12 Jun 2012: Report

A Desperate Effort to
Save the Rainforest of Borneo

The once-magnificent tropical forests of Borneo have been decimated by rampant logging and clearing for oil palm plantations. But in the Malaysian state of Sabah, a top official is fighting to reverse that trend by bringing sustainable forestry to the beleaguered island.

by rhett butler

For most people, Borneo conjures up images of a wild and distant land of rainforests, exotic beasts, and nomadic tribes. But that place increasingly exists only in one’s imagination, for the forests of the world’s third-largest island have been rapidly and relentlessly logged, burned, and bulldozed in recent decades, leaving only a sliver of its once-magnificent forests intact.

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Borneo Forest Clearing

Courtesy of Rhett Butler/Mongabay
Forest clearing for oil palm just outside the Yayasan Sabah concession area.

Flying over Sabah, a Malaysian state that covers about 10 percent of Borneo, the damage is clear. Oil palm plantations have metastasized across the landscape. Where forest remains, it is usually degraded. Rivers flow brown with mud.

The fate of one sprawling tract of rainforest in Sabah, originally designed to be selectively logged and provide steady income for the people of the state, tells the tale of what has happened to Borneo’s forests — and highlights a possible path to restore some of them. Covering an area of 3,861 square-miles, nearly half the size of New Jersey, the Yayasan Sabah forest tract is run by a state foundation that is supposed to oversee the selective logging of the forest and channel the profits to health and education programs.

Instead, following a pattern that has devastated tropical forests in much of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia, politicians have used the Yayasan Sabah forest as a personal honey pot, logging it to enrich themselves, finance their political campaigns, and reward their patrons.
Politicians have used the Yayasan Sabah forest as a personal honey pot.
The Yayasan Sabah forest was supposed to be sustainably logged over an 80-year period, but instead roughly 75 percent of Yayasan Sabah has been far more intensively logged. Today, Yayasan Sabah retains only fragments of its primary lowland forest, and the foundation’s revenues for health and education have nearly dried up.

“Yayasan Sabah has been a cash register for politicians,” said one senior forestry official. “Yayasan Sabah has huge area but is nearly insolvent because all the timber money has been taken out by politicians.”

Now, the director of forestry for the state of Sabah, Sam Mannan, is trying to reverse the region’s trend toward deforestation, moving forward with a plan to convert 10 percent of Yayasan Sabah to oil palm plantations to generate revenue, and then gradually restore most of the rest of the tract so it can be sustainably logged. Whether he will succeed or simply end up with even more of Yayasan Sabah being converted to oil palm plantations remains an open question.

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The Malaysian state of Sabah (marked A on the map), which occupies about 10 percent of the island of Borneo, has experienced heavy logging of its forests. Other parts of Borneo, which belongs mainly to Indonesia, also have suffered severe deforestation.
In addition to trying to turn around the situation in Yayasan Sabah, Mannan has so far successfully protected some of the last remaining lowland primary forests in Sabah. Indeed, if you travel far enough in Sabah, some of Borneo’s most treasured forest still exists. Colorful hornbills soar over the broccoli-like canopy, orangutan nests sit high in the treetops, and clear streams cascade over waterfalls.

The situation in much of the rest of Borneo is far worse. Forests in the neighboring Malaysian state of Sarawak have seen an environmental Armageddon over the past 30 years, its woodlands suffering multiple cycles of intensive logging, often a prelude to rapid conversion to oil palm plantations. Sarawak’s chief minister and his close family are under investigation for acquiring billions of dollars in overseas assets from their timber dealings. In April, documents leaked by Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission revealed the transfer of millions of dollars to bank accounts linked to Sabah’s chief minister, Musa Aman.

Meanwhile, the four Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan, which make up nearly all of the rest of Borneo, have suffered a plague of illegal logging; from 1985 to 2001, 56 percent of protected lowland forest was chopped down. From 2001 to 2008, nearly 9,000 additional square miles of tropical forest were cleared completely.

“Sabah is still way ahead of Sarawak and Kalimantan: surviving primary forests areas are being conserved, reforestation and forest restoration is happening, and encroachers have moved out of forest reserves,” said John Payne, a conservation scientist with the Borneo Rhino Alliance. “The fear is the next government will convert forest concessions to oil palm. So Sam Mannan seems to be doing everything he can to publicize and put money into those reserves. His biggest achievement is securing the lowland forest reserves.”

Sabah’s forest management was born of good intentions. In 1966, the government set aside a vast tract of remote rainforest to be managed
Forests in the neighboring Malaysian state of Sarawak have seen an environmental Armageddon.
by the Yayasan Sabah foundation. The first years of the scheme went well. Forest regulations were generally respected and a generation of Sabahans benefitted from millions of dollars in scholarships and poverty alleviation programs. Businesses did well, too: the coastal of city of Sandakan — Sabah’s wood processing and trading hub — boasted in the early 1980s of having the highest concentration of millionaires on the planet, mostly from the state’s timber industry.

Forests not only became the state’s principal rainy day fund, but eventually came to be seen as a piggy bank for politicians. The biggest potential beneficiary was the chief minister, who controls both Yayasan Sabah and appoints the director of the forestry department, obliging the most senior forest official to abide by his orders.

Soon, the push to generate more cash began to take a toll, and in the 1970s logging accelerated in forests across Borneo, including Sabah, due to rising global demand for timber products. The situation for forests outside the area designated as permanent forest estate was worse due to the emergence of a new and highly profitable crop: oil palm. Oil palm plantations in Sabah grew from almost nothing in the mid-1980s to covering nearly a fifth of Sabah’s landmass by 2010.

Inside the Yayasan Sabah concession, logging was rampant, with companies cutting ever-smaller trees and using helicopters to harvest steep slopes. Yayasan Sabah’s revenue plunged with declining timber yields. The situation reached a crescendo in 1998 when the then-chief minister signed off on a massive pulp mill to be run as a Malaysian-Chinese joint venture. The mill would require nearly a third of Yayasan Sabah’s concession to be cleared and planted with fast-growing acacia. When Sam Mannan, then director of forestry, objected to the project, he was relieved of his post by Sabah’s chief minister.

Parts of Yayasan Sabah were laid to waste, but it was all for naught, as the pulp project never materialized. Even with the official abandonment of the mill project in 2001, logging continued, eventually serving as a catalyst for early re-logging of nearly three-quarters of Yayasan Sabah. Logging generated a short upswing in revenue for Yayasan Sabah, but it wasn’t sustainable. The long-term economic outlook for Yayasan Sabah was bleak.

Eventually restored to his post as director of forestry, Sam Mannan proposed a radical plan for addressing Yayasan Sabah’s budget shortfall:
What happens in Sabah could portend what happens on a larger scale across Borneo.
establish oil palm plantations on 100,000 hectares of land cleared for the non-existent pulp plantations. His thinking was that the revenue created by oil palm would generate the needed funds for Sabah’s social programs. Otherwise, with the state desperate for money, he feared that Sabah officials would remove Yayasan Sabah from the forestry department’s control and turn it over permanently to oil palm developers. "If Yayasan Sabah fails, we'll all eat grass,” Mannan said in an interview. “It won't be able to meet its economic obligation."

Glen Reynolds, an ecologist with the Royal Society Southeast Asia Research Program, last year published a seminal paper with John Payne on the condition of Sabah’s forests, saying that a reasonable amount of biodiversity can survive in partially logged forests, whereas “catastrophic” losses occur when there is conversion to plantations. “The problem is whenever there are calls for money, further areas could be pared away,” said Reynolds. “The big risk in Yayasan Sabah is conversion of what's left of the lowland forest.”

Some of Sabah’s forests are so wrecked they might not recover to their original structure of a closed canopy of tall hardwoods. So the department of forestry is pushing active management of forest areas, cutting choking vines, and doing “enrichment planting” with native trees. The long-term plan is to restore the forests to a state of health where they can be logged again, albeit under more stringent guidelines set forth under the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an eco-certification body. The Sabah Forestry Department is targeting 2014 for full certification of Sabah’s forest concessions. At the same time there is experimentation occurring in parts of the Yayasan Sabah concession, including the world’s first Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) project.

“One of the strategies within the forestry department is linking with the FSC because it binds loggers to compliance,” said one forestry official. “So if a chief minister or a politician wants to log, it becomes controversial because we've got areas that are FSC-certified. It becomes more difficult for politicians to use as a personal ATM.”

What happens in Sabah could portend what transpires on a larger scale across Borneo. Sabah has committed its forest reserves to the Heart of Borneo initiative, a plan pushed by WWF to protect and link remaining quality forest areas across the island. (Sarawak’s commitment is virtually nil.) Forever Sabah, a grassroots push to transition Sabah toward a sustainable, low-carbon economy, has been created. The question going forward is whether there will still be enough forest across Borneo to save.

“We can’t do business as usual,” said Mannan. "We don't have huge areas of virgin forest available for logging anymore.”

POSTED ON 12 Jun 2012 IN Biodiversity Climate Forests Oceans Policy & Politics Antarctica and the Arctic Asia 


Despiriting to see what is happening...admire the human beings trying hard to stop this. This seems another example of the present sickness of human beings.

Posted by ibika on 12 Jun 2012

Many thanks for the in-depth report. It will be most handy as I work on reconnecting fragmented forests in Sabah.

Posted by Robert Hii on 12 Jun 2012

Excellent reporting by the always insightful Rhett Butler. Nearly 1/5 of the Sabah landmass taken over by palm oil plantations in just 25 years, that statistic alone should be an alert to all about the rapid disappearance of the forest. Now that so much is gone and the writing is clearly on the wall for anyone willing to look, efforts have to be sped up dramatically and immediately to save what's left. But as the article says, will there be forest left by the time that can happen.

Tom Mills
The Orangutan Conservancy
Posted by Tom Mills on 13 Jun 2012

Excellent reporting by the always insightful Rhett Butler. Nearly 1/5 of the Sabah landmass taken over by palm oil plantations in just 25 years, that statistic alone should be an alert to all about the rapid disappearance of the forest. Now that so much is gone and the writing is clearly on the wall for anyone willing to look, efforts have to be sped up dramatically and immediately to save what's left

Posted by phongngo on 13 Jun 2012

This piece is an understandable celebration of an
amicable person who is committed to "the cause",
but ut utterly fails to draw the necessary
conclusions due to lack of understanding that
logging and conservation in Malaysia is about one
thing only: money politics.

Sam Mannan sits on the Yayasan Sabah Board of
Directors. Therefore, he is in the know of all the
hanky panky that his Chief Minister is involved in.
Yet he presents Sabah to international science and
other stakeholder audiences for being firm on
illegal logging, showing images of how small
illegal sawmills were burnt down to the ground by
his Forestry Department. He appeals greatly to his
international audiences, but is cruel to local
communities claiming Native Customary Rights
inside his Permanent Reserved Forests.

Manan must be the Chief Minister's big Public
Relations hero. The CM gets to do whatever he
wants, and his forestry director keeps giving his
government great credentials internationally.

Heart of Borneo, FSC, carbon schemes and the
likes have no mechanisms in place to deny
recognition of "legal" logging concessions that
ultimately sustain the undemocratic system for the
proceeds are used for bad money politics. In fact,
we see them endorsing the undemocratic leaders,
just to save an acre here and there. But what is a
Heart of Borneo paper agreement worth, when the
Chief Minister issues logging deals in the same
area to finance his boys' studies in Perth and,
more importantly, to keep the ruling political
coalition in place?

Scientists and conservation NGOs need to consider
that they may in fact be endorsing the sustenance
of Malaysia's failed democracy and that they are in
fact contributing to suppression of the country's
democratic growth, i.e. human rights violations,
merely to save an acre of forest here and there.

Opposition leaders, if and when they come into
power despite all odds against them, may not be
all that friendly to foreign scientists and NGOs for
endorsing corrupt Basisan Nasional leaders.

Think about it.

Posted by Bungaraya on 14 Jun 2012

Both the CM and Sam Mannan sits on the board of Trustees and Sam Mannan also sits on the Board of Directors for Yayasan Sabah (YS). In 2008-2010, 2 logging licenses were issued for logging within the buffer zone of Maliau Basin (Class 1 in the YS concession area). One was not granted EIA approval and the other is being logged!!

In addition to the facts in the article, there are also cases being brought forward agaisnt the Yayasan Sabah and the Forestry Department in the SUHAKAM NATIONAL INQUIRY (Human Rights Commission in Malaysia). These cases are concerned with the land grab of native customary lands. These facts will definately not come to light in the local media.
Posted by Concerned on 14 Jun 2012

Why not track down the offshore funds of the politicians and use those for financing education projects? It is amazing what the western banking system can do to track corrupt money connected with drugs or terrorism. A spotlight on which families have made a pile from illegal logging and then been welcomed as immigrants to other countries would also be interesting.

Posted by Desmond Allen on 15 Jun 2012

Everyone who thinks we can convert biomass to fuel should consider that the Earth has been flushing terrestrial carbon into the ocean depths for 540 million years. Only a small fraction remains on the surface. Most is buried and inaccessible to nature. Depleting our topsoil is not the best solution. We are approaching 'Peak Phosphorus' and soon agriculture and humanity will suffer when we've run low of this fertilizer ingredient because we decided to accelerate its use by growing biofuel feedstock.

Posted by randydutton on 22 Jun 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
rhett butlerABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rhett Butler is the founder and editor of Mongabay.com, one of the leading sites on the Web covering tropical forests and biodiversity. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about how satellites and GoogleEarth are being used as conservation tools and how sustainable palm oil cultivation could actually help preserve the Amazon.



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