More than 190 countries met in Paris in December 2015 on the occasion of the United Nations Climate Change Conference and reached a deal to address the issue of climate change. As always, forests and emissions from deforestation received attention throughout the conference.
In this context, it is important to draw attention to the latest report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The report is known as the ‘Global Forest Resources Assessment (FRA) 2015’ and is entitled ‘How are the world’s forests changing?’.
The FRA is the most comprehensive global examination of forests, taking data from hundreds of sources and using teams of researchers from around the world.
Many NGOs have accused the palm oil industry of being a major cause of deforestation, particularly in Malaysia. This has been one of the key pillars of the campaigns to discredit palm oil.
But the new data from the FRA changes this. Malaysia, one of the major players in the palm oil industry, is doing pretty well in terms of managing its forest resources.
Indeed, today Malaysia’s forest area is 22,195,100 ha or 67.6% – more than two-thirds – of the land area. In 2000, the area was 21,591,000 ha. Between 2010 and 2015, the forest area has risen by 14,000 ha/year.
In other words, Malaysia’s forest area is increasing, not decreasing.
Note that primary forest is 5,041,100 ha or 22.7% of the forest area; other naturally regenerated forests are 15,188,000 ha or 68.4% of the total area; and planted forests represent 1,966,000 ha or 8.9% of the forest area.
Even when looking at forest cover – which calculates forest canopy cover and includes smaller blocks of trees – Malaysia’s numbers are impressive. Global Forest Watch, established by a US NGO, says Malaysia’s forest cover is around 29,000,000 ha – upward of 80%.
Malaysia’s numbers are all the more remarkable following the past 25 years (from 1990 to 2015), when the global forest area continued to decline gradually as the world population continued to grow.
The positive aspect is that, as noted by the FAO report: ‘The focus on sustainable forest management has never been so high: more lands are designated as permanent forest, we have established more action and monitoring, reporting, and planning, and stakeholder involvement is greater every day, and there is an almost universal legal framework legislating on sustainable forest management. Larger areas are designated for the conservation of biodiversity and simultaneously forests have an increasingly important role in offering products and services.’
The authors also note that in 1990 the world had 4.128 billion ha of forest; in 2015, this area decreased to 3.999 billion ha, bringing the terrestrial coverage rate down from 31.6% to 30.6% in 25 years.
From this point of view, Malaysia sets a good example. Its forest area has decreased only slightly over the past 25 years. The rate of its forest loss has effectively fallen to zero. The decrease in Malaysia’s forest area is smaller than the losses in developed countries such as Australia and Canada.
Malaysians should be proud because one of the main features highlighted by the report is that: ‘The total forest area reported as primary has increased from 1990 to 2015, largely because more countries now report on this forest characteristic. Some countries have reported increases in national primary forest because old-growth forest categories have been reclassified (e.g Costa Rica, Japan, Malaysia, Russian Federation and the US).’
Finally, while the world also focuses on conservation of biodiversity, considerable progress has been made in this regard, since the area designated for biodiversity conservation in Malaysia rose from 1,120,000 ha in 1990, to 1,859,000 ha in 2015.
Hard work involved
There will be detractors in relation to the findings of this report. Some will claim that the use of ‘forest area’ by the FAO is not as reliable as ‘forest cover’. But there is a reason for this.
‘Forest area’ is a longer term measure of land area that is classified as forest over a longer term. ‘Forest cover’ is a snapshot of one point in time. ‘Forest cover’ is subject to disturbances, man-made or otherwise. Think of forest fires, volcanoes, diseases or clearance for environmental purposes such as fire breaks.
But it is also worth noting that a number of OECD countries such as Canada, Australia and Chile had larger forest area losses than Malaysia over the past 25 years.
After reading all these numbers, it is surprising that some continue to spread the rumour that Malaysia suffers the terrible effects of deforestation. As an observer at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, I am obviously very interested in all of this data. This is a sign that, contrary to what some seem to believe, Malaysians take care of their forest and are aware of this precious national heritage.
Malaysia should therefore be lauded. Far from the environmental pariah that some have accused it of being, it is a country that has worked hard to manage its natural resources sustainably.
In summary, the key facts from the FAO report are:
- Malaysia’s forest area is increasing, disproving the accusations of unregulated, indiscriminate mass deforestation.
- Malaysia remains one of the world’s best performers in retention of forest. Its forest area currently stands at 67.6% of the land area.
- Globally, the news for forests is also improving: biodiversity conservation areas are increasing; and the global rate of forest loss is declining.
Pierre Bois d’Enghien
Agronomist Engineer & Agricultural Expert