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Sarawak balances the needs of people, planet & profits

This is written by my colleague Dennis Wong at Kuching bureau.

IN A DILEMMA: State leaders defend land use despite NGOs’ increasing false allegations over lack of orangutan’s habitat

SARAWAK is the last frontier for the pongo pygmaeus or orangutan and it is the state’s responsibility to ensure this species is well protected for the next generation.

Studies have shown that more than 3,000 were sighted in the state and most were in the Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary and the Batang Ai National Park, particularly in Nanga Delok. Despite the state’s ambitious move towards becoming an industrialised state, Sarawak is putting aside one million hectares as a “Totally Protected Area” and it is at 799,627.7ha, about 80 per cent of the target.

Among areas designated include 182,983ha in Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary, which is also the natural habitat for the orangutan. It was initially gazetted, covering three divisions — Sarikei, Sibu and Kapit — 31 years ago in 1983, with an area of 168,758ha and later extended to another 14,225ha last year. Batang Ai, on the other hand, is one of the state’s national parks, covering 20,040ha. 

Sarawak has a land mass of nearly 12,445,000ha, where almost 65 per cent of the area are hill forests, 20 per cent secondary forests, 10 per cent peat swamp forests and five per cent mangrove forests. Some 20 per cent of these land masses also include cities, smaller towns, scattered villages and oil palm plantations.

Second Resource Planning and Environment Minister Datuk Awang Tengah Ali Hassan said no logging was allowed in any of these designated areas, which include wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and nature reserves. 

“We have also decided to put aside no fewer than six million hectares of land for permanent forests,” he said at the recent launch of the state-level World Wildlife Day celebration.

Despite harsh non-governmental organisation attacks over the state’s management of its nature, the state government is holding close to its forests management and conservation programmes. 

“More than 80 per cent of our land mass is under forest cover and, on the contrary, some developed countries in the west have no more than 10 per cent of forests cover,” said Awang Tengah.

Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have alleged that logging and oil palm cultivation have affected the orangutan habitat and, in December 2013, he noted Singapore-based Wilmar International Ltd signed a “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” pledge in its palm oil trade with consumer goods giant Unilever Plc.

Wilmar’s refinery in Bintulu is the main buyer from 41 palm oil mills across the state, absorbing 1.7 million tonnes of crude palm oil (CPO) or 55 per cent of the state’s production. This move also affects nearly 19,000 smallholder participants of the poverty eradication programme with an estimated annual return of RM3,328 per hectare.

Land Development Minister Tan Sri James Jemut Masing likened Wilmar’s action as unreasonable prohibitions on its palm oil suppliers akin to economic bullying, adding that this directive was disastrous as it could jeopardise the government’s poverty eradication programmes.

“The state government will not succumb to baseless allegations and I do not agree with the argument that planting oil palms in logged-over areas and peat swamp is bad for the environment. Oil palm planters in Sarawak follow a set of proven good agricultural practices that balances the needs of people, planet and profits,” said Masing in a recent interview.

After a strong stance from the state, Wilmar conceded and its chairman and chief executive officer Kuok Khoon Hong assured that the company’s policy would not affect CPO purchases from oil palm that had already developed large tracts of peat land.

Tengah and Masing were right to stand firm against these illogical attacks over the state’s nature management. Indeed, wildlife must be protected; one must not forget that humans living on these lands also need to improve their lives so they can move forward.

Perhaps oil palm plantations are not as majestic looking as the vineyards of Europe, but these trees grow better here and provide better yields for the farmers.

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