Corrupt State Officials and Companies Are Razing Malaysia’s Ancient Forests. Here’s How to Stop Them.

Malaysia is home to two of the world’s oldest rainforests. Dating back 130 million years, the Taman Negara and Borneo Lowland forests are older than even the Amazon and the Congo Basin. As of 2016, Malaysia had 19.3 mega-hectares of forested land, which is close to 60% of the country’s total land area. But these forests are under the constant threat of their destruction by private commercial exploiters that engage in logging and development. Already in various parts of Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo Island, forests have been transferred to private ownership and used to develop palm oil and rubber plantations, durian farms, and mines. Once-serene forests are now plagued by mudslides and logjams, their biodiversity has suffered, and the indigenous communities that used to cultivate the forests have been displaced.

The reckless exploitation of Malaysia’s forests has many causes, including poorly-designed conservation regulations. But corruption is one of the most important root causes of unchecked and unsustainable deforestation. Such corruption comes in two main forms:

  • The first is the corrupt award of land titles and logging concessions to cronies, or in exchange for bribes. This sort of corruption is epitomized by the sale of the Sarawak State’s land and forests bordering the Mulu UNESCO World Heritage site.  by to cronies and family. In 2013, several NGOs reported that the powerful Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud had arranged for the state to sell these lands to his cronies and family members at cut-rate prices, after a non-transparent process with no formal tendering. The new (crony) owners planned to raze the forests to develop palm oil plantations. To the frustration of anticorruption activists and lawyers, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) found no grounds to charge Taib Mahmud for abuse of power, due to insufficient evidence of his specific personal involvement in the sale decision.
  • Second, when commercial exploiters want to log in areas where they do not have a concession, they have been known to bribe local officials to overlook these illegal logging activities. To take just one example, in 2017 the authorities prosecuted corrupt forestry officials for taking kickbacks of RM340,000 (about US$76,800) from a logging company over several months. The only thing unusual about this case is that it was uncovered and prosecuted. Bribery of local government officials and law enforcement officers is widespread in Malaysia, and typically goes undetected. In the forestry context, the costs of such corruption are massive: The Deputy Natural Resources and Environment Minister reported in 2017 that the losses from illegal logging in Peninsular Malaysia amounted to RM15.2 million (about US$3.5 million).

To curtail the rampant destruction of Malaysia’s vital and irreplaceable forest resources, the government needs to do more to combat both these forms of corruption.

  • To address the problem of the corrupt award of land titles and concessions, state or national legislatures should enact tighter restrictions on the discretion of authorities to authorize land transfers and concession awards. For example, a formal tendering and public consultation process should be mandatory, and a maximum duration for concessions (with annual review of each concession) should be imposed. Greater transparency regarding these transactions is also essential. The responsible government authorities should publish comprehensive online information concerning significant proposed land transfers and concession awards, in order to enable scrutiny by NGOs and effective participation in public consultations. For each transaction or concession, the responsible department should also be required to publish an environmental impact assessment and a long-term forest management plan—both for conservation purposes and to facilitate scrutiny of the genuine commercial aims of transactions. In addition, authorities should maintain an online registry of land titles and concessions.
  • To more effectively address the problem of illegal logging enabled by bribery of enforcement officials, the government should further empower and support its Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission, which has jurisdiction to investigate the police and the Departments of Environment and Wildlife and National Parks. The MACC should also facilitate whistleblowing by indigenous forest communities. These indigenous communities are intimately familiar with the forests, and have already been active in raising the alarm about illegal logging. Indigenous villagers in Gerik, for example, have been diligently tallying and filming the regular felling operations of loggers, and other indigenous groups have asserted themselves against loggers through blockades and protests. NGOs like Transparency International Malaysia have done excellent work informing indigenous communities about formal whistleblowing channels, but the MACC can and should step up by designing systems that indigenous communities can more easily use. Because many indigenous villages lie outside mobile reception areas, relying on the usual telephone and online channels is insufficient;  the MACC should therefore arrange regular field visits to indigenous communities, or cooperate with NGOs that do, in order to gather complaints. The government should also provide robust whistleblower protections, to ensure indigenous communities are not deterred by incidents of violence against those protesting forest exploitation. In addition to these “low tech” solutions, the government can also invest more in “high tech” approaches to detecting illegal logging. Previous posts on this blog have highlighted the usefulness of satellite imagery to monitor tree cover, and isotope provenancing to determine the approximate location in which trees have been harvested. These tools could help the Malaysian government detect illegal logging, and make it harder for logging companies to circumvent the law by bribing local officials and police.

Adopting and implementing these measures may be politically complicated. Besides the obvious problems of resource scarcity and not-infrequent government complicity in the very corruption being targeted, these measures also implicate two sensitive political fissures in Malaysian politics. One is indigenous people’s ongoing struggle with the government for recognition of their customary land rights and right to self-determination, which may hinder cooperation with indigenous peoples. Another is the uneasy political relationship between the federal government and the most forest-rich states of Sabah and Sarawak, which threatens the success of federal monitoring efforts and anticorruption investigations in those states. These domestic political fissures are deep and historical. However, with the mounting stress of the global climate crisis and pressure by international actors such as the EU, Malaysians must urgently unite in the cause of cleaning up forest governance.

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