Tales from Rimba 3: Whose land is it?

Warning: this is probably gonna be a long read.

Being here in Malaysia, I see intact forests and deforestation happening all at the same time. And lots of questions surface in my mind.

The question of land ownership is probably a rather complex issue with lots of legalities involved, and differs from country to country. I shan’t pretend to understand it. Many questions, with a number of answers, but perhaps not the ones I’d like to hear.

So, who does the land belong to?

I’m using largely Singaporean-oriented examples cos that’s what I’m more familiar with, but this is in the context of Malaysia. Though probably applicable to many other countries as well.

To the people who “discovered” or “found” the land? E.g. Raffles, Columbus

Sir Stamford Raffles, Founder of Modern Singapore. Image taken from library.thinkquest.org

To the people who rule the land? E.g. Prime Minister/President, the state or federal government, Kings/Queens

Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong. Image taken from en.wikipedia.org

People’s Action Party (Ruling party of Singapore). Image taken from en.wikipedia.org

To the people who bought the land? E.g. timber companies, plantation owners, factory owners, house owners

Felled trees for timber.

Oil palm plantations.

Oil palm processing factory.

The town of Gerik, Perak. Where I am currently located.

To the earliest known inhabitants, the aboriginal peoples? E.g. the Orang Aslis, Red Indians

The Orang Aslis of Peninsula Malaysia. Image taken from flickr.com

To the animals and plants that have lived here for many more years than all of us humans?

Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). Camera trap photo courtesy of Rimba

Malayan tapir (Tapirus indicus). Camera trap photo courtesy of Rimba

Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Camera trap photo courtesy of Rimba

Not much of a botanist, so just trees/plants. Kingdom Plantae

Palm in the Kenyir forests, Licuala sp.

To the people who just barged in anyway?

Documentary on poaching in the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex in Malaysia by WWF-Malaysia and TRAFFIC

It’s always The Powers-That-Be

Here in Malaysia, land is owned by the state government. Hence they can use the land as they deem fit. So for example, in Kelantan, the government has leased out most of the forest for plantations. And they do that because the opposition party is in power in that state, and they supposedly get less money from the federal government (sounds a bit like Singapore), hence they clear forests for plantations to generate revenue.

Deforestation in Kelantan

What’s worse is that supposedly (I use tentative terms cos it’s what I hear from the people here, in Rimba and in the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), can’t confirm for sure…) forest cover estimates are not reliable. Because despite the loss of (primary) forest cover, the Kelantan goverment still considers the rubber plantations as forest, as per the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s definition. Which is very terrible! Imagine, half of Malaysia could be rubber/oil palm plantations but that would still be considered as forest cover. Luckily in Singapore we don’t have plantations, and our only issue is with green cover vs forest cover.

As well as illegal encroachers 

Apart from deforestation for timber and plantations, the forests are also under attack by poachers.

The severity and extent of the problem was laid bare during our expedition. During our trek it was clear to see that less than 25% of the Park’s original forest cover remained. Evidence of local hunters was also all too common. Despite the ruggedness of the terrain we also came across discarded cigarette butts and the burning embers of abandoned camp fires on almost a daily basis.

Edge of Existence

And the documentary above by WWF-Malaysia and TRAFFIC shows very clearly that it is a problem. Trekking through the forests, I have also seen signs of encroachment camps.

Markings probably made by poachers (possibly Thai/Cambodian/Vietnamese).

Evidence of an encroachment camp

A chair conveniently carved out of a tree that used to stand there

What about the animals?

It’s always sad to hear of animals having no homes because of deforestation. It happens all over the world: fires in Indonesia that could possibly lead to Orangutan extinctionsdeforestation in Madagascar causing lemur population decline. Though South East Asia probably has the most to lose.

I am not quite the usual animal lover. Of course, I think we should save the tigers, the rhinos etc from extinction, but I think it’s more important to save their habitat as a whole. Habitat conservation makes more sense to me, than say, conserving the pandas by breeding them. We often use charismatic animals as a reason to conserve their habitats, but it’s not a universally recognised right yet, I guess. That animals have the right to their homes and that we humans should not be denying their right by destroying their homes.

Electric fence (that is not maintained) that’s meant to keep elephants off the highways and in the forests

Sadly it’s almost always the indigenous people who lose out

It’s a very complex issue, the status of Orang Aslis in Malaysia. I don’t know much about it. I visited an exhibition on The Nomads of the Belum-Temengor Rainforest by MNS here in their Gerik Conservation Resource Centre, but that’s about it.

As far as I know, they are at crossroads, between choosing a modern life and assimilating into Malaysian towns and cities, and well, not going back to a traditional lifestyle, but just getting by. Is it fair to them, that they should have to give up their traditional lifestyle, denied their land (cos it’s been flooded to make a lake) and have to learn how to live like us? Would it be better (have been better?) to give them space where they can continue the way they’ve lived for hundreds of years, with little contact with modern civilisation? Because now, I think most of the tribes have already been “touched” by modernisation, and it’s probably impossible to reverse something like that.

But I say almost always, because I just heard from Stan Lhota, a Czech primatologist (friend of Reuben who is currently visiting Rimba) who has been living in East Kalimantan since 2005 and is trying to prevent Balikpapan Bay from being turned into an industrialised area and sliced by yet another of these ubiquitous roads, that there is a traditional law in Indonesia that is exploited by the indigenous people there, allowing them to burn protected forests and claim it as their land. Which makes no sense to me, none at all.

Eitherways, whoever the land belongs to, it’s clear that the forests are disappearing

A road, cutting through the forest, opens it up for timber extraction and poaching. But I think compared to poaching, deforestation is a worse evil. Without the trees and forests that sustain life, the animals would naturally disappear too.

Deforestation is a problem, and we all know the value of intact forests (ecosystem services like oxygen, water catchment, carbon sequestation, health, leisure, biodiversity preservation etc).

Coming from a developed country, it is easy to tell other less developed countries, save your forests! We’ve lost ours (or most of our natural environment), you better not head down the same path. But we’ve already reached that level of development, more often than not by wiping out all our natural resources. The other countries need to and want to progress as well, to reach the level of affluence and comfort that we already have. The easiest way? Timber and plantation. And you immediately (relatively speaking) see the money come in, money that can be used to improve education, work, healthcare etc. (Whether or not they actually use the money for those purposes or use it to exarcebate the income disparity is another matter. And corruption is a major hindrance to conservation work too.)

Barren landscape devoid of trees

What’s the solution? How are we to protect the forests?

Yes, there is obviously value in conserving forests, and we need to stop deforestation; but how are the people going to get money for food? Where are they going to stay? The answer I’d prefer would be to have less people, but unfortunately, I doubt governments would consider that option.

Sustainable logging is supposed to be a solution, but there are so many questions, and when it comes to wildlife protection, I think it almost always boils down to lack of enforcement more than legislation. How do we know if it is actually sustainably logged, and that the timber companies are not removing more than they are supposed to?

Even with REDD+there are issues.

I don’t know, really, how to make things work. Eco-tourism? That has its own problems as well… I suppose there is never a panacea when it comes to environmental problems anyway. Perhaps we just need to have hope and faith and plenty of persistence at fire-fighting, sometimes literally speaking.

Must we reach the stage where we’ve wiped out almost all our forests, before we realise it’s too late? Or is the whole world trying to learn from Singapore, which has little forest cover left but is trying to increase urban biodiversity and making it a selling point?

To borrow a more ancient and wise saying:

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realise that we can’t eat money.” – Cree proverb. Image taken from teenormous.com. You can buy this t-shirt!

For more on Malaysia’s forests by:
United Nation Convention on Biological Diversity

For more on Orang Aslis by:
Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC)

For more on REDD and deforestation by:


About Jocelyne Sze

I'm a Nature-lover, aspiring conservationist, and wannabe traveller in search of outdoor adventure.
This entry was posted in Fact, Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Tales from Rimba 3: Whose land is it?

  1. Joseph Chun says:

    You have raised some good questions. Some of them deal with the interface between land law and sustainable development and I have also explored some of them myself in the past. See http://www.scribd.com/doc/29050651/null and http://www.scribd.com/doc/29051052/null.

  2. tazbat99 says:

    Reed or eco tourism will help a particular patch of forest but only by reducing the consumption of resource can the problem be solved at source. A green issue becomes a brown issue.

    • Jocelyne Sze says:

      Hi Marcus, I wouldn’t say green issue becomes a brown issue? They’re all related, it’s easier and necessary for people to take action on brown issues (reducing consumption etc), so that we can tackle green issues (conserving biodiversity/habitats etc)?

  3. Sheema says:

    In Malaysia as a whole, the definition of “forest” includes rubber plantations, acacia plantations, eucalyptus plantations and pretty much any kind of industrial tree plantation for the purpose of timber (luckily oil palm isn’t included, but Sarawak does allow it in their forest reserves). So the whole “still more than 50% forest left” is really a lie, because not all of it is actually natural forest!

    • Jocelyne Sze says:

      Thanks Sheema for the clarification! But D: what a horror! How can we get accurate information then? And if this is what happens here, what about in other countries?

  4. Great post. I used to be checking constantly this weblog and I’m impressed! Extremely useful information specifically the last part 🙂 I deal with such info a lot. I used to be looking for this certain info for a very long time. Thank you and best of luck.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s