Nearly 80% of land in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak has been impacted by undocumented logging and forests clearing operations, a new study has found.
The impacts included building new roads, draining peat swamps, clear-felling forests, timber extraction and oil palm planting.
Sabah and Sarawak are global hotspots for forest loss and degradation due to timber and palm oil production but, until now, conventional field or satellite approaches have been unable to see detailed forest conditions and detect logging or degradation.
Malaysia’s tropical forests are among the most important on the planet, providing habitat for many species including the orangutan, slowing climate change by locking in greenhouse gases and helping to regulate global weather patterns.
For the latest study, researchers from the University of Tasmania, the University of Papua New Guinea and the US-based Carnegie Institution for Science, mapped forest area throughout Malaysian Borneo and Brunei in the year 2009.
The researchers used the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System (CLASlite), a device with a unique ability to convert satellite images of dense tropical forest cover into highly detailed maps of deforestation and degradation.
Researchers also mapped logging roads that could be seen in satellite imagery recorded between 2009 and 1990.
The combined data produced a highly detailed map of forest cover and the condition of the forests showing whether they had been logged one or more times since 1990.
Analysis of satellite imagery collected from 1990 and 2009 over Malaysian Borneo showed nearly 80% of the land surface of Sabah and Sarawak was impacted by previously undocumented, high-impact logging or clearing operations.
Only 8% of Sabah land and 3% of Sarawak land was covered by intact forests under designated protected areas.
The findings contrasted strongly with neighbouring Brunei, where 54% of the land had intact forest, largely due to the exclusion of industrial logging from its borders.
A sobering find
Jane Bryan, a researcher from the University of Tasmania’s School of Geography and Environmental Studies and a co-author of the study, said that “while it’s been known for a long time that Malaysian Borneo is a hotspot of deforestation, the extent of forest degradation had not been documented”.
“The problem has been that previous forest mapping efforts have largely used methods that can’t ‘see’ logging,” she said.
“Brunei shows that excluding logging entirely is an effective way to protect forests in the long term. But that approach means a nation needs an alternative income source. For Brunei, that came from oil and gas,” Dr Bryan said.
“It shows national wealth and well-being need not rely on industrial scale logging. It’s possible to have both forest protection and to achieve economic goals that might otherwise come from timber harvesting.”
Exploitation worse than first feared
Bill Laurance, a research professor and forests expert at James Cook University, said the statistics were “even worse than I’d feared”.
“In just two decades, a forested region that was largely intact has been drastically transformed by rapid and often predatory industrial logging,” Professor Laurance said.
Professor of Forestry Operations Mark Brown from the University of the Sunshine Coast said a lack of practice and certification processes “encourages individuals, companies and governments to take advantage of a valuable resource for economic gain, supplying low cost furniture and timber products to the developed world.”
Nick Rowley, Research Fellow and climate policy expert at the University of Sydney said they study showed that “activities previously hidden can now be viewed and understood by anyone with an Internet connection or a smart phone”.
“In time, this could provide an effective means for the consumers of those goods associated with the exploitation of land to better understand the process leading to the shampoo, the paper or the other sources of the amenity which they enjoy,” he said.
Palm oil vs timber
Professor of Forest and Ecosystem Science at the University of Melbourne Rod Keenan criticised the article’s focus on logging, “when the primary impact on forests is the conversion of land to agricultural plantations, primarily oil palm”.
“Contrary to their view, the methodology probably overstates the area impacted by timber harvesting,” Professor Keenan said.
“If their forests (developing states) aren’t given some form of economic value, then conversion is likely to continue to occur. Payment for retaining carbon stocks is a potential solution but this is proving challenging to implement in practice and will take at least eight to 10 years to develop into a comprehensive program with sufficient financial resources to make a difference,” he said.
The study appeared in the latest issue of the journal PLOS ONE.