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.