Sarawak Report has acquired details of a secret report, recently commissioned from a leading global consultancy, advising the state government that a radically changed approach is needed to manage its once resource rich economy, thanks to the careless and greedy destruction of previously luxuriant forests.
The findings make grave reading, painting a scenario whereby bad management and greed have exhausted one of the key income streams for the state, namely its natural resources, whilst much-trumpeted ‘industrialisation and modernisation’ drives have largely failed in the hands of family companies linked to politicians and their cronies.
The report explains the backdrop to remarks by Malaysia’s finance minister, Lim Guan Eng, last week, who shocked many in Kuching by predicting that Sarawak could find itself bankrupt within three years based on the present state of its finances.
In refuting that judgement the present Sarawak chief minister, Abang Johari tellingly made no reference to the state’s timber industry, its vast palm oil plantations or the million of hectares given over to so-called industrial timber (fast growing foreign species criticising for rapidly exhausting the soil base).
Nor did Abang Johari refer to the supposed income generating potential of the string of mega-dams which the state has continued to borrow billions of ringgit to finance on the dubious expectation of making the money back out of industrial development.
Instead, the chief minister claimed that the state will rely on continuing oil revenues to keep it out of debt – a telling admission of the failure of other sources of revenue that ought to be relied on by the state.
According to details of the confidential report, which have been made available to federal government ministers as well as state leaders, rampant and unsustainable logging has depleted the available timber supply for mills and exports in Sarawak by over 70% since the year 2000.
The report says it has relied on official statistics to compile the bleak picture, which concludes that the supply will shortly fall futher to 90% (producing just a tenth of the wood supplied in the year 2000).
Edward Miller, Asia-Pacific Regional Campaigns Officer for the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) union concurs:
“Sarawak conducted a ‘firesale’ of its natural resources. They gave it away for a fraction of the real value instead of using the proceeds to invest in decent jobs for Sarawakians and profits were sent into offshore property markets to make capital gains for a select few. Recent levies imposed by the Government and declining revenue from the sector could indicate there’s a growing crisis in the industry. “
he told Sarawak Report.
Another headline from the detailed report, prepared as a basis for a forward strategic plan for future forests and plantation management commissioned by the state, is its devastating conclusion that the attempt to convert a million hectares of natural rainforest to so-called industrial plantations (such as the vast Grand Perfect Acacia Plantation, Asia’s largest) has largely failed.
Owing to poor technique on the part of the various family and business cronies who received the concessions from present Governor Taib Mahmud, these plantations are not finacially viable the experts say, despite the immense earth works and greenhouse gases realeased by the exercise. Therefore, little revenue can be expected.
Equally troubling is the report’s assessment of Sarawak’s oil palm plantations, which are described as heavily under-performing owing to poor management and agricultural practices. Apart from a few exceptions these plantations do not begin to qualify for global sustainability criteria the experts have found.
In a plunging market for palm oil it means that Sarawak’s producers will again struggle to make significant profits against their competitors or produce any significant revenue for the state, according to the experts behind the report.
The blame for this disastrous state of affairs lies wholly and squarely at the door of the present GPS state government, whose ruling figures and families have for the past decades sponsored and benefitted from the rampant destruction of Sarawak’s valuable woodlands.
Top quality timber has been chopped down and shipped out at pepercorn prices to enrich a handful of tax evading companies in a frenzy of landgrabbing and resource corruption, instead of a responsible and careful management of the nation’s precious heritage, which could have restricted logging to sustainable levels and kept prices and revenues high to benefit the people of the state.
The response of the Sarawak State Government to this report earlier this year, Sarawak Report has learned, was to immediately drop all contact with the expert advisors who had delivered such home truths.
A few weeks later a familiar western face reappeared in Kuching in the form of none other than the Norwegian former Sarawak Energy boss and purported hydro-electric expert Torstein Sjotveit (till this point Sarawak’s hydro-electric projects have proved a disastrously expensive failure, whilst lining the pockets of the Taib family thanks to their cement monopolity and control of cabling and construction companies in the state).
Sjotveit has re-invented himself it seems as a plantation expert ready to undertake new ‘reforestation’ projects that plainly represent a further effort to create industrial timber plantations (hugely destructive to the environment and exhausting to the fragile soils of the region).
It seems the gang in charge of Sarawak are finding it hard to change their ways and prefer to stick their heads in the sand and put their trust in the same old fixers, responsible for so much of the existing damage, than look at new ideas and solutions from the experts.
There is one last chance to rescue Sarawak’s land and forests, as the report placed before these state leaders clearly laid out. The rejected advice from the global experts was to adopt an exciting alternative land use opportunity to rescue the local economy, thanks to the global anti-climate change agenda and the Paris Agreement between major countries across the world.
Reforestation schemes are now potentially worth billions of dollars in inward investment for regions like Sarawak, which are blessed with fast-growing tropical plants. Ironically, the devastation caused by the logging that did so little to enhance the revenues of the state or the lives of its people, means that there is a vast amount of carbon ready to be captured were these natural forests to be allowed to re-grow.
Those tons of carbon can be measured and costed and paid for via offset schemes funded by global companies and carbon users.
However, the deterrent for kleptocrats is that this is money that would be invested into the public purse rather than private political pockets. Another draw back from the perspective of political plunderers is that certain obvious criteria would have to be met, such as agreements not to cash in on further destruction of forest lands by converting them into yet more unproductive industrial plantations.
The present administration of Sarawak is standing by its determination to implement a staggering further 600 thousand hectares of forest conversion into agricultural plantations, thanks to a slate of dodgy concessions many of which were handed a decade ago to Abu Bekir Taib, son of the present Governor (a free present from his dad).
Far from agreeing to review and freeze those concessions the state government is allowing the firesale logging to accelerate in these areas, whilst they still control the economy of the state. Which is possibly why the finance minister Lim Guan Eng suggested in his speech last week that with the continuing GPS self-serving plunderers in charge there is very little hope the state can stave off bankruptcy within three years.
More than four decades of their government has proved there is no interest from these kleptocrats in collecting public revenues or developing the economy of the state, just a relentless race to keep on filling their infinitely expanding pockets.