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Forests to tree farms

External Reference/Copyright
Issue date: 
October 18, 2011
Publisher Name: 
The Star
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Plantation Management


We are losing our natural forests to tree plantations yet on paper, all is well because these plantations are considered ‘forests’.

MOST of the wood-based products which we use in our daily life, be it paper or wooden furniture, are made from materials which have been sourced from forest plantations.

Forest plantations are known by many different names – industrial timber plantation, industrial tree plantation, planted forest or plantation forest. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines planted forests as “forest predominantly composed of trees established through planting and/or deliberate seeding”, while the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) defines them as “a forest stand that has been established by planting or seeding”.

In essence, they mean the same thing: areas in which trees, usually of the same species, are planted by man. The tree species can be made of indigenous, local or even exotic species such as rubber, acacia and teak. However, it does not include crops such as oil palm and soy. Based on the FAO definition of “forest”, widely used and accepted globally and in Malaysia, forest plantations are considered as forests.

Growing trees

Forest plantations have been established in parts of Malaysia since the 1990s but they were not an important feature in the forest industry as timber from natural forests was sufficient to cater for the demand.

Over time, this changed and timber from natural forests could no longer fulfil the rising demand for timber and wood-based products due to two major factors – the size of natural forests had shrunk and the industry itself started following sustainable forest management practices.

Therefore, forest plantations became a viable solution to fulfil the rising demand and at the same time reduce pressure on logging of natural forests. However, this is true only if the plantations are planted in non-forested areas. It becomes an issue of concern if natural forests are cut down to make way for forest plantations.

Since 2000, such planted forest have mushroomed. According to FAO’s State of the World’s Forest 2011, they make up about 264 million ha, which is nearly 7% of the world’s forest area of four billion ha.

In the Asia-Pacific region, forest plantations have increased by 29.33 million ha in the last decade, making up for 16% of forested area in the region and supplying 10% of total production resource in this region. In South-East Asia, planted forest cover increased by about 2.8 million ha over this 10-year period, an annual increase of 2.16%.

According to the Malaysian Timber Council (MTC), forest plantations in Malaysia have expanded from 250,000ha in 2001 to 310,000 ha in 2009, an increase of 24% in eight years. This accounts for about 1.7% of the country’s total forest land of 18.25 million ha.

While the percentage of forest plantations in Malaysia is still low, it is expected to increase rapidly by 2020. The government has taken steps to increase forest plantation to counter the shortfall of timber from natural forests. Timber and timber-based products are one of the major contributors to our economy, contributing between 3% and 4% of the annual export revenue from 2001 to 2010. The Third Industrial Masterplan has set an annual growth rate target of 6.4% for exports of downstream timber industry products, furniture and panel products, generating around RM53 billion in export earnings by 2020.

This target cannot be met if Malaysia depends on natural forests. In 2009, the government introduced the National Timber Policy to set the growth direction for the timber industry, and this includes aggressively implementing forest plantation programmes. The production of logs from forest plantations is set to increase from 3.3 million cu m in 2010 to 16.7 million cu m in 2020 – an increase of 400%. To achieve this, the target is to plant 375,000ha of forest plantations nationwide by 2020 with an annual planting rate of 25,000ha.

However, recent news reports indicate that Sarawak alone has designated 1.3 million ha for forest plantations with 262,686 ha already planted so far.

Most of the forest plantations in Malaysia are acacia and rubber (also known as timber latex clone plantations).

Estates in forests

What is alarming in Malaysia is that many forest plantations are being established in Permanent Forest Estates (PFE), also known as Permanent Reserved Forests (PRF). This means that forest plantations are replacing natural forests. Statistics from the Forestry Department show a steady increase in forest plantations within PRF in Peninsular Malaysia: from 47,154ha in 1990 to 163,529ha in 2009. From 2008 to 2009 alone, forest plantations in the peninsula grew by more than 62,000ha, a 61% increase within a year.

In Sarawak, most of the forest plantations are located within PRF as stated in the MTC factsheet. Sabah Forestry Department statistics show 244,722ha of forest plantations as of 2009. It is not clear if all these are within PRF but based on the department’s website, as of 2004, about 384,115ha within PRF have been identified for forest plantations. Another 163,578ha of forest plantations have been identified within state land and alienated land.

Whilst the current expanse of forest plantations is still small compared to about 14.52 million ha of PRF in the country, there is concern that the future expansion of forest plantations will be at the expense of natural forests due to for three main reasons: land availability, financial returns and government incentives.

> Land availability: Finding land for forest plantations is not easy due to limited land and other competing land uses such as oil palm plantation development. However, replacing natural forests with oil palm or any other land use is considered deforestation whereas replacing them with forest plantations is not. Statistics on forest cover for the country will remain unchanged even if forest plantations replace natural forests simply because of the way “forest” is defined by the FAO.

> Financial returns: Developing well-managed forest plantations is financially more attractive compared to implementing “sustainable forest management” (SFM) practices, introduced by the government in the 1990s.

Under SFM, clear-felling of forests is barred and only specific numbers and sizes of trees can be harvested. Plus, a 25- to 30-year gap is required to allow sufficient regeneration before the next round of harvesting. The government also limits the volume of timber that can be extracted annually.

On the other hand, trees in planted forests grow much faster and give higher yields compared to natural forests, thus shortening the “return of investment” period. This makes forest plantations a more attractive land use option as opposed to maintaining the area as natural forests.

> Government incentives: The Malaysian government is making plantation forests an attractive option by providing incentives to encourage private sector investment.

Companies undertaking forest plantation projects are given pioneer status and enjoy tax exemption for 10 years on their statutory income. Investing companies are eligible for tax deductions equivalent to the amount invested.

Loans are also available under the Forest Plantation Development Programme, whose criteria does not clearly prohibit forest plantation projects in PRF.

For Peninsular Malaysia, the criteria states that projects must be on state or alienated land and not on PRF that are gazetted for conservation and water catchment purposes. This can be interpreted as: forest plantations can be allowed in PRF that are for production purposes, which applies to most of the PRF in the peninsula.

For Sabah, forest plantations have to be in areas approved for Industrial Tree Plantation under the Sustainable Forest Management Licence Agreement. These agreements are made mainly for areas that are under PRF.

For Sarawak, only areas with Licence for Planted Forest qualify and these licences are also given out for areas within PRF.

The current definition of “forests” does not prevent biodiversity-rich natural forests from being replaced with biodiversity-poor forest plantations. Forest plantations should not expand at the expense of natural forests. In Malaysia, they certainly should not be allowed to be established in PRF, which account for about 44% of our land area.

Any attempt to change this could mean the loss of our rich natural heritage and the benefits derived from the forests, and many of our iconic species such as tigers and elephants.

Arguments that say planting forests in PRF is due to the poor quality of a logged-over forest hold very little water in the face of the loss we will see from such a move.

This really begs the question: If we have been practising sustainable forestry management for the last 15 years, shouldn’t our PRF be of good quality, and need not be replaced by forest plantations? – Article courtesy of WWF-Malaysia


Extpub | by Dr. Radut