Malaysia’s Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry (KPPK, Kementerian Perusahaan Perladangan dan Komoditi) has announced plans to build up the capacity for timber plantations to remove pressure from native forests. Most of Peninsular Malaysia’s lowland tropical forests were converted to other uses during the colonial era, and today there are vast areas of former tin mines, as well as current plantations of oil palm and rubber. Collectively, these lands could produce large amounts of wood products that could be certified as originating from sustainable forest management (plantations can obtain sustainability certificates provided they are not created by felling existing forests). Malaysian growers have long experience with plantations of oil palm, rubber and fruit trees, and should be able to adapt to new species with careful planning.
KPPK Minister Datuk Peter Chin Fah Kui announced the plan, saying that private funds would be sought from the wood industries for the approximately RM2 billion needed. The Ministry would like to see 1.5 million hectares of timber plantation set up in the next 10 years. Much of the money would be for federal support for states to develop plantation management methods. In Malaysia, land management is a state responsiblity in which the federal government plays an advisory role.
The world has an insatiable demand for timber, and today that demand is being met to a large extent with illegally harvested tropical timber. The US, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and other nations have had considerable success establishing major forest industries based on plantation-grown timber. In Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, rubberwood has become a major export commodity. Conservation of remaining tropical rainforests requires that alternative sources of raw materials be found, and Malaysia is taking appropriate steps in that direction.
One important challenge will be species selection. Many valuable forest species, such as meranti (Shorea spp. and other dipterocarps), may be difficult or impossible to adapt to plantation conditions. Forest scientists, including geneticists, physiologists and silviculturists, will need to carefully research and test appropriate species. Initial plantation projects should be small, so that large investments are not made in projects that fail.
Without this kind of science-based approach, the entire RM2 billion could be wasted on failed attempts at large-scale plantations. This happened in the Jari project in Brazil where Daniel Ludwig, an American entrepreneur, started large-scale plantations of Gmelina for pulp production. The project denuded 6475 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest and was a complete disaster. The disaster was due to bad planning, excess expenditure of funds, and, perhaps most importantly, the lack of results from any pilot projects prior to scaling up.