Latex timber clone plantations are threatening important tiger habitats in Johor.
MALAYSIA’S Central Forest Spine (CFS) Master Plan has been lauded as an example of how conservation can go mainstream. It is a federal policy which plans to link up Peninsular Malaysia’s four major forest complexes through a network of forested corridors, to create one contiguous green sanctuary for wildlife.
There is just one problem: support from the Federal Government alone is not enough to make the plan work. State co-operation is needed because constitutionally speaking, land tenure falls under the jurisdiction of the state. For now, all eyes are on Johor – home to a tiger stronghold and one of the CFS Master Plan’s most important forest corridors.
In 2009, a fuss was kicked up about a slew of rubber monocultures destined to eat into an already narrow strip of greenery deemed crucial within the CFS Master Plan. That strip is listed as Primary Linkage 1 under the master plan. Falling within the Sembrong Forest Reserve in Johor, it had previously been logged. Currently, it spans about 10km in width, and represents a bottle neck squeezed from either side by encroaching urban and agricultural developments.
The area was declared an Environmentally Sensitive Area Rank 1 in 2005 – a title which comes with a recommendation against any development, agriculture and logging, and where only low-impact nature tourism, research and education are allowed. It is crucial for wildlife moving along the Central Forest Spine through the Endau-Kluang Wildlife Reserve (which encompasses Endau Rompin National Park) down to the Endau-Kota Tinggi Wildlife Reserve.
The reserves are managed by the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) and were set aside in colonial times for the purpose of safeguarding Malaysia’s natural heritage. However, they now overlap Permanent Reserved Forests gazetted by the Forestry Department, which manages those areas for timber production. The Labis and Sembrong forest reserves overlap the Endau-Kluang Wildlife Reserve, whilst the Mersing, Lenggor, and Ulu Sedili forest reserves overlap the Endau-Kota Tinggi Wildlife Reserve.
These objectives, seemingly at odds, gave rise to confusion when the issue came to light, prompting the state to issue a stop order for two plantations already operating in the area. Any company wanting to open up rubberwood monocultures in the area would now first have to submit Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), followed by Environmental Management Plans, before any chance of approval. In the mean time, local and international demand for rubberwood continues to overshadow any future decisions on the matter.
Demand for fast-growing latex timber clones (LTC) have increased due to shortages in rubber wood, which is widely used within the Malaysian furniture industry, and because high oil prices have given latex a competitive edge over its petroleum-based rubber alternatives. Land shortages for new crops have spurred the expansion of these monocultures at the expense of sustainably managed timber production forests, thanks to a loophole in the National Forestry Act 1984 which fails to specify that Permanent Reserved Forests should consist of only “natural forest”.
Last year, four rubberwood plantation projects were given EIA approvals within the forests surrounding Primary Linkage 1, in the district of Mersing. Each must now submit an Environmental Management Plan to the Department of Environment, detailing how environmental mitigation measures will be incorporated into the project.
Once those are approved, 9,038ha of forest will be cleared and replaced with rubber trees. Two of the four companies had already began planting about 600ha before the stop order came, and sources say that at the time, elephants were a major pest and were destroying most of the newly planted seedlings.
Recently, a dead elephant was found on the grounds of one of these companies, Jasa Wibawa, which was acquired last year by the Evergreen Group, an international supplier of wood-based products which tout the use of “sustainable plantation rubber wood”.
Sources say another company, Hamid Sawmill, has started work at the site despite not getting approval yet for its Environmental Management Plan. The other two plantation companies which have submitted plans for the area are Setindan and a state-linked joint venture company, PPL Plantations.
Flooding has become a major concern for Johor. It was the worst-hit state during the 2006-2007 floods, which racked up a cost of some RM1.5bil – making it the costliest flood event in Malaysian history. Floods also happened twice last year, forcing over 40,000 residents to evacuate from areas in Segamat, Muar, Kota Tinggi, Kluang and Kahang.
In 2009, a member of parliament had raised his concern during a state assembly sitting about the state’s approval for tens of thousands of hectares of natural forest to be converted into rubberwood monocultures, and the potential consequences this might have on state water supply and flood mitigation. Wetlands International (an expert NGO on wetland conservation) senior technical officer Lee Shin Shin underlines the importance of freshwater and peat swamps, which according to topographical maps, are widely dispersed throughout the plantation area in Primary Linkage 1 of the CFS.
She says swamps perform important ecosystem functions that cannot be mimicked by man-made systems, and are highly important in flood mitigation, because they act like a sponge, absorbing rain water. Without them, heavy rains would cause rivers to overflow, leading to flash floods.
“Swamps also serve as natural water filters by trapping sediment, taking the strain off water treatment facilities and greatly decreasing maintenance costs.”
There are currently no plans to build water intake points along any of the rivers within the Sembrong Forest Reserve. However, Lee thinks it is better to preserve the freshwater and peat swamps now rather than wait for potential water security issues to catch up with us in the future because once the swamps are drained for agriculture, it is virtually impossible to restore the landscape to its original function.
Perhilitan says a special technical committee was set up to address concerns such as this, and it has requested that development should occur in phases not exceeding 500ha.
It also says all companies will be required to submit a Wildlife Management Plan as part of its overall Environmental Management Plan, subject to its input and approval.
It has also stipulated that there must be buffer and riparian zones for riverine and water catchment areas, and protection of freshwater and peat swamps.
PPL Plantations was the first to state that it will refrain from planting on 1,214ha identified as wetlands out of the 3,473ha which it has been allocated. Surveys by Perhilitan are currently under way to identify important swamp areas within each of the project sites. So far, only Jasa Wibawa’s has been completed, and it shows that wetlands cover 40% of the area.
Despite Perhilitan’s stipulations, however, the prerogative to establish compulsory wetland protection lies not with the wildlife agency but with the state authorities and Forestry Department.
Human-wildlife conflict will perhaps be the trickiest challenge to tackle.
Although Perhilitan has requested an inclusion of ecological corridors within the project areas to maintain habitat for wildlife, conservationists are concerned that strategies such as electric fences and deep ditches around the plantation perimeter will impede important wildlife migration routes, and fragment important habitat.
The subject is a major issue, as important populations of elephants and tigers – both of which require large territories – inhabit the area. Perhilitan has recommended that such strategies be avoided, and are looking into alternatives such as sensor-fencing and wildlife relocation.
However, Rafi Yukin, whose village, Kampung Punan, falls within the area deemed as Primary Linkage 1, points out that if the larger plantations are cut off, wildlife will be funnelled through the narrow width of corridor left around the village, where 90% of the villagers rely on rubber smallholdings for survival.
Despite the fact that Perhilitan has stated that the plantation companies will be made responsible for mitigating damage to the livelihoods of local residents, the villagers are sceptical whether such plans will work. Previous relocation efforts, they say, have failed.
“The elephants eventually just came back to their old migration routes,” says Rafie.
Despite Primary Linkage 1 looking like the weakest link in an otherwise positive series of efforts to establish connectivity along the Central Forest Spine Master Plan, it might be one of the most crucial. Johor has Malaysia’s smallest and most fragmented tiger habitats but it also has good anti-poaching efforts – thanks to close co-operation between local NGOs and a variety of state government enforcement units.
Should poaching threats not be eliminated in Taman Negara, the tiger population there may not be viable in the long term. So protecting Johor’s tiger population is more important than ever.
The state is at a crossroads; on one hand, there is pressure to honour federal policies such as the CFS Master Plan and on the other, pressure to address economic issues. Only time will tell if it manages to balance the needs of the economy with a sustainable development strategy, to ensure Malaysia does not lose its unique and rich natural heritage in the process of economic gain.
Tigers are already endangered species, their population decline quickly, Due to human destroy , poaching, global warming and lack of forest in Malaysia, It is most necessary and important for tiger and other endangered animals. We need rich nature heritage, Don't ignore and lose its unique treasure . Those wild life could improve economic and increase tourtism. Protect and save tiger habitat immediately.
So true Liu. We need to save wildlife and their habitats. Too much deforestation happening everywhere. We will be heard.