PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Malaysia is set to beef up its decades-old forestry laws this year in an effort to protect its rainforests from illegal loggers, a senior minister said on Friday.
The move would stiffen penalties, including fines and jail terms, for those found guilty of cutting down trees without permission, Xavier Jayakumar, Malaysia’s water, land and natural resources minister, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Last year, hundreds of environmentalists marched on Malaysia’s parliament demanding changes to the constitution and laws to step up punishments for forest-clearing, corruption and pollution.
The government has prepared revisions to Malaysia’s forestry legislation that are due to be tabled in parliament by June and likely to become law before the end of the year, Jayakumar said.
“In terms of (a) deterrent it is very good. It will make a difference,” he said in an interview in the government’s administrative capital of Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur.
“We have introduced (draft) laws whereby if you’re caught in the jungle, you have got to have a reason why you are there.”
The world lost 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of tropical tree cover in 2018 - equal to 30 football pitches a minute - according to monitoring service Global Forest Watch.
Malaysia was among the six countries with the biggest forest shrinkage that year. From 2001-2018, it lost about 7.7 million hectares of tree cover, equivalent to a 26% decrease since 2000.
Besides being a major producer of timber and wood products, the Southeast Asian nation is the second-largest grower of palm oil, the world’s most widely used edible oil.
Palm plantations in both Malaysia and Indonesia have come under scrutiny over logging activities, forest-clearing, fires and labor abuses.
Under Malaysia’s constitution, forest management falls largely under state, not federal control. That has led to economic interests being prioritized over the environment and rights of indigenous people, green groups say.
Jayakumar said states were reluctant to give up their right to manage and control their forests, making it “very difficult” to change the constitution.
“That is a no-go area,” he said at his office, decorated with a life-size art sculpture of a Malaysian tiger.
But states have taken on federal government messages about the need to curb deforestation and change the economic model, he added.
Jayakumar, a dentist-turned-politician, identified the key threats to Malaysia’s forests as illegal logging and plantation expansion.
Last year, Malaysia capped its plantation area at 6.5 million hectares for the next five years, compared with about 5.8 million hectares presently.
“The big plantation boys have agreed that’s enough,” the minister said.
Soaring Chinese demand for stinky durian fruit has also emerged as a threat to Malaysia’s rainforest, conservation experts say.
Jayakumar, who as a child grew up on rubber plantations where his father worked, banned large-scale durian plantations last year, citing the risk of over-supply on prices and the likelihood China would eventually cultivate its own supplies.
The government now monitors its forests using satellite images and drones, he said, adding 5G technology was also being assessed for its usefulness.
Last month, Malaysia pledged to plant 100 million trees over the next five years to help restore depleted forest areas and meet its commitments to curb planet-warming carbon emissions.
The government is also talking to fund managers and corporations about developing a project that would generate revenues from the carbon stored by forests as an incentive to keep them standing, said Jayakumar.
“We have been working hard in order to make sure that the forest that we have is still intact and there is no further deforestation,” he said.
Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org