According to a recent paper presented by Glen Reynolds of the South East Asia Rainforest Research Program (SEARRP), run by the Royal Society in the UK, there was a sharp decline in lowland forest between 1990 and 2010. Over the same period, palm oil plantations increased almost five-fold, and now cover about one-fifth of Sabah.
Palm oil can be found in one out of ten products on supermarket shelves, from biscuits and salad dressing to lipstick and soap. Analysts have estimated that exports of palm oil add U.S. $20 billion to Malaysia’s bottom line and indirectly support about two million jobs across the broader economy.
But that windfall must be stacked against the disappearance of forested areas, which coupled with an increased demand for prized wood is leading to higher timber prices. This, in turn, is fueling a scramble for lumber.
The spike in demand has had a particular impact on the market for more sought-after types of wood, such as damarminyak, used to make bar tops, and ramin, favored for wood paneling. To meet demand, these rare timbers are now harvested with scant regard to law, creating a vicious cycle.
Countering the claims that surround rain forest destruction, Malaysian officials insist that Sabah enjoys 6,000 square kilometers of fully protected forest. They also claim that deforestation rates are acceptably low and emphasize the state’s intentions to keep natural forest cover around 50 percent.
Officials also claim that greenhouse gas emissions are not a major issue in Malaysia. They have even gone as far as using homespun mathematics and imaginative science to make the case that Malaysia is a “net carbon sink country” with 80 percent tree cover.
These claims have led to charges of “greenwashing” – a term used to describe efforts to paint an overly optimistic environmental picture.
To reinforce their message, the Malaysian government and business interests are keen to convince themselves and the wider world that mono-culture plantations should be classified as “forests” when scientists and environmentalists classify the country’s habitat.
Some hope that Malaysia will be able to raise capital by registering its plantations in carbon emission schemes under the UN’s Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program (REDD).
This plan was not lost on Anwar when he addressed the crowds at the recent rally in the nation’s capital. Addressing this issue, he argued that Malaysians have suffered from government mismanagement for long enough, and pledged to bring this to an end.
“Under our rule we will not permit stealing from the people or corruption,” Anwar said at the rally. “If we can control it, the people’s lives can change and the welfare and livelihood of Malaysians nationwide, from Perlis to Sabah, up to Putrajaya, will be improved.”
A coherent and honest environmental policy alone is unlikely to get Anwar elected. But a combination of strong political opposition, international legal action, and local activism has at least put those who control the forests on notice.