Story Publication logo November 30, 2020

Forest Loss: Under Whose Watch?


Oil palm damaged by elephants in Jemaluang, Johor. Image by YH Law. Malaysia, June 2020.

Drivers of forest loss in Malaysia are deeply rooted in the country’s legislation and in the lack of...

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Oil palm damaged by elephants in Jemaluang, Johor. Image by YH Law. Malaysia, June 2020.
Oil palm damaged by elephants in Jemaluang, Johor. Image by YH Law. Malaysia, June 2020.

How much forest loss is too much? And are the drivers of this loss the same as in the past? In Forest Files, Macaranga examines the dynamics and mechanics of forest-use changes in Malaysia. Our four-part In-Depth series focuses on Peninsular Malaysia, where more forests were lost in the last 30 years than in East Malaysia.

In Part 1, we look at how much forest we actually have, forest-use policies, and forestry decision-makers. In Part 2, we consider a key driver of forest loss – excision from permanent reserve forests. Part 3 asks what drives decision-makers and we end with Part 4 on how citizens could influence forest-use.

Drive 20 minutes south of Mersing, Johor, and you reach the town of Jemaluang. The quiet town has no obvious appeal. Most cars zip down main street and out of town in two minutes.

In the 1960s and 1970s however, Jemaluang was bustling with loggers.

An elderly man, leaning against my car when I visited the town in June, described a time when “truck after truck” thronged the Jemaluang main street, “carrying logs so large a truck could take only four”.

Those days are long gone. The town where more than a hundred logging outfits once pursued their fortunes in the 1970s now houses only one.

The good old days

At 3pm, men in their 50s sit by a large tree in the town centre and chit-chat for hours.

Oil palm smallholder Ng It How has lived almost 60 years in Jemaluang. He remembers how, decades ago, the town was surrounded by thick forests. The air was fresh, the river clear, and the weather mild. 

“Last time, you could see forests everywhere. Now, you go a few miles out and it’s all bald,” Ng told me.

“Now, it’s either very hot or very cold, and we think it’s because the forests are no more.”

Forest giants

As the forests were cleared, the river turned silty and shallow. Fishes reduced. Then the elephants came.

It used to be hard to spot elephants, said Ng. But now, “they come almost daily.”

Other men, mostly owners of orchards or oil palm estates, chipped in. They spoke of elephants – up to 30 at a time — – appearing by dusk, roaming into town, and barging through oil palm estates, toppling rows of oil palms.

Some men said the elephants should be shot. But Ng disagreed – the elephants “didn’t mean it, they have no place to eat or go,” he said.

The men did agree on one point: too much forest had been cut.

It was not a statement I had expected from residents of a once major logging hub.

Oil palm damaged by elephants in Jemaluang, Johor. Image by YH Law. Malaysia, June 2020.
Oil palm damaged by elephants in Jemaluang, Johor. Image by YH Law. Malaysia, June 2020.

A deep delve

To evaluate that statement, however, requires an in-depth examination of the dynamics of forest use – a complex issue that concerns the environment, economy, health, social welfare and politics.

How much logging is ‘too much’?

Logging feeds a multi-billion timber industry in Malaysia and opens land for development.

But who decides how much to log, where and when? What measures and legislation rein in any damage logging does to the environment and society?

And can systems be improved to conserve forests and develop the country too?

About the series

To get the answers, Macaranga embarked on this In-Depth series, Forest Files, to examine forestry dynamics in Peninsular Malaysia.

We focus on the peninsula for two reasons:

Firstly, Peninsular Malaysia has different forestry legislation and operations than East Malaysia.

Secondly, official land-use data shows that between 1990 and 2019, Peninsular Malaysia lost about 140,000 hectares of forest more than East Malaysia did, despite being only two-thirds the size of the latter.

Figure 1: Forest loss has been higher in Peninsular Malaysia than in East Malaysia.
Figure 1: Forest loss has been higher in Peninsular Malaysia than in East Malaysia.

Our investigation, which began in February, converges on three key questions:

  1. Who calls the shots on forest use?
  2. What motivates these decision-makers? and
  3. Are there effective checks and balances to align forestry decisions with sustainability principles and broad national interests?

Assessing change

In this part, we take a bird’s eye view of forest change in Peninsular Malaysia and how its forest area keeps shrinking despite decades of sustainable forestry policies.

Most people concerned with the environment see logging in a bad light. Few realise that Malaysia has been guided by a national policy of sustainable forestry since the late 1970s.

Deforestation in Malaysia, particularly in the Peninsular, peaked in the 1960s – 1970s when large swaths of virgin forests, some of the oldest on Earth, were cleared.

Free for all

In that peak period, yearly timber production in the Peninsular jumped five-fold from 2 million cubic metres in the early 1960s to about 10 million cubic metres by the end of that period.

Logging cleared almost 2.5 million hectares of forests – an area larger than three times that of the state of Selangor.

Most of the lowland forests – the easiest to access – were logged bare.

The unbridled logging far exceeded the quota allotted in the Second Malaysia Plan (1971 – 1975) and looked set to deplete the country’s future timber supply.

Enough is enough

The Malaysian federal government responded to the threat by advocating sustainable forestry in the form of the National Forestry Policy.

Launched in 1978, the key strategy of the National Forestry Policy was to reclassify a broad swath of forests as permanent reserve forests (PRFs).

By 1990, 78% of Peninsular Malaysia’s forests were gazetted as PRFs.

Figure 2: Forest area changes in Peninsular Malaysia showed huge drops since the 1950s but decline slowed since the 1990s.
Figure 2: Forest area changes in Peninsular Malaysia showed huge drops since the 1950s but decline slowed since the 1990s.

The gazetting of PRFs is critical because PRFs are managed to ensure renewable timber stock for perpetuity. Within PRFs, about 61% are classified as ‘production forests’ to produce timber; the rest is protected.

Figure 3: Forest area in Peninsular Malaysia according to classification, 2019.
Figure 3: Forest area in Peninsular Malaysia according to classification, 2019.

Specifically, in PRFs, only selected trees above certain sizes are logged; roads are kept minimal; and logged sites are rested for 25 – 30 years for regeneration. Clear-cutting is prohibited in PRFs.

This logging quota, called the annual allowable coupe, allows each state to log up to one-thirtieth (1/30) of its production PRFs, so that each site can be rested for 30 years after logging.

National Forestry Act

The principles of sustainable forestry in the National Forestry Policy was enacted into legislation by the federal government with the National Forestry Act 1984.

The policy and legislation, coupled with the depletion of easy-to-reach lowland forests, led to the gradual easing of logging pressure in Peninsular Malaysia.

Log production in Peninsular Malaysia dropped from 9.5 million cubic meters in the 1970s to about 3.9 million cubic meters in 2019.

Figure 4: Map of forested area in Peninsular Malaysia, 2019. ("Forestry Statistics Peninsular Malaysia 2019", Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia)
Figure 4: Map of forested area in Peninsular Malaysia, 2019. ("Forestry Statistics Peninsular Malaysia 2019", Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia.)

However, there is a difference between forest area on paper and forest area on the ground.

It is important to note that forestry data in Malaysia is based on legal classification of the land rather than what is physically on the land itself.

That means any land classified as ‘permanent reserve forest’ would add to the forest cover tally even if the area is – to take an extreme example – barren.

Conversely, an area with agricultural status would not count as forest even if it is full of trees.

Mapping forests

So how does one reconcile the paper and on-the-ground differences?

A popular method used by activists and journalists is via third-party analyses of satellite imaging, such as that provided by online platform Global Forest Watch.

This method tracks changes in forest area by applying computer algorithms to separate forests from non-forests in satellite images.

Such analyses reveal what is physically on the ground, though with margins of error that are decreasing as technology improves.

Satellite version

Satellite data showed that Peninsular Malaysia lost 725,613 hectares of primary forest between 2001-2019, Global Forest Watch project manager Mikaela Weisse told Macarenga.

That is an area just 10% smaller than Selangor.

In comparison, official data showed a loss of about 130,000 hectares of forest in the same period.

The difference is a jarring margin of nearly 600,000 hectares.

However, both records revealed that sustainable forestry as practiced in Peninsular Malaysia has not stopped extensive deforestation.

How does one make sense of a loss of 130,000 hectares? Or even 725,613 hectares? Was it too much or was it necessary and in line with Malaysia’s vision for ‘enough’ forest cover?

An aspirational but shaky pledge

In 1992, then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced that Malaysia would “ensure that at least 50% of our land area will remain permanently under forest cover.”

That statement is aspirational and sets a goal that far exceeds comparable targets in international treaties (e.g., Aichi Target 11 aimed for 17% protected land area).

Mahathir and subsequent Malaysian governments often repeat the statement, calling it a pledge to the world.

As recently as August, the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, the federal ministry which oversees forestry, wrote Macaranga that “the Malaysian Government is committed to keeping at least 50 percent of its land area under forests and tree cover in line with its commitment made” in 1992.

A pledge, not law

But this pledge is not bound by law. The 50% threshold is not inked into any legislation or land policies (e.g., the National Forestry Act 1984 or National Forestry Policy).

More importantly, the pledge was made by the federal government which has no power over forests. The Federal Constitution makes it clear that state governments are the sole authority over land and forests.

Government officials told Macaranga that state government officials, who only learned of the national undertaking after Mahathir announced it, had never agreed to any commitment at the time.

Getting closer

In the nearly three decades after the pledge was made, Malaysia’s forest cover inches towards the cliff edge of the pledge: 57% in 1990 to 54% in 2019.

This ‘54%’ is a note of pride to forestry officers, conservationists, forest researchers and politicians who spoke to Macaranga. They acknowledged the gargantuan task of keeping forests against the need for more land for development.

Grippin Anak Akeng, the deputy director of the Pahang State Forestry Department, said he feels that it is “impossible” to increase forest area in Malaysia, and the best we could do is to maintain what is left.

Not easy

But will we lose more forest?

“Well, you already know the answer. It’s not easy to retain 50% forest cover,” said Dato’ Lim Kee Leng, former deputy director-general of the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia. (Macaranga spoke with Lim in May; he retired in July.)

“You either have forests or development,” said Lim.

If it comes down to choosing between forests or development, who decides?

The decision makers

In Peninsular Malaysia, forestry agencies and forestry matters fall under the purview of the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources.

The federal Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia and state forestry departments assist the state governments in forestry matters; their counterparts in East Malaysia are the Sabah Forestry Department and Forest Department Sarawak.

However, the federal government’s role in these matters is largely that of a researcher, technical support, and advisor, the Ministry told Macaranga in a written reply.

The federal government can, however, enact and amend laws pertaining to forests and forestry, such as the National Forestry Act 1984.

At state level

But federal forestry laws do not apply within states until they are adopted by individual state legislative assemblies and enacted as state laws. States can also make amendments.

Consequently, no two states in Malaysia have the same forestry law.

For example, Selangor legislated in 2011 that public consultation is mandatory before the excision of an area from PRFs ; this requirement is absent from the National Forestry Act and other state laws.

Free to change

State governments may change the legal status and intended purpose of any forest.

PRFs can have their status switched to private land or agricultural land, and vice-versa. Such changes are effective once published in a government publication called the gazette.

State governments have used their authority over forests to both expand PRFs and to excise them.

Table 1: States have often expanded and excised permanent reserve forests.
Table 1: States have often expanded and excised permanent reserve forests.

Because state governments wield ultimate authority over land and forest, they could contravene national or federal policies, if they see it fit to do so.

For example, states have often breached the logging quota, or the annual allowable coupe, allotted to them by the National Land Council.

While acknowledging that federal-state relationships complicate forestry matters, the situation “is not that bad,” said Lim, former deputy director-general of the Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia.

 “If it’s that bad, we wouldn’t have 54% forest cover.”

 Lim has a point: Malaysia ranks well in the region in terms of forest cover.

According to Bruno Cammaert, Forestry Officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Malaysia has the 5th largest area of tropical forest in the Asia-Pacific region.

Relatively good

Within that group of top five countries, Malaysia has the second highest percentage of land forested.

Malaysia’s relatively high forest cover “doesn’t come by accident,” said Lim. “It involves a lot of negotiation and persuasion to the state government to gazette [PRFs].”

Official forest area data suggests however, that future increases in forest cover area would be limited and excision more likely.


  1. Talib, I. 2015. Overview of Forestry Sector in Malaysia. International Journal of Sciences 4: 73-78.
  2. Kathirithamby-Wells, J. 2005. Nature and Nation: Forests and Development in Peninsular Malaysia. NiAS Press.
  3. Forestry Malaysia Annual Reports. Forestry Department Peninsular Malaysia.
  4. National Forestry Act 1984.

This is the first of a four-part In-Depth Forest Files feature on forest dynamics in Peninsular Malaysia. Next in Part 2: When state governments excise PRFs.