Oil palm planting halt in Sarawak for timber firms

Big industry: A timber company’s harvest in Sarawak. The state embarked on the planted forest programme in 1997 to ensure sustainable supply of raw materials for the downstream timber-processing industries and to reduce pressure on the natural forest.

KUCHING: Timber companies holding licences for planted forests (LPFs) are no longer permitted to carry out any new oil palm planting in the licensed areas with immediate effect.

The LPF holders failing to complete the new tree planting plan by 2025 may have the unplanted areas taken back by the state authorities for re-issuance of new LPFs to potential investors.

These new rulings are part of the “Revised policy direction on industrial forest plantation in Sarawak” from the state Urban Development and Natural Resources Ministry. Details of the revised policy are published in the latest issue of Perkasa, a quarterly newsletter of the Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corp (STIDC).

Since 1997, the Sarawak Forest Department has issued 43 LPFs covering a gross area of 2.3 million ha, out of which only a net area of 1.3 million ha are plantable. A large portion of the LPF’s area has to be excluded for protection functions.

According to the department, the bulk of the LPFs are located in Sarawak’s central and northern regions.

Under the Forests (Planted Forests) Rules 1997, the state government has permitted the LPF holders to plant oil palm covering 20% of the plantable area for one cycle of 25 years to allow flexibility in their cash flow management.

Planted forests have a long gestation period of 12 to 15 years before the trees are matured for commercial harvesting, according to one of the LPF holders, Jaya Tiasa Holdings Bhd.

Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg recently voiced his disappointment over the slow progress in industrial forest projects.

The government’s target is to attain one million ha of planted forest by 2020, but only some 420,000ha have been planted so far.

The government has extended the one million ha’s target by five years to 2025. It has warned LPF holders of tough action if they do not speed up planting and again failing to meet the extended deadline.

Sarawak embarked on the planted forest programme in 1997 to ensure sustainable supply of raw materials for the downstream timber-processing industries and to reduce pressure on the natural forest.

Planted forests are said to be able to produce five times more raw materials than natural forests.

Sarawak’s yearly log production from natural forests had fallen sharply over the years to about 5.74 million cubic meters (cu m) in 2019 from 14.3 million cu m in 2000 under the state’s sustainable forest management, according to data from the Forest Department. The log production in the first nine months of 2020 was 3.13 million cu m.

On the other hand, logs harvested from planted forests had grown steadily to 1.66 million cu m in 2019 and 1.31 million cu m in the January-September 2020 period since first harvests in 2011.

Ta Ann Holdings Bhd, one of the pioneers in Sarawak forest plantation projects, has planted 30.970ha of fast-growing commercial timber species, mainly acacia mangium at end-2019 under the group’s reforestation programme.

Some of the acacia plantations have been harvested and the logs supplied for the group’s plywood manufacturing activities. The group has carried out replanting under second rotation.

Jaya Tiasa had cultivated 42,254ha of forest plantations as at June 30,2020.

To accelerate planted forest projects to achieve the one million-ha target by 2025, the Sarawak government encourages maximised utilisation of the LPF areas through joint-venture partners, with investors having the best available technology and management. Inter-planting of non-timber species such as bamboo, rattan, pharmaceutical/medicinal species are also promoted.

Under the revised policy, LPF holders are required to submit their catch-up tree planting plan to complete the new planting areas to the authorities.

“LPF holders who are entangled with land disputes with the locals are suggested to set aside a minimium of 100ha per village under the Forest Landscape Restoration project for non-oil palm agro-forestry crops (trees and agriculture crops/livestocks) for a basis of initiating a win-win model towards managing the long-term solution to the ongoing conflict.

“Once both parties gain trust in each other, it is hoped that the disputed plantable area should be planted with the tree species and agriculture/livestock activities acceptable to both sides.”

The authorities will issue warning letters to non-achievers under the new planting plan.

The Sarawak government is making it mandatory for certification of eligible forest plantation areas by 2025, and it agrees that logs from industrial forest are for local processing based on quota basis and not for export.

The STIDC data revealed that Sarawak had exported 413,806 cu m of plantation logs worth about RM98.8mil (free on board value) to Indonesia in the first 11 months of 2020.

In responding to the government’s 2025 target to achieve the one million ha planted forest, Sarawak Timber Association chairman Datuk Wong Kie Yik has sought the state government’s immediate assistance to overcome issues like land claims by local villagers and lack of coordinated research and development as well as shortage of manpower to speed up the progress of planting.

He said new investors who are to take over the existing LPFs will face the same issues if these issues remain unresolved by the authorities.

Wong said association members have set up nurseries in their concession areas to facilitate replanting of tress in line with the government’s forest restoration programme.

According to him, out of the 22 certified forest management units and eight certified forest plantation management units in Malaysia, thirteen and six respectively are located in approximately 1.37 million ha of forest areas in Sarawak.

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