Rubber plantations are gnawing away at our natural forests.
MALAYSIA’S practice of transforming forest reserves into rubberwood plantations has drawn the ire of the international forestry fraternity.
The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) has adopted a resolution “opposing conversion of Malaysian native forests to non-native rubberwood plantations,” warning that the practice threatens indigenous plants and wildlife, releases greenhouse gas emissions, leads to downstream flooding and degrades important ecosystem services.
The ATBC is the world’s largest scientific body for the study of tropical ecosystems and has 1,100 members from over 100 countries.
Several members of the association who have had long-term forestry experience in Malaysia and South-East Asia had initiated the resolution titled The Conversion of Malaysian Native Forests, and the document was adopted at the group’s annual meeting held late last month in Bali, Indonesia.
Dr William F. Laurance, research professor at the School of Marine and Tropical Biology at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, says the resolution draws attention to the loss of large expanses of native forests in Malaysia.
“I was in Peninsular Malaysia a few months ago and was struck by the rapid expansion of rubberwood trees. When I learned that these areas were still being classified as forest reserves, I knew we needed to highlight this issue,” he says via e-mail.
In the resolution, the group of international scientists warned that Permanent Reserved Forests designated for rubberwood plantations has expanded rapidly, from 1,626ha in 2006 to 44,148ha last year.
The boom in these plantations is driven by the Malaysian Government’s move to expand timber plantations, especially that of genetically modified rubber trees, known as latex timber clones. These trees will be tapped for latex for 15 years before being logged for timber.
Last year, StarTwo had reported that several forest reserves which were water catchments and important wildlife habitats, had been cleared for latex timber clone estates. Affected PRFs include Lebir and Relai forests in Kelantan which are important buffers for Taman Negara, and Sungai Mas forest in Johor which is adjacent to the Endau-Rompin National Park.
Laurance, who is co-chair of the ATBC conservation committee and a former president of the association, voices the fears of the scientists: “Although rubberwood plantations are suitable for establishment on degraded lands, their widespread expansion into natural forests is of great concern. Apart from diminishing forest biodiversity, the expansion of plantation monocultures might lead to losses of important ecosystem services and increased human-wildlife conflict.”
In the resolution, the scientists faulted the National Forestry Act 1984 as it does not stipulate the need for Permanent Reserved Forests (PRF) to consist entirely of natural forests. This loophole allows large tracts of PRF (including those that have been selectively logged) to be legally replaced by monoculture plantations so long as these are designated for “timber production under sustained yield.”
The scientists state that the forest conversion contradicts Malaysia’s policies of keeping at least half of its land under permanent forest cover and conserving biodiversity. To halt further losses of rainforests, they urged for: a moratorium on the conversion; legislative amendments to ensure that forest reserves are not converted to plantations unless the public has been consulted; and for timber plantations to be classified as such and not as Permanent Reserved Forests.
Laurance explains the reasoning: “The rubber tree areas are no longer forests. They are essentially agricultural lands. Rubber plantations have almost zero value for conserving endangered biodiversity. Therefore, to classify them as ‘forests’ is ridiculous biologically and scientifically. They are completely artificial – plantations of a single, exotic species. They should be classified as exotic plantations or as a form of human agriculture, not as native forests or production forests.”
He says national data on forest cover should distinguish between natural forests (including selectively logged forests) and those converted into plantations. He adds that the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation should also revise its current definition of “forest” to exclude plantations of rubber and other monocultures. “Otherwise, large reserves of natural forest could be replaced by greatly simplified monocultures like rubberwood.”
To clarify their concerns, Laurance says the ATBC has published a technical article and would welcome a dialogue with the Malaysian Government or Forestry Department.
■ To read the resolution, go to www.tropicalbio.org. To petition against the conversion of forest reserves into rubberwood plantations, go to www.ipetitions.com/petition/save-peninsular-malaysia-rainforest/.