08 February 2012

Can REDD save the forests of Sarawak?

One year ago, Wetlands International released a report that revealed that the rate of deforestation in Malaysia’s province of Sarawak is about 2% a year. Most is being converted to oil palm plantations. “Total deforestation in Sarawak is 3.5 times as much as that for entire Asia, while deforestation of peat swamp forest is 11.7 times as much,” the report states

By Chris Lang | REDD-Monitor | 7th February 2012

To make matters worse, the rate of destruction is accelerating. Between 2005 and 2007, 1.89% of Sarawak’s forest was cleared. By 2009-2010, this figure had increased to 2.14%. The area of forest on peatland has decreased from over one million hectares in 2005 to around 700,000 by 2010.

The drivers of deforestation include conversion to massive oil palm plantations and hydropower dams. In June 2011, Survival International put out an alert about 1,000 Indigenous Penan who were to be evicted from their forest to make way for the Murum dam. The government had sold the land where they where supposed to move to Shin Yang, a Malaysian oil palm company.

For 31 years, Sarawak has been ruled by one man: Abdul Taib Mahmud. Since 1981, Taib has been chief minister, finance minister and minister of planning and resource management. But while Taib has become incredibly rich, the impact on the Penan and their forests has been devastating.

Sarawak Report and the Bruno Manser Foundation have been documenting the destruction and uncovering the corruption behind the deforestation and land grabbing in Sarawak.

In 2006, the US embassy’s Political Section Chief, Mark D.Clark wrote a cable to Washington (that was subsequently leaked by wikileaks: 06KUALALUMPUR1935) in which he reported on meetings with with political opposition leaders, human rights advocates and police in Sarawak. “[T]he Sarawak state government remains highly corrupt and firmly in the hands of its chief minister,” Clark wrote. One example of Taib’s corruption was the awarding of a contract for the US$82 million state assembly building, which was under construction at the time. Taib made sure that the construction contract went to Cahya Mata Sarawak (CMS), his own family firm. The state assembly only meets for 16 days a year. The 27-storey building will stand empty for the remaining 349 days.

The 2006 cable states that,

“Chief Minister Taib Mahmud remains unchallenged after 27 years in office, his government doles out timber-cutting permits while patrolling the under-developed state using 14 helicopters, and his family’s companies control much of the economy.”

A section of Sarawak Report’s website is dedicated to “Mapping Taib’s Land Grabs“. A vast area of land has been handed over largely for oil palm plantations and hydropower dams.

Two recent stories from Sarawak Report, help illustrate both the scale of the problem and the support that forest destroyers in Sarawak are getting in Europe. The first story illustrates how weak certification by the Forest Stewardship Council can be and the second how untrustworthy British politicians can be. The stories also raise the question, “Can REDD save the forests of Sarawak?”:


Sarawak Timber Scandal Hits UK – Expose!, 31 January 2012

B&Q and Wickes, two DIY stores in Britain, have been selling timber from Sarawak falsely labelled as certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. (“Wickes and B&Q ‘selling wood felled illegally from rainforest’” read theheadline in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper. The Daily Mail provides no evidence for the timber being illegally logged apart from explaining that the wood is “feared to have been illegally harvested from endangered rainforests”.)

The company behind the scandal is Asia Plywood Company, the largest exporter of Meranti wood and plywood in Malaysia. The company managed to get FSC certification by promising to import 70% of the timber that goes into its plywood from FSC-certified plantations in New Zealand. Sarawak Report points out that in fact the plywood from the Asia Plywood Company on sale in B&Q and Wickes was almost entirely made from tropical timber.

Asia Plywood Company’s website used to have the following statement (available via google-cache on 18 January 2012):

Asia Plywood Company also imports FSC certified timber species from the forests of New Zealand or MTCC certified woods that are locally sourced.

The words “FSC certified” have now been removed. Asia Plywood Company did have an FSC chain of custody certification, from 21 February 2006 to 20 February 2011, as this screenshot from SCS’s Certified Client List dated April 2010 shows (click on the image for a larger version):

(Incidentally, a company called Caledonian Plywood is still advertising “FSC hardwood plywood” with the Asia Plywood chain of custody number: SCS-COC-00805.)

B&Q was told about the false labelling on 7 December 2011, but continued to sell the plywood with the FSC label until 27 January 2012 when all Asia Plywood products were removed from B&Q’s shelves. Wickes just carried out selling the plywood. A Wickes representative told the trade journal DIYWeek, “[We] have not purchased any product from Asia Plywood since we were made aware of the withdrawal of its FSC certification on December 15 2011, at which time we re-sourced to an alternative supplier.”


UK Conservative Spokesman Made Video Promos for Sime Darby!, 29 January 2012

Bill Wiggin, the UK Conservative Party’s ex-Environment Spokesman, was flown to Sarawak as part of a PR drive for palm oil company Sime Darby. He starred in a ten-minute long PR video in which he praised Sime Darby for its sustainable operations. In the video, he explains that,

“The purpose of my coming here was to learn about the process, which I’ve enjoyed doing, but I kind of knew what was going on. It was really to support a company that was going hell for leather to hit that sustainability target, to encourage the people who are doing the right thing, to emphasise that we in the UK want to buy their product when they have gone to the trouble of making it genuinely sustainable.”

As Sarawak Report points out,

In fact, Sime Darby is the world’s largest palm oil producer and it owns vast plantations across Borneo in areas that used to be pristine jungle. Few of its plantations had been certified as being sustainable.

The company has also recently caused outrage and been forced to pay fines in Africa, where it is currently attempting to expand its operations, again at the expense of native people.

Wiggin declined to reply to Sarawak Report’s questions about his role in promoting Sime Darby. Sarawak Report notes that the company that arranged for Wiggin’s trip to Sarawak,FBC Media, was paid US$5 million by Taib to conduct “an illegal global media campaign against Sarawak Report”.

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