By: Our Correspondent

A Netherlands-based environmental organization, Wetlands International, is charging in a new report that Malaysia is destroying its tropical rainforest at a rate three times faster than the rest of Asia combined, particularly in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, with the expectation that “expansion of oil palm plantations may lead to the complete loss of these vast, unique forests by the end of this decade.”

Sarawak’s chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud, has come in for international criticism on charges that he has sold off vast tracts of the state to international loggers to enrich his family. The Taib family has interests believed to be in the billions in Canada, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom as well as in scores of companies in Malaysia, according to The Sarawak Report, a UK-based NGO.

Malaysia has been largely shielded from criticism by the world’s environmental organizations, who have concentrated their firepower on Indonesia. However according to the report, “Official government figures state that only 8 to -13 percent of Malaysia’s palm oil plantations were situated on carbon rich peat soils; 20 percent for Sarawak. Two studies; one conducted by global environmental organization Wetlands International and one by the remote sensing institute Sarvision show that a rapidly increasing proportion of Malaysian palm oil is produced on peat lands, leading to deforestation and degradation of organic soils. Wetlands International and Sarvision used satellite images combined with existing data and field surveys to complete the picture.

The new studies conclude that 20 percent of all Malaysian palm oil is produced on drained peat lands, with 44 percent produced on drained peat lands in Sarawak. “For recently established plantations, the percentage on forested peat swamps is even higher. “

According to the Wetlands International report, Malaysia is responsible for 45 percent of global palm oil production. The new plantations in Malaysia are almost all established in the State of Sarawak, the report indicated. Two thirds of the state’s peat lands were until recently covered by thick, biodiversity-rich rainforest.

“Between 2005-2010 almost 353,000 hectares of the 1 million hectare peat swamp forests were opened up at high speed; largely for palm oil production,” the report notes. “In just five years’ time, almost 10 percent of all Sarawak’s forests and 33 percent of the peat swamp forests have been cleared. Of this, 65 percent was for conversion to palm oil production.”

Marcel Silvius, the program head of Wetlands International, said that as the rainforest has fallen to the axe for timber extraction, the timber companies are replanting the area with oil palm, “completing the annihilation of Sarawak’s peat swamp forests.”

Malaysia has never provided verifiable information on land use in relation to soil type or deforestation, the report notes.

Niels Wielaard of Sarvision said the new report “is the first time that detailed and verified figures on deforestation and peat swamp conversion have come available for Sarawak. Free availability of satellite imagery and tools such as Google Earth are revolutionizing forest monitoring.”

Loss of unique species

Malaysia’s peat swamp forests, the report notes, are home to many endangered and endemic species and subspecies including enigmatic species such as the Borneo Pygmy elephant, the Sumatran Rhino, the Bornean Clouded Leopard, the Malayan Tapir and the Proboscis Monkey as well as lesser known endangered species such as the Storm’s Stork, False Gharial and the Painted terrapin

“The peat swamp forests of north Borneo represent a unique vegetation type characterized by the Alan tree as well as the valuable but endangered timber species,” the report notes. “This forest type has been wiped out in Sarawak and the only remaining examples now remain in Brunei. The peat swamp forests have not been intensively studied, and many undiscovered species are feared to have been lost.

Malaysia’s original peat land forests totaled some 2.5 million ha. Conversion and drainage of these natural carbon stores has causes rapid decomposition and subsidence of the organic soil leading to huge carbon dioxide emissions, lasting for decades, the report notes.

“Very cautious and conservative estimates put greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil plantations on peat at 40 metric tons of CO2 per hectare per year, the report says. “Using this very conservative estimation, the 510,000 ha of peat lands in Malaysia drained for palm oil production thus cause the release of some 20 million tons of/CO2 annually. However, twice this amount is more likely.

The rapid expansion of oil palm plantations is a result of the global increase in demand for vegetable oil for food and for a large part also for biofuels.

European targets to increase the use of biodiesel are causing a rapid increase of the global demands for vegetable oil crops. This growth in demand leads to a massive (indirect) land use change; especially in Southeast Asia, including in carbon rich peat swamp forests. The conversion of these areas increases greenhouse gas emissions and thus fuels climate change. Biodiesel use that does not prevent these indirect land use impacts is far from sustainable and may cause much larger emissions than the use of fossil fuel diesels.”

Call for action

“The production of palm oil is welcome only if expansion can be done in a sustainable way. Wetlands International calls for a complete ban of palm oil production on peat lands and for a halt on further conversion of natural areas for this crop. Instead development should focus on the millions of hectares of degraded (non-peat) areas in South-east Asia. Companies that use palm oil should demand for this. In addition, Wetlands International calls for an end to incentives for biofuels in the EU that result in direct and indirect land use change like we now see in Malaysia.”