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Potential for sustainable tropical forest management in Malaysia

S.T. Mok

S.T. Mok is an independent consultant based in Kuala Lumpur.

Following is an analysis of current practices and the present and future potential of sustainable forest management.

Hill dipterocarp forest In Malaysia. Note the stemless palm (Eugeissona triste) in the foreground

Malaysia is well-endowed with rich and renewable natural tropical forest resources. The total area of natural forests in Malaysia at the end of 1989 was estimated at 19.49 million ha or 56.3 percent of the total land area. The total growing stock of all trees of 10 cm DBH or more was estimated to be 4600 million m3 of which about 1280 million m3 were considered to be merchantable volume comprising all trees of 45 cm DBH or more. Besides providing direct benefits, the forests play a vital role in maintaining environmental stability and quality; protecting soil and water resources; conserving biological diversity; and preserving cultural, recreational and other intrinsic values which enhance people's quality of life.

The importance of the natural forests to the Malaysian economy and the people's welfare was reflected in the early establishment of the Federal and State Forest Services, the forest research and training institutions and the National Forestry Council. National and state forestry policies and legislations have been adopted, Totally Protected Areas and a Permanent Forest Estate (PFE) established and forestry practices, based on the concept and principles of sustained yield, developed for sustainable forest management. Currently, the PFE comprises 12.73 million ha or 38.7 percent of the total land area and will eventually be increased to more than 14 million ha. Approximately 10 million ha or 78.5 percent of the PFE have been identified as production forest to be managed sustainably. In addition to the PFE, 1.06 million ha have been reserved as Totally Protected Areas and a funkier 0.75 million ha have been proposed for reservation (Thang, personal communication, 1991).

Current forest management practices

The natural forests in Malaysia are managed in accordance with the concept and principles of sustained yield for all forms of forest produce. Traditionally, they have been managed under the Malayan Uniform System (MUS) which prescribes the removal of the mature crop in a single felling of all trees down to 45 cm DBH and the release of selected natural regeneration by poison girdling of defective relicts and non-commercial species down to 15 cm DBH (Thang, 1990). Approximately two to five years after the final felling, a post-felling forest inventory or diagnostic sampling is carried out to determine the stocking, status and condition of the regeneration and to prescribe appropriate silvicultural treatments.

Selective harvesting of dipterocarp forest in Malaysia

As the MUS relied mainly on seedlings and saplings to form the next crop, silvicultural treatments were designed to favour these groups, often at the expense of the bigger trees. Such treatments tend to lead to a much heavier poison girdling than is necessary and, in some cases, a too drastic opening of the canopy. Consequently, the MUS has been substantially modified over time, with a shift toward more selective felling and the retention of advanced growth as well as a more discriminating use of poison girdling as a silvicultural tool.

The MUS has been applied successfully to the lowland dipterocarp forests but has been found to be unsuitable in the hill dipterocarp forests because of the more difficult terrain; uneven stocking; lack of natural regeneration on the forest floor before logging; uncertain seedling regeneration after logging (caused by irregular seeding); danger of erosion on steep slopes; incidence of the stemless palm (Eugeissona triste); and other secondary growth favoured by a drastic opening of the canopy (Thang, 1990). The shift from the MUS toward a more conservation-oriented approach to the management of tropical forests in Malaysia was also prompted by the realization that the diversity of the flora and timber species need not necessarily be disadvantageous to future wood production policies and strategies but could enable the wood-based industries to take advantage of changing demands of the timber market. It was further influenced by arguments that a heterogeneous forest enhances prospects for the conservation of the total amount of biological diversity; protection of soil and water resources; maintenance of environmental stability and quality; as well as a fuller utilization of the forest resources, particularly non-wood products; and that it minimizes the cost of regeneration.

A forest management approach based on the selective removal of the mature crop in a single operation was introduced in Malaysia recently. The Selective Management System (SMS), adopted in peninsular Malaysia, involves the selection of a management regime to optimize not only the objectives of efficient and economic harvesting, utilization, reforestation and sustained yield but, more importantly, to ensure that forest development is biologically, ecologically and environmentally sustainable. The SMS requires an adequate pre-felling forest inventory and simulation of alternative felling options taking all relevant factors into account to determine the best regime for sustainable management. It also requires cutting climbers and tree-marking before felling as well as a post-felling inventory to determine residual stocking and appropriate silvicultural treatments. The SMS has been singled out by the International Institute for Environment and Development, in its report on sustainable management of natural tropical forests for the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), as the most encouraging and complete theoretical system for operational forest management.

Policy legislation for sustainable forestry development: Malaysia

The National Forestry Policy (NFP) for peninsular Malaysia was approved by the National Forestry Council and endorsed by the National Land Council in 1978. It has been adopted by all states in peninsular Malaysia and is supported by Sabah and Sarawak which have forestry policies with similar objectives. The following policy objectives contribute directly to sustainable forest management (Government of Malaysia, 1978):

· To dedicate as Permanent Forest Estate sufficient areas of land strategically located throughout the country, in accordance with the concept of rational land use, in order to ensure:

i) the sound climatic and physical condition of the country, the safeguarding of water supplies, soil fertility and environmental quality and the minimization of damage by floods and erosion to rivers and agricultural land; such forest lands being known as Protective Forests;

ii) the supply in perpetuity, at reasonable rates of all forms of forest produce which can be economically produced within the country and are required for agricultural, domestic and industrial purposes, and for export; such forest lands being known as Productive Forests; and

iii) the conservation of adequate forest areas for recreation, education, research and protection of the country's unique flora and fauna; such forest lands being known as Amenity Forests.

· To manage the Permanent Forest Estate with the object of maximizing social, economic and environmental benefits for the nation and its people in accordance with the principles of sound forest management.

· To pursue a sound programme of forest development through regeneration and rehabilitation operations in accordance with approved silvicultural practices in order to achieve maximum productivity from the Permanent Forest Estate.

· To ensure thorough and efficient utilization of forest resources on land not included in the Permanent Forest Estate, prior to the alienation of such land, by means of proper coordinated planning by land development agencies in order to obtain maximum benefits for the people through complete harvesting and processing of such resources, adhering strictly to the optimum need of local processing industries.

· To promote efficient harvesting and utilization of all forms of forest produce and to stimulate the development of appropriate wood-based industries with determined capacities commensurate with the resource flow in order to achieve maximum resource utilization, create employment opportunities and earn foreign exchange.

· To undertake and support an intensive research programme in forest development aimed at achieving maximum yield from the Permanent Forest Estate, maximum direct and indirect benefits from harvesting and utilization and, above all, maximum financial return on investment in forest development activities.

· To undertake and support a comprehensive programme of forestry training at all levels in the public sector in order to ensure an adequate supply of trained labour to meet the requirements of forestry and wood-based industries.

The National Forestry Policy is supplemented by the following specific guidelines to ensure sustainable forest management (Mok, 1977: Thang, 1990):

· To manage and utilize the forest resources for maximum benefits based on the inherent capability of the forest and its optimal use.

· To manage the utilization of the forest resources based on comprehensive forest land use and management plans.

· To determine potential yield on the basis of systematic and in-depth appraisals of the forest resource base, its growth potential and other relevant factors.

· To regulate log flows based on a careful balance of supply and demand, maximum utilization prospects and constraints.

· To harvest the forest resources selectively and to retain adequate natural regeneration, consistent with economic harvesting, so as to ensure the sustainability of the forest resource base.

· To apply optimal forest management regimes formulated on the basis of information generated by systematic and integrated forest management and operational studies.

· To establish forest plantations of quick growing species for industrial wood.

· To promote multiple-use forestry and environmental conservation.

· To ensure that sufficient forested areas are protected for the conservation of genetic resources, soil and water.

· To promote efficient harvesting and utilization of all forms of forest produce.

The National Forestry Act was passed by the Malaysian Parliament in 1984 to standardize and strengthen the state forestry legislations for forest conservation, management and development. It has been adopted by all states in peninsular Malaysia to facilitate the effective implementation of the National Forestry Policy. The Act requires the classification of the Permanent Forest Estate into functional categories including "timber production forest under sustained yield" (Government of Malaysia, 1984). It also requires the preparation and implementation of 'State Forest Management Plans which shall prescribe the allowable cut either in terms of volume or area, in accordance with the principle of sustained yield", reforestation plans and programmes for amenity forests. It further provides for the establishment of a Forest Development Fund to facilitate the implementation of these activities and ensure sustainable forest management. At the operational level, the licensee is required to demarcate, on the ground, the area covered by the licence and to prepare management or harvesting and reforestation plans.

In peninsular Malaysia, the felling cycle under the SMS is from 25 to 30 years, based on the following prescriptions (Thang, personal communication, 1991 ):

· the cutting limit for dipterocarp species should not be less than 50 cm DBH, except for chengal (Neobalanocarpus heimii) which should not be less than 60 cm DBH;

· the cutting limit for non-dipterocarp species should not be less than 45 cm DBH;

· the residual stocking should have at least 32 sound commercial trees per hectare for the diameter class 30 to 45 or its equivalent;

· the difference in the cutting limits between the dipterocarp species and the non-dipterocarp species should be at least 5 cm; and

· the percentage of dipterocarp species in the residual stand for trees of 30 cm DBH or more should not be less than that in the original stand.

These prescriptions are designed to favour the sustained production of commercially valuable dipterocarp species, particularly chengal, while ensuring an overall species diversity.

Production forest managed under the principle of sustained yield in Malaysia

Prospects for sustainable forest management

The concept of sustainability is not new to forestry, as the basic objective of forest management is sustained yield. This objective is clearly defined in Malaysia's forestry policy. In its classic sense, sustained yield means a "steady supply" (Brasnett, 1953) or "providing continuously, year after year, a supply of timber that is ripe for felling" (Knuchel, 1953). The concept, however, is dynamic and can be modified to cope with different conditions and objectives of forest management as has been done in Malaysia in response to the multiple values inherent in the tropical forests.

Malaysia currently produces timber from the Permanent Forest Estate, state forests earmarked for conversion to non forestry uses and plantations of tree crops, including rubber. Prospects for the sustainable management of the PEE, especially for timber production, are excellent as security of tenure is assured and growth rates in regenerated forests indicate that sustained yield can be achieved. Integrated studies in forest management and operations in peninsular Malaysia show that, with average annual growth rates of 0.8 to I cm in diameter end 2 to 2.5 m3 per hectare in gross commercial volume for trees of more than 30 cm DBH, about three-quarters of the hill forest is capable of producing at least 40 to 45 net m3 per hectare every 30 years this is about the current average outturn level of the virgin hill forests (Thang, personal communication, 1991). Growth and yield studies in Sabah and Sarawak have shown similarly positive results.

Although Malaysia has implemented more prerequisites and guidelines for the sustainable management of natural tropical forests than most other tropical countries, while demonstrating the feasibility of sustained yield at the forest management and operational levels, the country is often accused of having failed the test of sustainability. A recent ITTO study of forestry in Sarawak, for instance, acknowledged that the state's "admirable features include an established PFE; a Forest Policy which sets watershed protection as a primary objective; the reservation of areas for the protection of biological diversity; an effective system for tracing and controlling the movement of logs; comprehensive management planning for the production forest; and a data bank of research information unequalled in the tropics". Nevertheless, it concluded that "sustainable management of the forests of Sarawak is being partly achieved", citing over-cutting of the hill dipterocarp forests as a major impediment to sustainability (ITTO, 1990b). This conclusion is illogical, irrational and unfair as it presumes that Sarawak will continue to harvest timber at the present rate without any regard for sustainable forest management or the people's future welfare. Instead, it should be pointed out that the timber is derived from both the PFE and state forests and that the high rate of timber harvesting registered since the mid- 1980s in Sarawak coincided with a sharp increase in the area of state forest designated for conversion to perennial agricultural tree crops such as rubber and oil-palm. Consequently, the bulk of production during the period, especially from the hill forests, was harvested from areas outside the PFE. In 1990, the total log production of about 18.8 million m3 comprised 7.8 million m3 from the PFE, 4.7 million m3 from the state land and 6.3 million m3 from the agri-conversion areas. The relatively high rate of timber harvest in Sarawak is not expected to continue indefinitely, but rather to decline and stabilize at a sustainable level.

Overall, natural forests still cover about 8.72 million ha or 70 percent of the total land area of Sarawak. Of this total, about 4.5 million ha have been constituted as Permanent Forest Estate, 256000 ha as Totally Protected Areas and 3.96 million ha as State forest. The state has proposed to increase the PFE to 6 million ha, and the Totally Protected Areas to 1 million ha.

The PFE and state forest in Sarawak are managed in accordance with the concept, principles and practices of sustained yield. Studies indicate that, based on the current cutting cycles of 45 and 25 years for the peat swamp forests, respectively, and hill mixed dipterocarp forests, at the end of the cutting cycle, the minimum volume per hectare of crop trees will be more than the current average harvest. Moreover, each concession area or management unit has a forest management plan that contains a description of the area; management objectives and prescriptions for harvesting; the species to be removed and their diameter limits; the annual allowable cut; specifications for road construction and timber extraction; penalties for logging damage; etc. The forest management programme also incorporates forest engineering plans to ensure that harvesting operations are well planned and carefully conducted so that efficiency is increased and damage to the residual stand and the environment is minimized.

It is important to understand that sustainable timber production is not necessarily the same thing as sustainable forest management. In the case of Sarawak, which has an abundance of natural forests that can be managed for productive forestry purposes or converted to non-forestry uses with sustainable and higher economic values, a high rate of timber production can be sustained over a short period without any adverse long term impact on the sustainability of the PFE. An arbitrary reduction in the rate of timber harvesting, without any improvement in forest operations and practices, would be unlikely to contribute to long-term sustainability.


The tropical forests are emerging as the most important natural resource on Earth. The importance of natural tropical forests has long been recognized by Malaysia, which has reserved Totally Protected Areas specifically for the conservation of biodiversity and environmental values and established a PFE for conservation, protection and production. The country has also adopted far-sighted and pragmatic strategies to care for the forests and ensure sustainable forest management, utilization and development based on: conservation-oriented management of the natural forests; afforestation and reforestation of deforested and degraded lands; research in forest land use, management and operations; and the diffusion of appropriate information, technologies and skills.

There is obviously scope for further improvement to maximize socioeconomic benefits from the rich natural tropical forests. Sustainable tropical forest management in Malaysia can be enhanced and its potential realized by refining forest management and silvicultural techniques and improving harvesting and utilization systems. Forest management research is crucial for resolving the complex issues of rational and sustainable use of the declining forest and land resources, and it is indispensable if sustainable tropical forest management is to be achieved. Malaysia has consequently laid out a series of permanent sample plots to monitor the growth and yield of forests regenerated under the MUS and has initiated a number of experimental studies in forest management and operations to generate reliable information for evaluating the different forest management regimes envisaged under the SMS. The country is also actively involved in bilateral, regional and international projects which contribute to the achievement of sustainable forest management.

While sustained yield, in the classic sense, can be achieved with traditional research on the relevant aspects of forest management, realization of the full potential of sustainable tropical forest management can only be attained if the whole spectrum of pertinent factors are monitored and assessed in an integrated manner under real operational conditions. Integrated experiments in forest management and operations offer an objective means to evaluate the effects of different management regimes and harvesting systems as well as those of reforestation techniques on production, conservation, socio-economic and environmental factors. They should be implemented in sufficiently large concessions and in collaboration with the concessionaires not only to ensure operational realism but, more importantly, to facilitate the transfer of appropriate technologies; upgrading of expertise and skills; exchange of management and technical information; and enhancement of mutual trust and the acceptability of research findings.


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