Looking for all the world like a gruesome bunch of mafia dons, the head honchos of Sarawak dressed casual this weekend and waddled out to some turf to grin for their favourite PR organ, the Borneo Post (owned by the timber barons of KTS) in order to proclaim their belated attempt to get onto the tree planting band-waggon.
The broad face of the mysteriously wealthy deputy chief minister, Awang Tengah dominated the shot (his earlier positions included chairman and director of the Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation and minister of Urban Development and Natural Resources). Meanwhile, his boss Abang Johari posed planting a symbolic sapling, described as a native plant but of a ‘fast growing’ kind. So, what is this all about?
The bulk of the sparsely detailed article was dedicated to boasting the lie that Sarawak has conserved its timber and that some 63% of the state remains ‘forested’. The more accurate word would be ‘scrubbed’, of which more later.
Also among the posse of suddenly eco-conscious ministers was none other than the ubiquitous, long-term lacky of governor Taib Mahmud, the environment minister Len Talif Salleh, whose previous roles included being the head of Sarawak’s Forestry Department, outed by Sarawak Report for simultaneously acting as the director of companies he himself was permitting to cut down native forests.
These men are amongst those most culpable for the devastation of Sarawak’s natural forests, yet according to their press promotional this so-called ‘Forest Landscape Restoration Programme’ is to be funded on their behalf by the petroleum giant Shell and a Japanese-Malaysian association. No details were offered as to the nature of this outside support for one of the world’s most notoriously corrupted state governments or what the progamme consists of.
Sadly, one can indeed be certain that these wealthy politicians would never consider, for example, taxing their crony timber and plantation companies to raise the money for much needed environmental regeneration. However, international bodies and corporations should think carefully about stepping in and propping up a criminal regime that has for decades treated the jungle solely in terms of extracting cash.
Such programmes should be conducted transparently at the very least, yet virtually no details have yet emerged about Shell and Japan’s projected plans to invest in regenerating Sarawak’s forests as the worst bunch of eco-crooks on the planet get set to polish up their ‘eco-credentials’ for the coming state elections.
The concerns are clear. For a start this gesture sits very uncomfortably with an announcement earlier this year by primary industries minister, Teresa Kok, revealing that the present Sarawak State Government has insisted it will be continuing to implement dodgy crony concessions (see the present row over Taib’s son and the Mulu logging) in order to convert a whopping 600 thousand further hectares of forest land to oil palm plantations – something Ms Kok claims she can do nothing about (she has revised her ‘cap’ on deforestation accordingly upwards).
What this means is that on the one hand Johari’s regime is taking in charity money from Shell for regrowing forest, whilst on the other hand it is continuing to tear up massive areas of existing forest elsewhere, releasing hugely harmful greenhouse gases in the process.
Shell’s sustainability bosses will be well aware that much as regeneration of forests is to be supported and encouraged, it is the damage done by the further conversion of existing forests that has to be avoided to combat global warming. Regeneration needs to be matched by pledges against further encroachment.
These concerns raise questions about why Shell, which is seeking to burnish its eco-credentials, is propping up a notoriously destructive and corrupted timber mafia regime in this oil rich state under such a secretive deal that appears to have no such strings attached?
One of the reasons that Sarawakians voted for Johari’s predecessor back in 2016 (apart from the inevitable vote buying and vote rigging organised by Najib and his local man Bustari on behalf of the BN ‘safe deposit’ state) was because they believed and respected the now departed Adenan Satem and his commitment to END LOGGING as the basis for his stand in that election. The former chief minister went on record with the pledge a number of times:
“I have made some concrete decisions with regard to conservation of our natural resources.. One of the first decsions I made [on assuming office] was no more plantation, no more encroachment or conversion of natural forests. No more. This is to protect our existing forest and forested areas so that nature can run its natural course. Two, I have also disallowed any more timber licences.. no more logging to be done by professional companies and those licences which expire will not be renewed” [you tube video]
The statement was a confirmation of his early remarks in the UK, shortly after taking office, when he publicly stated to a meeting at the High Commission in London “read my lips, no more palm oil and no more logging, no more”.
He did not say 600 thousand hectares more of Sarawak’s forests would be converted to oil palm and that is why people voted for Adenan and his party.
Meanwhile, what everyone in Sarawak also knows is that the vast majority of those areas officially designated as ‘forested’ have been plundered and looted over and over for years in an unregulated timber rush that has destroyed one of the most valuable places on the planet and left few trees of any marketable worth left standing.
The laughable quote from the Sarawak forest department that the state has “planted 634 million trees throughout Sarawak, spanning an area of 528,238 hectares covering hills, swamps and coastal area, in collaboration with various stakeholders” [Borneo Post] fails to mention that the trees in question are plantation trees (foreign imports like the fast-growing but highly damaging acacia).
The statement self-damningly admits to the destruction of hills, swamps and coastal areas to convert the land to such plantations and the ‘stakeholders’ are, of course, the crony plantation companies associated with the regime!
What remains of genuine natural forest is being hoovered up as quickly as the present government can manage, fearful of a crackdown on the booty. This is why Sarawak’s timber giants have exited elsewhere to target the remaining jungles on the planet and it is why downstream timber mills are starting to run out of business.
Sarawak and all well-wishers ought to boot these wasteful brigands out of office and investigate their record. No one should be extending charity to allow them to pose as defenders of the environment!