This area of Southeast Asia has undergone rapid economic expansion, based on industrialization and capitalization of natural resources. People in this area have always utilized rainforest products such as rattan, fruits, and wood, and engaged in small-scale cultivation or, on Borneo, swidden agriculture, but with a relatively small effect on the forest as a whole. Deforestation on a larger scale began in the late 19th century, when large tin reserves were discovered, and pepper, tobacco, and cassava cultivation became widespread. Much of this agricultural land was replanted with rubber at the end of the century, when rubber seedlings were smuggled out of the Amazon to other tropical areas. As early as 1916, however, there was worry about possible overexploitation of forests in Borneo, although in general it was felt that they were inexhaustible. No action was taken, partly for political reasons and partly because of the structure of the government.
Conversion to a profit-making and wholly exploitative system has occurred within the past half century, however, fueled by a population growth rate of 2.5% per annum through the 1980’s. With the enormous increase in demand for tropical hardwoods in the 1960’s and 1970’s (due to a decline in availability of wood from logged-out temperate forests), Malaysia’s forests began to fall rapidly. The government in 1978 set in place a National Forestry Policy which strove to set policy for wood-processing, cutting rates and areas to be cut. This policy decreed that 45% of the land area should be cultivated by the mid-1990’s and 39% remain under forest (mainly in mountainous and inaccessible regions). Inaccurate estimates as to the extent of forest resources were used by the government in setting these limits; in fact, there were no good data on this issue. Logging concessions exceeding the total estimated forested area have, over time, been issued by the government. Elsewhere, timber concessions were issued for areas which had already been denuded of marketable timber, and nature reserves were partly logged before they were surveyed. In the 1950’s, 73% of the land in Peninsular Malaysia was forested, but more than half of this land has now been lost by conversion to agriculture and another quarter has been logged. This leaves much less than the 39% forest cover decreed by the National Forest Policy. This is not surprising, since, in practice, few attend to regulations. For instance, logging in the late 1970’s exceeded the limits established by this policy by 500% (data from Brookfield, et al., 1993).
Most of the forest conversion in the peninsular portion of Malaysia, then, has been for cultivation, mainly of rubber and oil palm. Early agricultural conversion had been for rubber plantations, but since the rubber market was not expanding and became less profitable, much land was logged for small farmer-settlers (before they had arrived!) and also for large-scale oil palm plantations (a decision made in the 1960’s by the government). Thus Malaysian forest conversion has been mainly for cash crops (Brookfield, et al., 1993). Land development was part of government policy which aimed to eliminate rural poverty and to provide a source of government income. FELDA, the government agency entrusted with the accomplishment of this goal, has turned into a vast agribusiness enterprise, and has recently restructured the agricultural activity of Peninsular Malaysia from rubber to oil palm cultivation. Additionally, by the late 1970’s, more than 250,000 people had been resettled on cleared forest land, and FELDA had become by far the largest land-conversion organization in Malaysia (more than 6000 km2 by early 1980’s). The World Bank assisted by funding large “development” projects in the peninsular interior, and helped establish new urban centers there (Brookfield, et al., 1993).
Very little lowland forest remains in Peninsular Malaysia, and even montane forests up to 1500m are being cleared. Some rainforest remains in the north and elsewhere in isolated and mountainous patches, but the connection between the two large northern forested areas has been severed. Peninsular Malaysia can no longer provide much timber, but for the past 30 years much of the world supply of hardwood has come from Borneo (including Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo).
In Borneo most of the deforestation has been for the purpose of supplying the timber industry. Fifty years ago Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states on the north coast of Borneo, was almost entirely covered with forest, but by 1989 60% of the land had been licensed for timber extraction and huge areas have since been logged. By the late 1980’s, this area supplied almost one-third of the world’s hardwood timber. Lately, the proportion has dropped, due to resource exhaustion, and attention has now shifted to the Neotropics.
With the decline in hardwoods, timber extraction has turned to less-desirable, softer wood species. Timber-processing has become a big business, and consumes species which would not have been utilized in the boom days of the timber industry in Asia. Much of this processed wood is exported. In Borneo, interestingly, the middlemen who buy timber for the mills have become the controlling factor in these enterprises. They can buy logs obtained from illegal sources, and they can buy immature trees, which should be left to provide a future supply of timber. Policy has no effect here (Brookfield, et al., 1993).
Sadly, much of the logging has been extremely wasteful. In Borneo, loggers remove all accessible hardwood trees in areas designated for cutting, rather than only 56-72% as required by regulations, and the formerly huge expanse of dipterocarp forest has been chopped into fragments. While logging, the timber companies routinely harvest 57% of the forest area in a patchwork of sites; however, they also degrade another 20-30% of the land for roads, logging yards and camps. Little is left, usually less than 20% as undisturbed forest, and that only in isolated pieces (Curran, 1999). Even worse, the forest is not left to regenerate (if it could), but is usually replanted with exotic commercial species in monocultures.
Prior to substantial logging activity, there was little hunting, but once logging roads had been built, hunting became intensive. “Anything seen was shot at.” (Bennett and Dahaban, 1995) In Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) logging has been just as intense. According to Siegert, et al., (2001) more than 180 million m3 of logs have been harvested there since 1969.
In Malaysia, the state governments (and sultans) control land rights. As in Brazil, government policies encourage deforestation. Timber concessions are sold at far below market value. Since these concessions quickly became the most important source of revenue for state governments, their allocation is a political tool. Concessions are given for 20 years, which means that a logging company has to extract the maximum amount of timber in a relatively short time to recoup expenses and make profits. To supply the demand – much of it from Japan – the hardwood timber industry, using mechanized timber extraction and heavy road-clearing machinery and log-haulers, is able to extract huge volumes of trees from the forests. This is in part because the dipterocarp forests of Southeast Asia provide a very high volume of desirable hardwood timber per hectare compared to forests in Asia or the New World. The spectacular huge dipterocarps, with their enormous buttress roots, spell their own doom. As pointed out in Brookfield, et al. (1993, p. 501), “No one gets any pecuniary advantage from conserving the resource.” And that’s all that counts.
As a consequence of these virtually unrestrained activities, there have been major floods in Malaysia, as watersheds have been logged. Sedimentation of rivers is substantial. The conversion of forest land to other uses has changed rainfall patterns, and there are often droughts and water shortages – this in a moist forest area! The necessity of replanting oil palm and rubber at regular intervals of less than 30 years leads to much erosion when trees are removed, and runoff from agricultural land is high, perhaps 16 times that from undisturbed forest. When droughts occur (as with the recent El Niño years), and with the alterations in precipitation exacerbated by forest loss, rainfall has been reduced sufficiently to affect tree reproduction and regeneration and to cause fires. After logging, there have been many large fires, often set to clear land. In 1998, 80% of the fires associated with El Niño were the result of the activities of logging firms and plantations (Curran, 1999).
Approximately 800,000 hectares in Malaysia are protected as parks; about one million hectares as reserves; 600,000 hectares as wildlife reserves; 100,000 as “protection forests” plus a few others, altogether amounting to about 1,700,000 hectares. Only the national forest, Taman Negara, is secure, and it represents only one ecosystem – lowland moist forest, and contains only 3% of the endemic tree species and 30% of known palm species in Malaysia. Completely unprotected are mangrove forests, wetland forests, and highland forests. Many of the reserves are fragments only, and of these, a substantial number have been reduced in size or used for other purposes (Soepadmo, 1995). Wildlife sanctuaries have restrictions on hunting but are not completely protected. In Malaysian Borneo, which formerly had huge forests, exploitation is rampant, protection is inadequate, there is little forest management, and there is much illegal agricultural conversion and logging. The protected areas are not adequate to maintain the wide range of biodiversity in this rich area. It is anticipated that, at present rates of deforestation, more than 50% of Malaysian forest species will become extinct, many of them endemic to this area.