Log the forest and get carbon credit rewards

Jun 3, 2024
Heavy loaded logging timber truck along the Kalabakan-Sapulut countryside road in Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia.

Two major Malaysian logging companies that have devastated Borneo’s forests have been granted “Forest Carbon Research Permits” in the first step to enable them to log old-growth forests and claim carbon credits.

The Malaysian state government of Sarawak has granted Forest Carbon Study permits to the Shin Yang group of companies and SaraCarbon Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of the Samling Group.

The permits authorise studies seeking to quantify how the companies could “selectively” log large trees and gain carbon credits from regrowth.

SaraCarbon’s permit is for a region near Marudi on the Baram River, within a Samling industrial plantation area. Shin Yang has been granted a two-year Carbon Study Permit for 26,376 hectares of land in the Jalin forest.

The process is part of the market-based international “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries” (REDD+) scheme which enables the sale and purchase of “Verified Emission Reductions”, otherwise known as carbon credits.

While the Sarawak government proceed to apply this scheme, a major international study presented to the United Nations earlier in May 2024 found that such market-based forest carbon trading scheme have largely failed. They are not reducing deforestation or alleviating poverty.

The report was compiled by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), a group of 15,000 scientists from 120 countries.

“The evidence does not support the claim of win-wins or triple wins for environment, economy and people often made for market mechanisms as a policy response to environmental problems,” contributing author, Maria Brockhaus from the University of Helsinki told AFP.

“Rather our cases show that poverty and forest loss both are persistent across different regions of the world… where market mechanisms have been the main policy option for decades.”

One of the case studies in the report is from Sarawak’s neighbouring Malaysian state of Sabah. With the support of the state government, the World Bank funded a plan to establish a 40,468 hectares Acacia plantation to halt the traditional practice of shifting agriculture on the Bengkoka Penisula. Some 2,000 households were set to benefit from the Sabah Forestry Development Authority (SAFODA) plan to supply wood for industry. The World Bank cancelled its funding in 1992 after its assessment found that the project would have little commercial success.

The plantations were largely developed on customary lands and the villagers were promised tangible socio-economic benefits and the return of the land once the trees were harvested. But in 2018 the Sabah courts directed the villagers to vacate their village located within the SAFODA gazetted territory.

Today the indigenous people affected by the Sarawak carbon research permits are bewildered by the process. The non-government agency, The Borneo Project reported that the Penan communities of Long Iman and Long Liwok/Liwok received notices from Shin Yang for meetings on 25-26 April this year on the social impact assessments for the Jalin project in their area.

Following the meetings, The Borneo Project said community members expressed confusion and felt pressured by the company to sign documents. Mutang Tuo from Long Iman explained: “They said, the purpose is that our forest will have more wood and make the air more fresh. How is this going to happen?

“We Penan people are no longer allowed to enter the forest and are no longer allowed to cut wood, hunt and collect forest products. This is what makes us Penan disagree. How could we not enter the forest, while we depend on the forest to live. We also informed Shin Yang that we no longer trust them.”

Not surprisingly Samling’s Marudi carbon project has left community members struggling to grasp the concepts of carbon trading. For over fifty years indigenous people in Sarawak have petitioned government to stop logging, mounted protests, lodged court cases and erected barricades. They believe that if forest conservation is the goal, the communities should be the ones receiving the international funds for their opposition to logging.

Forest carbon credits may be suitable for cold, northern forests dominated by a few species of coniferous trees, where it is easy to measure forest growth. But the system is totally unacceptable for the Borneo rainforests which are an Eden of biological richness. Surveys have found more than 700 tree species in a ten-hectare plot, nearly as many as the total number of species in Canada and the United States combined. The island has more bird species than all of Europe. This diversity was recognised in the mid-nineteenth century by no-less than Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace.

Since its foundation in 1976 Samling has had a history of clear-felling forest, promising to replant blocks with fast-growing trees such as acacia, eucalyptus or rubber. Perhaps aware of international criticism, Samling now promotes its practice of “selective” felling which aims to log “mature and over-mature trees without denuding the forest.”

Samling says this is done in such a way as to leave behind residual stands with a sufficient number of trees in the intermediate diameter classes to form the next crop of trees. The felling is “extremely selective” and areas are not cleared and left barren.

At a blockade as far back as 1986 this argument was put by a District Officer to Penan anti-logging protestor, Melai Beluluk of Long Adang.

“Oh, District Officer,” he replied, “how do you think the trees make it to the valley? Do they fly? What about the bulldozers that prepare the roads into our land?…. If they dig up the earth to take the Meranti tree over there, this Jakah palm here will die along with all the surrounding trees, and the rattan will be killed and the river will be polluted.”

The same argument applies today.

The Forest Carbon Research permits are provided under Sarawak’s carbon law Forests (Forest Carbon Activity) Rules which do not provide for any payment to affected communities. The royalty to be paid by the companies to the state government from any future revenue from carbon credits is set at the extremely low rate of five per cent.

This issue has been taken up by Democratic Action Party (DAP) member, Violet Yong in the Sarawak State Assembly. Speaking on 8 May she asked: “If the carbon activity is hailed as a new potential sector to generate income from the forest resources in Sarawak ….why is this fee set as low as 5 per cent? Does this mean that the company that carries out the carbon credit activities will benefit 95 per cent of the derived annual revenue?”

Other environmental campaigners are also challenging the scheme. Celine Lim, the managing director of Save Rivers, an organisation fighting plans to dam the Baram River, says under the current laws, carbon projects will repeat the same old story in Sarawak: timber companies profiting from indigenous land, while the communities remain empty handed.

“The only reason there are still native forests left in Sarawak is either because the areas are not accessible for logging – or because indigenous communities protected their forests against intruding companies,” she said.

Paul Malone has a long-running interest in Borneo. His book The Peaceful People: The Penan and their fight for the forest was published in 2014 by Gerakbudaya, Malaysia.

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