a whim. The legal flexibility of forest reserves means deforestation has become commonplace. Land is covered instead by oil palm and rubber plantations or, increasingly, durian farms. Forests have become heavily fragmented due to timber exploitation and conversion for agriculture. At times, the federal government has stepped in. Earlier this year, it sued the state of Kelantan after the state gave logging licenses to companies that were establishing plantations on indigenous people’s customary land. Yet, more often than not, the federal government’s lack of power over such matters means that most state decisions to relax protections for forest reserves go unchecked and unchallenged.