The official standard line in international forum is to flatly deny that Sarawak has cleared primary forests to plant oil palm.
Until 21 May 2011, that is.
On that day, long-standing Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Alfred Jabu Numpang, defiantly admitted that Sarawak does clear forests to plant oil palm, excusing it on the grounds that it is to assist in poverty eradication (See Malaysiakini report.)
And he should know, at least as far as the part about clearing forests for oil palm is concerned. He is also state Minister of Rural Development.
His ability to pronounce on the latter, poverty eradication, would be questioned by some unkind souls who think he should be titled more appropriately Minister for Rural Under-Development – in the sense of under-development introduced by the great South American intellectuals in an earlier era of development thinking. Those South American intellectuals knew all about under-development, as their countries’ household incomes covered the whole range from the richest in the world to the poorest.
All guns firing, indiscriminately
As he was speaking on the occasion of the opening of the Toastmasters’ International District 87, it is to be hoped that the Toastmasters toasted him appropriately for his candour, if not for the quality and content of his speech.
An earlier generation of Orang Ulu, specifically Kayan, would have known how to have toasted, parap, him, lacing their toast with loaded messages of praise, filled with double meanings.
For of course Jabu did not only admit to the policy of clearing forests for oil palm, he came out with all guns firing — if indiscriminately.
He lambasted the foreign NGOs for their hypocrisy in forgetting the history of their own countries’ environmental degradation and suggested that they should pay compound interest for the environmental loans their forefathers had taken, before they are allowed to open their mouths to condemn Sarawak.
In doing so, he somewhat lost the plot, as these NGOs are trying to make up for their forefathers’ environmental sins, not only at home, but globally. Amongst their number are persons who, at home, have chained themselves to old growth stands, or lived in them, to prevent their destruction. There are campaigners against more highway development, against polluting industries and against the export of polluting industries to developing countries.
Losing the plot – magnificently
Meanwhile, it is the Sarawak Government that is lusting after the true heirs of those — those eager to capitalise on what they expect to be cheap energy from the dams, so that they can claim they are using “clean” energy for their polluting industries such as aluminium refineries.
But we can safely leave the NGOs to defend themselves — and indeed many of them would only be happy to see their countries pay for their previous and ongoing contribution to global climate change.
Jabu truly lost the plot when he claimed that forest clearance in Europe, the United States and Australia had to do with poverty eradication, just as in Sarawak.
Instead, in at least the United States and Australia, as in Sarawak, it was the natives who paid the price, including the ultimate price of hunger, disease and death, for forest clearance which was — and is — to make a select few gloriously rich in the shortest possible time as they raped nature in the name of development.
He lost the plot in magnificent style in trying to justify oil palm development in Sarawak as poverty eradication, pointing out that the 1.2 million people in rural Sarawak still lacked basic infrastructure.
Hang on, logging didn’t wipe out poverty
And he quietly omitted to mention whatever happened to that previous hare-brained scheme for development — logging — with apologies to hares.
By official statistics, Sarawak chopped down over 370 million cubic metres of logs between 1980 and 2006. Since up to 40 per cent of the tree goes to waste, this amounts to something like 620 million cubic metres of trees. That is a lot of trees: if we estimate a tree to average 6 cubic metres, that’s something like 100000000 trees* — one hundred million trees! — and that’s not counting all the trees that are damaged irreparably by logging activity.
Let’s be conservative and use the present royalty of RM50 per cubic metre to estimate that these 370 million cubic metres of logs would have resulted in about RM19bn in royalty over the years.
RM19bn in royalty — not counting all the other revenue that logging contributes to — and Deputy Chief Minister and Minister of Rural Development Alfred Jabu Numpang says that rural Sarawak is still lacking in basic infrastructure? Whatever happened to the RM19bn? Did others just numpang on it, while the rural people saw the forests disappear before their very eyes?
Others will be better qualified to estimate the kilometres of roads, or numbers of schools or hospitals, or telephone coverage possible with RM19bn over 25 years, or RM760m a year on average – although it is pertinent to point out that Sarawak has the lowest road index in the country, much lower than even Sabah.
What is clear is that rural Sarawak still subsists on dangerous logging roads, and has little telephone coverage. Schools are provided by the federal government, and although there’s a fairly generous number of rural primary schools, secondary schools remain a different story altogether with 12-year old kids having to go to towns as boarders to be in secondary school. Hospitals are also provided by the federal government, but in the interior of Sarawak — using electoral districts as identifiers: Ba’kelalan, Batu Danau, Telang Usan, Kemena, Kakus, Belaga — there are no hospitals, despite a promise to Belaga 15 years ago!
And Jabu expects oil palm to do the trick?
So, logging didn’t do the trick, and now it’s oil palm.
But wait: the overwhelming proportion of oil palm in Sarawak is in estates. Besides those owned by the companies from Malaya such as Sime Darby, IOI and the like, the rest are owned by… yes, the same logging companies that raped the forest. Again, the rural people watch the palm trees grow on former forests, much of it their native customary rights (NCR) area, and the most they can expect is to become labourers at, at best, RM20 a day. This is supposed to bring development?
Let’s name the companies, or at least the “Big Six” — Samling, Shin Yang, Rimbunan Hijau, KTS, WTK and Ta Ann.
The first two, Samling and Shin Yang, are known to have between them, over 2 million hectares of forest concessions, much of it now under so-called license planted forests, which include oil palm, and all still counted as part of the state’s permanent forest estate.
Presumably, the others too have similarly large concessions, with KTS, under the guise of KTS-Pusaka, a KTS-Sarawak State joint venture, also having an estimated 500000 hectares slated for oil palm plantations, stretching from Belaga all the way to the Tutoh. (Just in case there are those who think, well, KTS-Pusaka is all right, as the pusaka is the people’s pusaka, the caution is to reserve judgment in a state where PPES Works, or Perbadanan Pembangunan Ekonomic Sarawak Works is not, as the name suggests, a state-owned company but a subsidiary of Taib-family owned CMS Bhd, while another listed private company, Sarawak Plantations Bhd (SPB), got at least part of its plantation area from the closure of state-owned Sarawak Land Development Board (SLDB).)
Well, it appears that at least Penangites have derived some development benefit from Sarawak’s deforestation. PenangFon, admittedly a much better broadband service than Streamyx, is owned by Rimbunan Hijau. Apologies for any moral dilemma this raises for environmentally- and people- conscious Penangites.
* To help visualise what a hundred million trees are, let us assume that all logging is carried out according to law and that the average tree has a diameter of 50cm. Then, one hundred million trees, side-by-side at the trunk, would come to 50000km. They would circle the earth at the equator and have 10000km left over!
Philip Khoo, a keen observer of Malaysian politics, is a regular contributor to Aliran