Malaysian timber marches towards 2020

Malaysia is in the tough position of developing a certification scheme to protect its rainforest while completing against its south east asian competitors. Richard Stirling reports from Malaysia on the state of the nations timber.

TAKING WOOD from rainforests is a difficult business in these environmentally conscious times. No sooner is the sputtering of the chainsaw heard amongst the dense tropical foliage than it is drowned out by calls from environmentalists to slap bans on timber products such as flooring, doors or even construction site hoardings.

Seeing loggers at work in rainforests first hand, environmentalists certainly have a point. The forests are vast, dense, teeming with life and assault the senses. There is an undeniable feeling of loss and regret to see a towering tree crash through the undergrowth, the air heavy with the pungent smell of tree sap blended with petrol fumes from the logger’s chainsaw.

Despite their immense scale, the forests are very precarious habitats whose preciously thin soil finds it hard to regenerate the forest once it has been logged.

But the timber industry in Malaysia is making bold claims about the legality and sustainability of its products. The Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) is the only scheme based outside of Europe and North America to be recognised by the UK Government as guaranteeing timber from legal sources. Buoyed by this success, it is currently working on guaranteeing that its timber comes from sustainable sources. So what is the Malaysian timber industry doing to provide European customers with assurances? And what is the effect of green demands on its industry?

First World status

Revenue from European customers will help Malaysia achieve its master plan to become a First World nation by 2020.

Alongside mining and palm oil production, logging and manufacturing provide jobs and income for a country, whose population is as socially and economically diverse as the forestdwelling Orang Ulu to wealthy, westernised, metropolitan types in Kuala Lumpur.

Throughout a two-year investigation into different certification schemes by UK Government adviser, the Central Point of Expertise on Timber (CPET), Malaysian timber attracted a lot of criticism. Its opponents questioned the validity of the MTCC accreditation and claimed that illegally logged timber is sneaked into the Malaysian province of Sarawak on the island of Borneo from neighbouring Indonesia.

But by satisfying CPET’s criteria, Malaysia has proved it can operate to the same levels as the US-backed Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Canadian Standards Authority. While there have been very public protests about the use of tropical timber such as Indonesian merbau or bintangor from Papua New Guinea, Malaysia is positively respectable by comparison.

Now the Malaysian industry wants to silence its critics by developing its certification scheme to the same criteria as the scheme held by environmentalists as the gold standard, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Fair forest management?

MTCC senior manager Harnarinder Singh says Malaysian foresters have to do the groundwork to convince their clients that their scheme is sustainable. He explains that the MTCC decided to use the FSC as a template in 2002 to keep up with its contemporaries.

“We can’t call it an FSC standard because it’s not endorsed by them,” he says. “But we expect full recognition from CPET under this new set up. If we compare in the tropical world, Malaysia is ahead of all the other countries. If we look to Indonesia they look good on paper but can’t live up to it.”

Singh says timber producers are encouraged to adopt sustainable forest management techniques. Trees are felled according to their height and species. He says this will encourage the forest to regenerate itself.

“When we do harvest timber there’s a cutting limit and this must be 60cm at breast height for dipterocarps,” he says. “For non-dipterocarps it’s 40cm. Below this the trees are left for the next cutting cycle.”

Foresters make a general harvesting plan on how much timber they intend to log and from which particular areas from a 1:50,000 map. They will then produce a more detailed harvesting plan from a 1:10,000 map before selecting individual trees in the forest itself. Forest conservation inspectors will then go onsite to carry out a post logging inspection to assess what damage has been done. Singh says major concerns include damage to watercourses and bad road construction, which can erode the forest’s thin soils.

After timber companies have removed the timber, they must dig trenches to close off the roads to stop illegal loggers from getting into the forests. The area is then protected from further logging for another 25 years.

Getting along with the locals?

Logging in Sarawak sporadically comes under the spotlight when forest people, or Orang Ulu, disrupt operations. The province is the same size as England, but with a population of just 2.4 million. The Orang Ulu consist of approximately 27 different ethnic groups who often live in very remote areas and who rely upon the forest to sustain their way of life.

James Ho Yam Kuan of timber producer and manufacturer Samling Global forest resource division says the company encourages indigenous people to live in government-backed settlements.

“Every time we go into the forests we hold dialogues with them,” he says. “We observe their culture.

“We supply them with building materials such as zinc, plywood and timber. We also build roads and bridges for them to bring forest products to the market and provide site clearing for them to build long houses. We provide scholarships to schools and materials like computers and books.”

Kuan says the company takes a patient, long-term approach when dealing with local people. “In some areas they put a log across the road or a stream and we respect that,” he says. “We have waited in some areas for three years getting a dialogue going with them and sometimes that’s what it takes.”

Getting settled

Ose Murang currently holds the position of the government Resident of Sarawak’s Miri Division. He grew up as a member of the Penan tribe in a remote region of Sarawak.

“If I don’t enjoy the benefits of settling down myself, I won’t encourage other people to do the same,” he explains. “When I first went to school I had to walk six days to get there at six years of age. I think it’s a tough life and when my turn came I decided I will help these people.”

Far from clearing people out of the way of foresters, Ose is convinced the government is improving the lot for the Penan people in its bid to become a First World country by 2020.

“We would like to bring about economic development throughout the region,” he says. “We need to have agricultural development alongside forestry, industry, education and transport. At the same time we have to improve the standard of living for people.”

Troublesome neighbours

Does the remoteness of some regions of Sarawak cause problems trying to police illegal wood coming in from neighbouring Sarawak?

Murang says it is not a problem, as smugglers concentrate their efforts on parts of the region away from his hometown of Miri which lies near to the edge of the forest.

“The vessels come out through the coastal area, so a lot of the patrols are in the capital of Kuching,” he says. “I’m not aware of any roads between Miri and [the Indonesian border region of] Kalimantan.”

If the authorities claim to have a tight hold on illegal timber finding its way into Malaysia, wood processors say it does cause problems when it comes to competing with less scrupulous South East Asian countries.

Yen Chin is general manager of Gunung Seraya Wood Products on Malaysia’s mainland Peninsula. The company manufactures timber mouldings for the UK, Australia and Japan and Yen is taking his company to the levels of certification and safe working practices that his customers demand. However, he says the presence of illegal timber in South East Asia creates an uneven playing field for reputable manufacturers.

“We find it hard to compete in a market where illegal timber is accepted,” he says. “The big problem with showing legality is the royalty you pay to prove it.”

Yen says high demands by European customers could push manufacturers to sell their products to less conscientious customers, such as the burgeoning Chinese market. Instead, he calls for the European Union to put its money where its mouth is and only accept certified processed timber.

“Why are people selling illegal timber?” he asks. “Because they want a quick buck. With a mill you’ve got to invest millions and you’re not going to get your money back in a year; it’s going to take 20 years. A lot of people who sell illegal timber are on a short-term gain and why not? It’s beautiful; it’s quick.”

Ivory Pearl exports timber doors certified by the FSC solely to the UK. Managing director Duncan Yeong says that the company finds it hard to recoup the costs of producing a green product. “Even with the FSC certification process we’re not getting any premium at all,” he says. “We’re not sure whether the consumer will pay more money for a green product.”

He says Malaysian manufacturers find it a lot less expensive to use the local MTCC scheme. “To get FSC here we have to engage a foreign certifier which costs us a lot of money,” he says. “Whereas with MTCC we can use a local certifier. Somewhere we have to pick up that cost.”

The Malaysian timber industry is at a crossroads. On one hand it aspires to the environmental standards of its European and North American competitors and is developing the MTCC to reflect this. On the other hand, Malaysian timber suppliers and manufacturers are very much in the thick of South East Asian politics and economics. The nation’s timber industry has to compete with a booming Chinese economy hungry for raw materials for its own factories and questionable procurement policies of its neighbours.

If European customers want to help their Malaysian suppliers down the route to sustainability, they may find themselves paying a premium for peace of mind. This may be the only option if Malaysia will reach its goal of becoming a First World nation by 2020 and keep its greatest asset, the rainforest, intact.