Saving Our Forests for the Future | WWF Malaysia

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Saving Our Forests for the Future

30 January, 2021, KUALA LUMPUR: The COVID-19 crisis is believed to have opened the door for radical changes that are essential to safeguard our forests and help prevent the next pandemic. Tropical forest regions that experience land-use change are more prone to forest loss and if this is allowed to continue, prevention of future pandemics may not be a realistic option. Our approach to forests, therefore, has to change for the better, and as governments create policies to address the economic and social impacts of the global pandemic, there is an equally pressing need to confront issues of over-consumption and put greater value on health and nature. This is humanity's best interests.

As part of its efforts to bring to light the seriousness of forest loss, WWF recently launched the Deforestation fronts: Drivers and responses in a changing world report which provides an in-depth analysis of deforestation hotspots. Referred to as deforestation fronts in the report, these hotspots are remaining parts of large forests of global importance that are under threat. The report reveals that an area roughly twice the size of the UK was lost to deforestation globally in just over a decade. While Borneo is among the 24 countries identified as a deforestation hotspot in the report, it is crucial to know that the numbers attributed to Borneo in the report represent the summation of forest loss in both tropical Indonesia Borneo and tropical Malaysia Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak). 

Realistically speaking, Malaysia is not without its issues of forest loss. More than half of Malaysia is forested, which amounts to 18.2 million ha of forest cover. Out of this, Sabah and Sarawak (Borneo Malaysia) account for 12.5 million ha representing 68.4% of Malaysia’s remaining forest cover. Seen from another perspective, this means that Malaysia has lost almost half of her forest since the turn of the last century. For Borneo Malaysia, the report recorded a forest loss of 1.9 million ha between the period of 2004-2017. This is 33% out of the 5.9 million ha of forest loss identified for the whole of Borneo over the same period. Another report, the Global Forest Watch mentions that the primary forest loss in Malaysia in 2019 is 120,000 ha. Of this, 50,000 hectares primary forest loss occurred in Peninsular Malaysia. 

While we may be pleased to note that we still have more than half of our land covered by forest, we must acknowledge that we have lost much of our natural heritage. In a business-as-usual scenario, we will lose more forest. We need to accept the fact that Malaysia’s forest loss must command a sense of urgency within the country.

“We are deeply concerned with forest loss in Malaysia,” said Dr. Henry Chan, the Conservation Director of WWF-Malaysia. “It is a matter of grave concern. We are working with the government and relevant stakeholders to mitigate our forest loss, and to replenish what is lost from nature by forest restoration,” he stressed. To effectively combat forest loss, we must understand the drivers behind it, and work towards addressing the root causes. 
Commercial agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation globally, according to the Deforestation Front report. In many cases, the growing demand for land leads to encroachment on public lands and lands inhabited by indigenous people and communities. In the case of Malaysia, large-scale agriculture is a major cause, with forested areas cleared to create space for livestock and to grow crops.

The report urges citizens everywhere in the world to collectively play their part in combating forest loss by protecting nature where they live, and calling on their leaders to champion policies that halt forest loss and restore forests. The report also calls for businesses and policymakers to implement integrated approaches that take into account local contexts. Stronger efforts to reduce forest loss and degradation must also be part of the solution to the global climate change problem. The agriculture, forestry and land-use sectors account for about a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions, so by tackling forest loss, embracing solutions to managing forests sustainably and shifting to sustainable food systems, we can cut down our emissions. 

According to Dr. Chan, the clearing of forests for agriculture and plantations as well as infrastructure development with poor planning and lack of compliance with environmental policies also seriously threaten the habitats of endangered species in Malaysia. These clearings of forests impact orang-utans and tigers, as well as affect communities who depend on forests to sustain their livelihood. Clearing large tracts of forests also affect their crucial role in stabilising climate and sequestering carbon dioxide. And this is where, Dr. Chan says, WWF-Malaysia’s forest restoration efforts come in as a means of reviving degraded forests and creating important ecological corridors for wildlife.

In 1992, Malaysia made a historic commitment at the Rio Earth Summit to maintain at least 50% of our land mass under forest cover, which translates to 16.5 million ha. However, the commitment has not been captured in any national policy. Nonetheless, the National Policy on Biological Diversity has a target for 20% of the country’s land surface and inland waters to be conserved as protected areas or managed using other effective area-based conservation measures by 2025. The Deforestation Fronts report also acknowledges that Sabah and Sarawak have in place state policies to maintain forest cover of their land mass at 50% and 57% respectively. Likewise, there are also policies to prevent further degradation in existing forests by making certification mandatory in the forestry and oil palm sector.

Building on these and more progressive policies initiated by the Malaysian government, WWF-Malaysia embraces a ten-year strategy spanning 2021-2030 to develop solutions that could contribute towards solving global issues. In relation to Malaysia’s forests, the strategy outlines three major aspirations:

1. At least half of Malaysia is legislated under natural forest cover by 2030. This goal is completely achievable because currently, 48% of Malaysia’s land mass is already legislated under various categories of Protected Areas and Permanent Reserved Forests. Further, our analysis shows that Malaysia still has more than 50% of her land mass under natural forest cover. Legislations must include the need to protect, conserve and manage large blocks of contiguous lush forests for provision of ecosystem services and wildlife habitats, and restore degraded areas to improve forest cover. Other smaller blocks of forest are needed to provide for urban parks and recreational forests. Between a series of protected forests, we need an ecological corridor for connectivity to ensure that both regular movements and periodical migrations of wildlife are unrestricted by human activities. 

2. At least 1 million ha of degraded forest landscapes restored by 2030. While almost half of Malaysia is legislated as Protected Areas and Forest Reserves, a substantial amount of these forested areas is either degraded, fragmented or deforested. Reversing land degradation is in fact a key target of SDGs’ Goal 15. It is, therefore, a matter of pride to WWF-Malaysia that it has collaborated with the Government of Sabah to successfully restore 2,400 ha of degraded land in the Bukit Piton Forest Reserve in Sabah, and in the process, resulting in the restoration and enlargement of a habitat for orang-utans from around the area. Engagements with palm plantation companies have also resulted in another 2,400 ha set aside for habitat restoration in Sabah. On a national level, WWF-Malaysia wishes to support the Malaysian government’s programme to plant 100 million trees between 2020 and 2025 through enhanced collaboration with the government and relevant stakeholders to apply innovative landscape approaches; integrated land-use policy; socioeconomic studies; remote sensing and spatial analyses; agro-forestry approach; carbon funding mechanism and innovative solutions.

3. To promote the idea that 60% of Malaysia’s landmass can be sustainably managed to boost the green economy. The envisioned 60% is made up of the forestry sector (30% of all land legislated as forest reserves) and agricultural sector (30%). According to Ms Chereen Cheen, WWF-Malaysia’s Responsible Forestry Manager, 30% of Malaysia under sustainable forest management brings multiple benefits such as ensuring the availability and sustainability of natural resources besides maintaining forest ecological functions and services with minimal effects on wildlife. Forests in Malaysia often share common borders with agricultural lands. As such, it is crucial that agriculture activities do not drastically affect the health of adjacent forests. Apart from this, some agricultural lands located in between forest blocks have the potential to serve as wildlife corridors for species to move between the fragmented forests. For that reason, it is crucial that agricultural lands and forests must be jointly managed in an integrated manner in compliance with the principles of sustainability. 

The achievement and sustenance of these aspirations require various interventions such as spatial planning; advocacy to policymakers; incentives provided by the Federal government, commitment from state government since state governments have full powers (or jurisdiction) over land matters, private sector participation etc. Community conserved areas or “Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures” (OECM) could be a new instrument for legislating forested areas. However, in order for all these to happen, policy and regulations need to be first put in place, and with that must come a shift in the general attitude of Malaysians towards forests as a relevant part of their sustenance.

People depend on the planet’s natural resources such as the forests for social and economic well-being. As such, if we wished to ensure a better future for our next generations, we must first do our part to save our environment. If that’s done, in the coming decade, we could actually live in a world that has found the will to resolve its increasing environmental crises. 

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