Perhaps it’s time to rethink Malaysia’s forestry approach

UMD treecover 2001-2012 GFW

On Thursday, 20 February 2014, the Global Forest Watch (GFW) finally launched its much anticipated web-portal. GFW aims to share the world of GIS and satellite imagery with mere mortals like myself in understandable visual and statistical forms. Basically it helps analyst nerds like me get a techy geek out while looking for “hard, scientific data” to support our work.

Which led to this interesting piece of information on Malaysia. GFW calculates about 4.7 Million ha of forest has been lost while 2.5 Million ha forest gain. Leaving out definitions, this still reads a net loss of 2.2 Million ha of forest. So what does that translate to on the ground, especially land area of over 36 Million ha? GFW really helps here. I thought that it would be worthwhile looking at Peninsular Malaysia. Map 1 above shows the baseline, a 2001 Landsat overlaid with the University of Maryland’s (UMD) Tree Cover Loss & Gain map. The pink is loss, blue is gain.

There are caveats to what the UMD data captures (see the “caution” below1). All the main physical features and protected areas in Peninsular Malaysia are visible in green, including the Main Range and Taman Negara. In fact the centre still shows forest links between the two forest landscapes in 2001. In 2012, the picture is much changed, as shown in Map 2 above. Not only have the lowland areas been extensively deforested, even the Main Range reveals obvious pink areas. The previous connection between the Main Range and Taman Negara is not just lost but increasingly isolating Taman Negara. Development along coastal areas and lowlands has really grown in the timeframe.

All that’s left are the few legally protected areas and probably areas either too steep, inaccessible or wet to be chopped and changed (for now). It may seem simplistic or naïve but doesn’t the extent of forest loss look total and comprehensive already? Is this pattern sustainable? It would be difficult to see how present patterns of forest resource management at State and Federal levels can be sustained. As one of a handful of countries to lay claim as a Mega-Diversity country for its explosion of plants and animals, Malaysia and Malaysians should be alarmed at the extent of deforestation. Soon the very image Malaysia puts out as a tropical paradise of lush forests will be nothing more than history if nothing is done to re-think how Malaysia wants to manage its critically endangered tropical forests. I fear that our lowland forests may already be terminally damaged.

1 Caution as provided in GFW: For the purpose of this study, “tree cover” was defined as all vegetation taller than 5 meters in height. “Tree cover” is the biophysical presence of trees and may take the form of natural forests or plantations existing over a range of canopy densities. “Loss” indicates the removal or mortality of tree canopy cover and can be due to a variety of factors, including mechanical harvesting, fire, disease, or storm damage. As such, “loss” does not equate to deforestation. When zoomed out, it appears that all tree cover loss occurs in 2001, but in reality loss happened gradually over the study period. As you zoom out, adjacent pixels representing loss—which may have occurred in different years—must be combined into a single pixel to remain visible on a larger scale. Authors of the study decided to display these “aggregate pixels” according to the year loss first occurred in any of the constituent pixels (often 2001 for low zoom levels with very large aggregate pixels). Zoom in for greater detail of when and where loss has occurred for individual 30 × 30 meter pixels.

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