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As Malaysian state resumes log exports, Indigenous advocates warn of fallout

  • Effective Jan. 3, the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo has ended a ban on exporting unprocessed logs.
  • The ban was put in place in 2018 in a bid to bolster the state’s timber processing industry; critics warn that overturning it will lead to an increase in both legal and illegal logging in the state’s remaining forests.
  • Any increase in logging will especially affect the state’s forest-dependent Indigenous communities, including groups that are trying to assert legal rights to their ancestral land.
  • The decision to end the export ban comes as the Sabah Forestry Department makes a push to convert 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of degraded forest into timber plantations.

Activists in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, say they fear logging will ramp up following the state government’s decision to overturn a ban on exporting unprocessed timber.

The ban was imposed by the previous government in May 2018, with the aim of creating job opportunities by supporting a lumber processing industry within the state.

As recently as April 2021, the current government indicated it supported the ban. However, on Dec. 30, 2021, the state’s chief conservator of forests, Frederick Kugan, announced that a limited export program would allow “eligible parties” to export unprocessed timber from natural forests beginning Jan. 3 this year.

The return of log exports has raised fears that both legal and illegal logging will ramp up in the state. More than 80% of the state’s lowland forests have been completely or partially logged since the 1970s, but data from Global Forest Watch indicate that primary forest loss in the state has been on a decline in recent years. After peaking at 27,900 hectares (68,900 acres) in 2014, primary forest loss dropped steadily, to 10,900 hectares (26,900 acres) in 2019 and 7,600 hectares (18,800 acres) in 2020.

Overall, however, the state has lost a quarter of its tree cover since 2001, and any further deforestation would put additional stress on ecosystems and Indigenous communities already affected by forest loss.

Adrian Lasimbang, technical adviser for the Indigenous People’s Network of Malaysia, blasted the plan to resume exporting raw timber as “counterproductive,” saying the logging industry no longer boosts the state’s economy because so much of its forests have already been stripped bare: “We have basically logged all our forests over the past few decades.

“The previous government saw that logging is not contributing that much to the GDP anyway, but I think, because of a lot of pressure, the new government had to lift the ban.”

Speaking to local media, Sabah MP Chan Foong Hin, from the opposition DAP party, warned that allowing raw timber exports could lead to the recurrence of illegal logging activities in the state. Chan said that while the ban was in place, illegal loggers had trouble moving their stock because there was no stream of legal log exports they could wash their timber into. Reopening the state to round log exports makes it much more difficult for authorities to enforce logging restrictions and verify whether logs have been sourced legally, he said.

Forest in Sabah, Borneo. The state’s forests have been devastated since the introduction of commercial logging in the 1960s, a trend that intensified with the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in the 1990s. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Indigenous communities particularly affected

Activists say logging, both legal and illegal, has had immense impacts on Sabah’s Indigenous peoples. Shrinking forests have led to tensions between Indigenous communities, who have been forced to encroach on each other’s lands to find food and water. Nasiri Sabiah, an Indigenous Sabahan who works for the NGO PACOS Trust, told Mongabay: “Among the communities, they have started fighting because community A can encroach on the area of community B. That’s happening now in the villages. It creates some issues among the communities because we are losing our water sources, losing our food.”

Lasimbang said logging degrades water catchment areas, which are home to the headwaters of rivers and streams, meaning communities no longer have access to clean water. “Normally they will use these watershed areas not just for water supply but also to collect important resources like rattan and bamboo.”

Logging forests that have been protected by these communities for thousands of years also threatens the traditional knowledge of the Indigenous societies who depend on their historical lands to practice their way of life. “When we are logging, a lot of species or food can be lost in the forest,” Sabiah said. “What the community is feeling now is the environment for that area is being changed … the fruit season, the raining season has been changed already.”

PACOS works to support Indigenous communities in Sabah to officially claim their traditional land under the state’s legislation on Native Customary Rights, which requires that communities prove they used and protected the land for generations before it was gazetted as state land. This is done by proving the community has traditional knowledge of the lands, can locate hunting grounds and even sacred sites.

The NCR process is already fraught, and with the ban on round log exports overturned, Sabiah said he fears claimants will face even greater obstacles. His NGO’s first action after learning the ban was reversed was to set up WhatsApp groups for communities living in the interior so they can easily share information about logging activities in their area, and mobilize to take action against loggers encroaching on NCR land.

Rainforest degradation for timber production in Sabah, Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Supporting an export industry

In its 2022-2035 action plan, the Sabah Forestry Department notes the state has allocated 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of degraded forests for the establishment of timber plantations, on which 160,000 hectares (395,000 acres) of plantations have already been set up. The plan calls for an additional 240,000 hectares (593,000 acres) of new timber plantations to be established by 2035, which it estimates will bring the state’s production capacity up to 6 million cubic meters (212 million cubic feet) of wood per year.

Upfront costs of establishing forest plantations are high, estimated by the forestry department at 10,000 ringgit ($2,390) per hectare, or about $970 per acre. Lasimbang said allowing logs harvested in Sabah to be sent to global timber markets is key to attracting the forestry investors the state is looking for: “Without the ability to sell those logs, it’s difficult to fund the development of the land.”

It’s a decision that Lasimbang said will increase pressure on Indigenous communities whose ancestral claims overlap with state land that is deemed “degraded forest” eligible for plantations: “Now, with the opening up of the logging, it will accelerate the conversion of forests to plantations again, and indirectly it will definitely involve Indigenous peoples’ land, territories.”

Banner image: A pair of proboscis monkeys in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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