Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sarawak’s timber wealth needs better accounting

SARAWAK FOCUS:  Sarawak has no more natural forest to log. What natural forest it now has is in the forest reserves, heritage sites and in the many pulau galau belonging to the natives.
Chief Minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem really has no choice when he decided to clamp down on illegal logging because he knew the culprits were stealing from these prohibited areas or areas traditionally claimed by natives.
There can’t be any more new logging licences issued when there is no natural forest to work on while getting existing licensees to sign the Integrity Pledge will ensure these concessionaires operate within their concession areas, which are basically re-entry areas.
“We must put a stop to it not just because of losing millions of ringgit but also it has painted a bad name on us internationally,” said Adenan when he declared he could not tolerate corrupt practices in the industry.
There is no telling how much Sarawak has missed in terms of revenue losses due to illegal logging. But it has to be substantial because until Adenan’s don’t-mess-with-me warning, Sarawak’s forest had been left to wilful exploitation.
But while the government before now chose to close a blind eye to the rape of the state’s natural forest, obviously facilitated by corrupt officials and an equally corrupt system, other interested parties were watching.
It is these other interested parties that Adenan can no longer ignore because these are people with the means to influence international perception of Sarawak’s reputation as timber producer.
The state’s sustainable forest policy has come for much criticism by many quarters, especially environmentalists.
A retired World Wildlife Fund researcher questioned the state’s reforestation policy via widespread planting of the acacia, saying this tree species not only has no commercial value but that it does not contribute to the return of the natural forest.
“In most systematic felling of trees for timber extraction, destroyed vegetation and wildlife recover within five years, allowing for re-felling or re-entry after 10 or 15 years. Why do we need to go for monoculture?
“Monoculture or the planting of a single tree species in a given area may be good for, say Canada where you see only pines. But ours is a tropical forest where hundreds of plant species grow together whether in direct or indirect symbiosis.
“The introduction of acacia is a big mistake as it displaced the natural forest. During their planting, all other vegetation was killed, hence the end of other forms of wildlife that depended on this vegetation.
“I saw with my own eyes how workers chopped creepers and other plants and saplings because they were considered weeds. Some trees were poisoned to slow death all because they must make way for the acacia.
“In the natural forest, every vegetation form, dead or alive, has a role to play. A dead tree could be a nesting place for hornbills or a garden for mushrooms while a creeper holds trees together to withstand strong winds.
“Those acres and acres of acacia have effectively reduced the size of the state’s natural forest and this is one of the reasons why loggers are stealing logs from protected areas or intruding into pulau galau.
“Apparently, the state’s sustainable forest policy had failed to take all this into consideration,” Adrian Jack said.
The European Union knew of this and had insisted in 2011 that Sarawak comply with several certification requirements before it could enter into the voluntary partnership agreement (VPA).
Sarawak neither complied with the requirements nor signed the VPA, which requires companies to trace where their timber was harvested, not because it did not wish to but because it couldn’t explain its illegally produced timber.
Reacting to this, Sarawak Second Resource Planning and Environment Minister Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hassan said: “The international sanctions focus on the question of legality of the timber certification, native customary rights (NCR) and human rights activities. These issues are irrelevant as they are well taken care of all this while by the government.”
But Tengah seems to forget while these may be irrelevant to Sarawak, it was relevant to the importing countries.
Yet EU was not alone in imposing such a condition via the EU Timber Regulation against Sarawak; the US too had introduced the Lacey Act in a bid to curb illegal timber trade.
Tengah’s adamant refusal to comply then only went to show how the state played to the game of illegal loggers and exporters of illegally extracted timber.
Now Adenan has come out in the open, declaring that there were timber being illegally extracted. Is there any wonder why Sarawak found it so difficult to accommodate the EU then?
In his June 29, 2011 published articled, Joseph Tawie writes:
“In 2009, revenue from timber and timber-related products was about 35% of the total revenue earned from Sarawak.
“Meanwhile, it is reported that in 1976 the value of timber exported from the state was US$138 million, and by 1991, the figure had reached US$1,292 million.
“In a state where the majority of the 2.4 million people depend on subsistence farming, this income represents a staggering concentration of wealth.
“Far from benefiting the rural poor, forest management in Sarawak only serves the interests of the ruling elite.”
Is this part of the corruption referred to by Adenan in his latest blitz against unethical practices in the timber industry?
Sarawakians at large certainly hope so. They are looking to Adenan to walk the talk.
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