The battle to save Malaysia's last great rainforests
Malaysia's officials wage a war of words over the country's rainforests. Will politics save them?Environmentalists have fought a dogged battle with Malaysian politicians and big business interests in recent years. Results, however, have been mixed, as much of the country's rainforests have been lost to palm oil and rubber plantations. With an election due, campaigners hope to put the environment, and the damage it has endured, back on the political agenda.
This intention to revive debate about environmental issues was made clear by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at a recent rally in Kuala Lumpur attended by tens of thousands of supporters calling for an end to government corruption and a serious effort to clean up the environment.
The large turnout was a wake-up call for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has upset plantation owners by urging them to halt planting of oil palms on peat lands, pending studies on carbon emissions. Wetlands International and Greenpeace claim these practices result in large greenhouse emissions after the water involved drains from the soil.
Meanwhile, Anwar is also targeting a rare-earths plant being built by Australia's Lynas mining group in the Peninsular Malaysian state of Pahang. This project has faced fierce opposition from locals and has emerged as a lightning rod for environmentalists facing-off against big business.
But logging, legal or otherwise, and the habitat destruction it causes, alongside the close ties between politicians and plantation owners, are at the core of Malaysian politics. If left unaddressed, these issues could form the basis of many electoral gripes and translate into lost votes at the polls in June.
Last September, environmental politics came to a head when illegal logging almost caused a diplomatic incident. Britain's Prince William was urged to abandon an official visit to Borneo by campaigners who accuse Malaysian leaders and their business partners of earning millions of dollars from illegal logging in Sabah and Sarawak.
The timing of the planned royal visit was unfortunate. A month earlier, Musa Aman, chief minister of Sabah and a man with extensive ties to Najib, was named as a key figure in an investigation by Swiss authorities into allegations that UBS Bank was involved in laundering US$90 million made via illegal logging in Sabah.
The Basel-based Bruno Manser Fund, which campaigns for rainforests and the rights of indigenous people, has helped to build international credibility for local environmental groups. The Fund has accused Musa of having ties to illegal logging. In response, Musa dismissed the charges as political conspiracy.
Anwar expressed concern that Malaysian authorities used the royal tour to drum-up publicity "at a time that these revelations are coming out." In light of the Swiss attorney-general's criminal investigation, he suggested it was incumbent upon the Malaysian authorities to investigate Musa's involvement.
To date, the Malaysian government has done nothing to assist in the investigation.
Alongside its investigation into the practice of illegal logging, the Bruno Manser Fund has also drawn attention to Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud from the state of Sarawak. Another staunch supporter of Najib, Taib's family has an estimated net worth of $21 billion.
Companies linked to Taib's clan have been tied to the construction of the massive Bakun Dam - a project that has been called a "monument to corruption" by Transparency International. Under Taib's watch, there are plans to build up to 12 dams by 2020. If completed, they would displace thousands of native residents.
Switzerland has said that it will push for a freeze on the Taib family's Swiss-held assets, and have declared his family a criminal organisation.
Rainforests are often referred to as the lungs of the Earth, given their role in filtering greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. As scientific research has shown, with less forest cover more carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, heating the atmosphere in turn.
East Malaysia's rainforests are home to a staggering range of rare birds and animals, including orang-utans, clouded leopards, pygmy elephants, sun bears and the nearly extinct Javan rhinoceros. Yet despite this wealth of biodiversity, politicians, businessmen and local tribes - particularly in Borneo - eagerly cut swathes of primary forests in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, they justified the mass clearing as part of the nation's quest to become a developed country by 2020.
Despite this, Borneo's rainforest remains one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. On Peninsular Malaysia, however, there is little left of the forests and wildlife that once dominated the land.
A former federal minister for mines and primary industries once angered environmentalists when he asked: "What do you want: monkeys or gold?" The loaded question appeared to sum up the prevailing attitude of Malaysia's political establishment.
Today, the decrease in forest cover has become increasingly evident in Sabah, where scientists believe a spike in annual average temperatures has led to a change in local weather patterns. This includes increased storm activity and erratic seasonal changes.
According to a recent paper presented by Glen Reynolds of the Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Programme (SEARRP), run by the Royal Society in the UK, there was a sharp decline in lowland forest between 1990 and 2010. Over the same period, palm oil plantations increased almost five-fold, and now cover about one-fifth of Sabah.
Palm oil can be found in one out of ten products on supermarket shelves, from biscuits and salad dressing to lipstick and soap. Analysts have estimated that exports of palm oil add $20 billion to Malaysia's bottom line and indirectly support about 2 million jobs. But that windfall must be stacked against the disappearance of forests, which coupled with an increased demand for prized wood is leading to higher timber prices. This, in turn, is fuelling a scramble for lumber. To meet demand, these rare timbers are now harvested with scant regard to law, creating a vicious cycle.
Countering claims that surround rainforest destruction, Malaysian officials insist that Sabah enjoys 6,000 square kilometres of fully protected forest. They also claim that deforestation rates are acceptably low and emphasise the state's intentions to keep natural forest cover around 50 per cent.
Officials also claim that greenhouse gas emissions are not a major issue in Malaysia. They have even gone as far as using homespun mathematics and imaginative science to make the case that Malaysia is a "net carbon sink country" with 80 per cent tree cover. These claims have led to charges of "greenwashing" - a term used to describe efforts to paint an overly optimistic environmental picture. To reinforce their message, the Malaysian government and business interests are keen to convince the world that monoculture plantations should be classified as "forests".
Some hope that Malaysia will be able to raise capital by registering its plantations in carbon emission schemes under the UN's Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program (REDD). This plan was not lost on Anwar when he addressed the recent rally in the nation's capital. He argued that Malaysians have suffered from government mismanagement for long enough, and pledged to bring this to an end.
"Under our rule we will not permit stealing from the people or corruption," Anwar said. "If we can control it, the people's lives can change and the welfare and livelihood of Malaysians nationwide will be improved."
A coherent and honest environmental policy alone is unlikely to get Anwar elected. But a combination of strong political opposition, international legal action and local activism has at least put those who control the forests on notice.