Sunday, 8 June 2008

EDITORIAL: Mystery of the missing trees

2008/06/08 New Straits Times, Malaysia

EDITORIAL: Mystery of the missing trees

PENINSULAR Malaysia, according to official gazettes, lost 1,700ha of its permanent reserved forests over a five-year period from 2001. But hold on a second. That might not be true.

Not only does the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia vehemently deny it, the protector of trees asserts that the peninsula has gained 6,800ha of forest reserves over the same period.

The gazettes show that between 2001 and 2005, state governments allowed trees on 40,500ha of reserved forest land to be cut down. At the same time, trees were planted on 38,800ha of land. This gives a net loss of 1,700ha.

But the Forestry Department, quoting from "gazettes", says although trees on 16,500ha were cut down, 23,300ha of forests were created. This gives a net gain in forest reserves of 6,800ha. So what gives? Even the hectarage of trees cut and replanted is vastly different.

In the immortal words of Alice (in Wonderland), "It's getting curiouser and curiouser". It is manifestly unlikely, we think, that local forest trees have suddenly taken on lives of their own, or are distant cousins of the walking-talking humanoid Ents peopling (or is it treeing?) the world of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

The department's explanation for the inconsistency is classic officialese. It says: "Since the procedures of gazettement and degazettement are a lengthy process and involve several parties, figures might be displaced along the process." To say the department may not be seeing the forest for the trees may be incorrect.

For, if the gazette figures are correct, it is the trees that have been displaced.In the wake of reports of illegal logging and illegal land clearance, such a discrepancy in figures could raise suspicions. The latest such case is the allegation that 650ha in a water catchment area in Kuala Selangor, including the Raja Musa Forest Reserve, had been illegally cleared over the past two to three years.

The discrepancies could, of course, be due to a lack of coordination between the department at federal level and those involved in preparing the gazettes. The department says total forest reserves stand at 4.7 million hectares, down from 4.85 million hectares in 1999. But hold on a minute.

The official website of the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry says it is 4.64 million hectares. Is this another of those displacement of figures quoted by the department? We urge the authorities to get to the root of the problem, not just prune the trees.