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11. Directional tree felling training program: an association’s approach - Peter C.S. Kho and Barney S.T. Chan*

* Sarawak Timber Association, Level 11, Wisma STA, Jalan Datuk Abang Abdul Rahim, Kuching 93450, Sarawak, Malaysia, Tel: ++(60 82) 33 2222, Fax: ++ (60 82) 48 7888, 48 7999, E-mail: [email protected] and [email protected]


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many concerned non-governmental organizations and western governments criticized Sarawak for alleged destruction of rainforests through uncontrolled logging practices. This attention encouraged the Sarawak State Government to re-examine forestry matters and policies, culminating in the Government inviting an independent mission, under the auspices of the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), “to assess the sustainable utilisation and conservation of tropical forests and their genetic resources as well as maintenance of the ecological balance in Sarawak, Malaysia” (ITTO, 1990).

The mission made three recommendations, one of which was to strengthen the human resource aspect of the Sarawak Forest Department (SFD) comprehensively. As part of this strengthening process, training of staff from both the SFD and the timber companies was identified as being an important move towards sustainable forest management in Sarawak.

In June 1996, the Sarawak Timber Association (STA) collaborated with the SFD, to start a tree-felling training program to supplement existing training programs provided by the SFD and other government agencies. STA has been involved in the training of tree fellers for about 36 months and has so far trained 508 persons. The training concentrated mainly on occupational health and safety and directional felling. Typically, workers who have been targeted for training, have several years’ working experience in the field and are competent in the use of chainsaws. Techniques to reduce logging damage by using better and more refined methods were also explored. Most tree fellers work on contract, whereby their incomes are related directly to their production volumes.

In implementing the training program, STA faced a number of problems. Initially, like most training programs, there was resistance along the line of “we have been doing this for so many years, why should we go through with this training?” There were more problems: (i) the logging companies needed to be convinced of the benefits to be derived from the training of their employees; (ii) a suitable professional trainer was difficult to find - STA had to develop its own training curriculum and delivery; (iii) the potential trainees were spread thinly over a large geographical area of a very harsh environment and access to trainees was difficult, in many cases taking a whole day of travelling by airplane, express boat and four-wheel-drive vehicle; (iv) heavy rains and drought often made access to training sites challenging; (v) there were cultural problems involving the ethnic backgrounds and languages of trainees who had no formal education; and (vi) the program was expensive to run or offered no immediate tangible results.

This paper outlines the problems encountered, and then discusses the approaches towards solving them. First, the paper describes a typical round of the STA Tree Fellers Training Program. Second, it identifies and discusses five major problem areas. Finally, it reviews the success of this ongoing training event.


The entire process involved in organizing a typical training round must be understood in order to appreciate the problems and solutions faced by STA. The training program has been ongoing for about 36 months and it has settled into the following sequence:

1. Identification of a logging camp. The STA Secretariat, with assistance from the Engineering Section of the SFD, identifies a camp where the next training event is to be carried out. Initial contact with the company’s forest manager is then made and a tentative training schedule is agreed upon. This is important, as ground transport and other preparatory work have to be organized by the target camp. Usually about 20 to 30 tree fellers are identified for training each time.

2. Preparation by the logging camp. The camp management identifies the tree fellers to be trained (consequently, this determines the site for training). Their names and identity card numbers are then faxed to STA to verify that they have never been trained before. In order to keep time loss to a minimum during training, management is requested to identify/mark suitable trees for felling and to construct the skid trails in advance.

3. Support from the SFD. The Engineering Section of the SFD sends two officers on each training trip; one officer from the Regional Forest Office whose function is to oversee the training and help in language translation, and the other officer to be trained as a trainer. The support from the SFD is very important as it demonstrates the seriousness of the state authorities.

4. Transport logistics. This is purely administrative but very important, as it is difficult to move many people from different locations to the training sites in the forests efficiently. A fair amount of coordination is necessary, even to the extent of booking airline tickets and riverine transport. It must be stressed here that cooperation from the camp management is critical to coordinate both river and road transportation to the camp.

5. Initial briefing. Upon arrival at the target camp, STA’s professional trainer and the two officers of the SFD spend some time with camp management to explain the background of the training, the training schedule and the support that is required of them.

6. Training. Briefing is usually done at the log-landing site for two or three tree fellers at a time. First, an appraisal form is filled out for each trainee to gauge experience and skills. This information indicates the level of training required. Course objectives are then explained and expected results are stressed (e.g. personal safety, increased productivity from easier log extraction, maximum log volume and value recovery, minimal damage to standing trees). Demonstrating safe handling and maintenance of chainsaws, including wearing of safety apparel follows.

Actual hands-on training is done on a one-to-one basis. This is followed with a tree-felling demonstration, with each step fully explained by the trainer. Each trainee tries out the technique explaining the rationale of each step being made. This process is repeated until the trainee has demonstrated that the skills have been acquired (i.e. the trainee is competent in felling a tree). The trainee is then awarded a certificate of participation.

7. Debriefing. Before leaving the logging camp, the trainer spends some time with the trainees and management to review the training. This is to stress the importance of using the acquired skills. Another debriefing session is held at the STA office after the trainer’s return to Kuching and a training report is submitted. Details of the trained tree fellers are entered into a computerized database.


STA faces a number of problems in conducting the training. Five major constraints are discussed here. STA has tried to solve these problems by providing answers that are very pertinent and relevant to the situation in Sarawak.

1. The trainer and the delivery method

The trainer is obviously critical to the success of any training program. Trainers familiar with tropical logging in general are few in number. Trainers qualified in directional felling in the tropics are more rare. It took STA about a year of searching, culminating in the identification of a suitable professional Maori trainer, who was seconded to STA by the New Zealand Forest Research Institute Limited.

The lack of properly qualified trainers in tropical logging is a real constraint to any training program. In many international fora and government-to-government meetings, there are calls and even funding for assorted training events, mostly in the name of sustainable forest management. However, there is no recognition of the fact that qualified trainers are scarce and there is a major need to produce more qualified trainers. STA has made a determined effort to train the tree fellers (who are directly in need of training) and not to train the trainers (as many overseas development agencies tend to do).

There is a need for more than technical competency of trainers. There are other important attributes that STA looks for, and most of these are cultural (and will be discussed later). The calibre of the trainer selected contributes considerably to the success of the STA training program.

The delivery of training beyond standard teaching methods can be a personal preference of trainers. In the STA training program, a few experiments were conducted to find the most effective delivery method to suit the trainees’ backgrounds. It was discovered that a ‘class’ or group of trainees’ approach is not suitable because of peer pressures to ‘refrain’ from adopting new techniques. In the case of Sarawak, almost all the tree fellers are very experienced. There are always one or two trainees who think they know more than others; these trainees will invariably make ‘smart’ remarks to distract the teaching and are basically uncooperative during the training. They have the feeling of “I’ve done this so many years now, what can you really teach me?” Changing the mindset of these tree fellers is difficult. Some think the new technique is slow and will lower their productivity.

Through trial and error, the most effective way of teaching was to limit the class size to not more than three while teaching the theory or background of new techniques. This was followed by a one-to-one practical session. Firstly, the trainer demonstrates what has been taught orally and then asks the trainee to fell a tree using the knowledge just acquired. At close contact, on a one-to-one basis, it is easier to correct errors and make improvements to the techniques taught. Indeed, almost all of the trainees had no problem in absorbing the training material within half a day.

Another important aspect is to acquaint the management, including supervisors and foremen, with the reasons for the training and the content of the training. This is usually done in a briefing session by the trainer the night before the actual training commences. Commitment by management is very effective in persuading the trainees of the necessity for training and continued use of the skills acquired.

2. Development of an appropriate training curriculum

There was no readily available ‘off-the-shelf’ curriculum that STA could use for training in Sarawak even though there is a long tradition of vocational training in temperate countries. The professional trainer employed by STA, working very closely together with member companies of STA and officers from the SFD, took three months to design an appropriate curriculum.

The targeted trainees were tree fellers who are currently employed by members of the STA. Many of them have been working as tree fellers for years, several for as long as 20 years, though on average they have spent 5-10 years working in logging. As such, these operators know their chainsaws and basic felling techniques.

It was agreed that the training program should cover occupational health and safety and directional felling. These two concepts are not new but the target group is not part of the information network; the operators are not well informed about environmental and biodiversity concerns, opportunities for reducing the impacts of their felling operations, hearing loss and other occupational hazards.

Special efforts were made to simplify the range and extent of subjects to be taught in order to maximize the success rate of skill transfer. For example, after some trials, it was decided to revise the function of some recognized cuts: the scarf or felling notch cuts (to determine direction), wing cuts (to minimize lateral splitting or wood tearing), appropriate back cuts (to safely release the tree), and to use wedges when required.

3. Access to training sites

A major problem was accessibility to the training sites. Training sites are usually located close to a logging camp. There are thousands of tree fellers in hundreds of location, spread thinly over the 12.3 million ha of Sarawak. Getting from Kuching, where STA is based, to the training site can take a full day of travel or more. Typically the journey starts with about an hour of flying on a commercial airline. This is usually followed by a river trip taking anything from one to four hours, followed by a four-wheel-drive trip for a few more hours.

The target logging camp is contacted weeks in advance to allow the camp management ample time to select trainees. A training area has to be designated ahead of time, mainly to allow identification of trees for felling and building of skid trails to save time.

Weather is an important consideration due to the remoteness of logging camps and difficult transport conditions. Some boats stop when the river is too low due to drought. All road transportation within a logging concession halts during rainfall for safety reasons. This obviously hinders entering and leaving a training location. Rain also stops the training, as trainees cannot move from the camp to the training sites.

The Sarawak system of logging is termed selective logging. This system dictates that only trees of acceptable diameter are felled; the number and species of trees allowed for felling are also controlled. In practice, this means that on average only 5-7 trees/ha are felled. Therefore, felling crews are far apart and not concentrated in any one logging area. STA’s training program is moving ahead only slowly because of the extensive geographical area to be covered. STA is considering adding another training team but this is difficult due to the lack of both qualified trainers and funding.

4. Cultural factors

By and large most tree fellers in Sarawak have not attended formal classroom education. This of course is not a barrier to learning new skills. In many cases, this training is the first time the tree fellers have been certified in their life and their pride in this achievement is evident.

There is a problem with communication. Most tree fellers are from the Iban or Orang Ulu, only two of the many ethnic groups living in Sarawak. This means that two different languages have to be used for communication, although often the fellers can understand a common third language like Malay. The STA professional trainer speaks English and Maori, but no Sarawakian language.

An officer from the SFD is part of the training team. One of the officer’s roles is to act as an interpreter. This interpretation creates a barrier in the delivery of the training. In order to reduce the errors due to poor translation, STA prepares audiotapes of some parts of the training, especially the part that provides the background, e.g. why is it important to reduce the damage to the forest during logging. These background materials are taped in the Malay language and then played on a battery-operated tape-recorder at the training sites.

STA is now planning to produce a training video to enhance the quality of delivery. However, training videos are technically difficult and very expensive to produce. An illustrated manual and posters in a few local languages are being designed as training aids.

By the nature of the work, both trainer and trainees are kept closely together in very remote locations for days on end. During this time, a non-Sarawakian trainer needs to be aware of cultural and religious differences and must be sensitive to the behaviour of different peoples. Without a doubt, a more mature trainer is an asset for such interactions.

5. High costs of training

Apart from the difficulty and exhaustion caused by long trips to the training sites, there are high costs associated with training. Typically air tickets cost a few hundred ringgits[10], together with incidental costs like food and transit hotels.

There is also a high cost for the target logging camp as the management there organises and pays for all the river and road transportation, accommodation and food as well as costs of all movements of staff and trainees during the training.

A more important cost that can impede training is downtime. Tree fellers are paid according to the volume of logs produced. They are by nature contractors, meaning their income is entirely dependent on their production. Any stoppage or downtime for whatever reason means reduced income. Why should a tree feller give up personal income to attend a training program?

It can be demonstrated easily that the yield from each tree felled can be increased with directional felling. In other words, the tree fellers can extract more volume of logs although a similar number of trees is felled. This translates into a higher income and is a definite incentive for the tree feller. At least it encourages the tree fellers to improve.

Lastly, the cost of employing a professional trainer is high compared to local standards. There is a need for accommodation, living expenses, insurance etc. The expense of a trainer, coupled with high costs for running such a training program, can discourage organizations from becoming involved in training.


Is the STA tree-felling training program a success?

In Sarawak, there are various penalties for infringing the SFD’s logging guidelines. There is a post-logging inspection when damages are recorded and the loggers are fined according to a standard published rate. This can form the basis for comparing the performance of the tree fellers.

In a project carried out in December 1997, the SFD team inspected four coupes (or blocks) of forests after logging to survey the damage. Since a tree feller should cause minimal damage to the standing trees, it is worthwhile examining the fines based on the production of logs. The monetary fines in Table 1 are converted to a per cubic metre basis to reflect the work of a tree feller.

The data in Table 1 show that the damages as defined by the SFD’s list of offences, show a decrease for tree fellers who have undergone the STA Tree Fellers’ Training Program. This indicates that the program has been successful in that the objectives have largely been met.

This result has encouraged STA to improve the training delivery method and to develop and refine techniques that are appropriate for Sarawak’s conditions and its council to continue funding the program. The association is forging ahead with the development of a tractor driver course; training is expected to commence in 2001.

Table 1. Average penalties in Malaysian ringgit (RM) per cubic metre of log produced for different coupes

Types of offences

Untrained tree fellers

Trained tree fellers

Coupe A

Coupe B

Coupe C

Coupe D

Uprooting trees





Trunk breakage





Major injury*





High stump





Minor injury**










* Major injury. Less than half the crown damaged. More than half of the trunk/butt debarked. More than half of the roots broken or dug up.

** Minor injury. Less than half of trunk/butt debarked. Less than half of the roots broken or dug up.


The Tree Fellers’ Training Program was initiated and carried out by a private sector association (as compared to government-initiated training). This produced some unique approaches that contributed to its success. Close cooperation between the public and private sectors is vital.

It is both difficult and expensive to carry out logging training in Sarawak. The fact that Malaysia is a developing country makes these problems even greater.

Trainers and suitable training programs for tropical logging are extremely scarce. There is a substantial need for more constructive work for those working towards sustainable forest management.


ITTO. 1990. Report submitted to the ITTC by the Mission “The Promotion of Sustainable Forest Management: a case study in Sarawak, Malaysia”. Yokohama: International Tropical Timber Organisation.

[10] US$1.00 = 3.8 ringgit

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