Malaysia’s Jungle Train Loses its Trees

Just before sunrise, Malaysia’s predawn sky is painted in dreamy hues of purple and pink. A train chugs southwards across paddy fields from Kota Bahru to Gua Musang — stopping at some stations that are no more than a wooden shack and a derelict signboard, occasionally picking up traders with bags of local food and vegetables from the jungle. A 70-year-old woman with a head of curly, shiny white hair in a shirt and batik sarong hauls five bags of homemade tapioca chips onto the train for sale at Kuala Krai, two hours away. At other stations, elderly women in headscarves and robes travel alone, selling their wares. Schoolchildren hop on and off. Young guys in jeans loiter around, flirting with young women in headscarves, quite unperturbed by the threat of khalwat, the Islamic prohibition against close proximity between unmarried persons of the opposite sex.

This is Malaysia’s Jungle Train, rumbling 526 km through remote rural towns down the country’s east-coast states of Kelantan, Pahang and then swinging west towards Negeri Sembilan. The landscape in Kelantan shifts between paddy fields, water buffaloes, grazing sheep, small banana and sugar cane plantations and giant palm oil and rubber estates. But there is very little left of the jungle. The world's oldest tropical rainforest, which dates back 130 million years, is nearly gone from this northern state bordering Thailand.

"When we first logged here, we could find huge trees. The biggest that I've seen is about 90 (inches in diameter). Now we just have some good trees, very few grade A’s and mostly just low quality wood," a logger who has been in the industry for over 30 years told Asia Sentinel on a cleared hilltop in the jungle around Gua Musang, the state's logging capital.

Single-track trains depart as early as three in the morning from Tumpat, the end of the line on the east coast, still running on an old token system to prevent collision. Tokens are passed in leather pouches attached to a hoop, with each section assigned a token that is passed back at the end of the section. If a train arrives at a station and the token isn’t there, it can't pass through till the train coming from the opposite direction has arrived with it. It's a pretty foolproof, if antiquated, safety mechanism but trains are usually delayed as they wait for faster express trains to pass through.

The coaches feature old, worn seats and toilets that make using the jungle for relief a better option. But the air is fresh and cool in the morning and the scenes of rural life enchanting. People are friendly and curious. They are happy to share bits of history about the train and the state in the local Kelantanese dialect or Malay. Some even speak a smattering of English and combined with do-it-yourself sign language, some level of communication may be possible for outsiders.

While forest covers about 60 percent of the state the train passes through, only 20 percent is still virgin rainforest, according to the State Forestry Department's management plan for 2006 to 2015. A department map also suggests that most of the lush forest on the lowlands, with thick canopies and trees that can grow to over 30 meters in height, are gone. Now most of the unlogged permanent forest estates are in the highlands. The rest lie in the National Park, south of the state. It's unlikely that the original rainforest with its diverse and complex eco-system can ever be replaced as trees are harvested after about 30 years, far too early.

Over the last five decades, in the name of poverty eradication, the government has aggressively pursued agro-conversion turning forests into palm oil and rubber estates, which cover about 13 percent, or 4.2 million hectares, of the country's total land mass. Oil palms, which are productive in as little as two years, are preferred over rubber, which can only be tapped after about five. Each productive year lost translates into billions of ringgit as the crude palm oil (CPO) price hit an all-time high of RM4, 486 per metric ton in March but is expected to drop to about RM3, 000 in the second half of the year.

Perilously, logged primary forest is classified as secondary forest, which allows it to be cleared for agriculture. A report by Lian Pin Koh and David S. Wilcove of Princeton University published this March said that over the 15 years between 1990 and 2005, 55 to 59 percent of oil palm expansion in Malaysia occurred at the expense of forests, based on an analysis of land-cover data compiled by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. “Any future expansion of oil palm agriculture should be restricted to pre-existing cropland or degraded habitats,” they suggested.

Environmentalists also charge that conversion may just be a convenient cover for logging as some cleared lands remain uncultivated for many years before being used for other development projects. Others say draining and burning peatland is creating carbon emissions, and toxic chemicals from fertilizers and pesticides are seeping into rivers and other water sources.

Ed Matthew of Malaysia’s environmental NGO Friends of the Earth, told The Telegraph last year: “While it is true that palm oil is one of the most productive vegetable oils and that significant carbon savings can be made if the crop is grown sustainably compared to the use of conventional fossil fuel, the reality is that the Malaysian government has plans to convert over 1 million hectares of forest into oil palm plantations. Such forest land conversion, which is likely to include the conversion of peat forests, threatens to create substantial global warming emissions.”

Instead of harassing producers, Greenpeace is confronting manufacturers that consume the most palm oil. In April, 60 volunteers, many dressed as orangutans, the endangered great ape species that lives in Borneo's forests, "occupied" and "overran" production lines in a Unilever factory in Port Sunlight near Liverpool while workers entering its headquarters by the Thames River in London were bombarded with jungle noises and the “orangutans,” according to a statement on its website.

Last week, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said Malaysia will stop clearing forest for oil palm cultivation, restricting it to areas designated as agricultural land, which includes logged forest. “We don't have to reduce the protected forests to increase new oil palm plantations. With more effective management of the plantations and new technologies, production can go up by 30 percent,” he told local media.

Chin Fah Kui, Plantation, Industries and Commodities minister, added, "There is still land available for agricultural expansion. There is no need for permanent forest reserves to be used for this purpose. The government in any case will not encourage deforestation to obtain more land for agriculture. But land currently designated for agriculture or not utilized for the planting of specific crops, can be converted for the cultivation of oil palm."

Meanwhile the Jungle Train, which once hauled tourists and locals alike through one of the world’s most scenic rainforests, now finds less greenery on virtually every trip. Instead it passes through degraded forest and over increasingly silted and polluted rivers.

In some areas, the ghost of the glorious rainforest haunts the landscape a lone towering tree with an umbrella-shaped crown. Rivers, once clear and thriving with life, are yellow. The environmental damage caused by decades of siltation and rubbish may cost billions to reverse, if possible at all.