According to the Malaysian Timber Council (2017) Malaysia has a total forested area of 18.27 million ha that equates to 55.3% of the total land area. It is divided between Sarawak with 8.03 million ha, Peninsular Malaysia with 5.80 million ha, and Sabah with 4.44 million ha. The data presented does not include agricultural tree crops such as oil palm, rubber, cocoa or other trees grown for horticultural products.
Malaysia has three main types of timber sources:
- Natural (or semi-natural) forests. Natural forests are under state ownership, except for some alienated (privatised) land where forest clearance is permitted for private use. Forests under state ownership are broadly classified as either Permanent Reserved Forests (PRF) or state land forests. PRF areas can include both commercial forests, protected forests and communal forests. The total area gazetted as PRF in Malaysia is approximately 13.24 million ha, which is divided between Sarawak with approximately 4.9 million ha (PRF & Protected areas), Peninsular Malaysia with 4.8 million ha, and Sabah with 3.54 million ha. State land forests are generally used for commercial purposes and often planned for conversion to other land use. The State Forest Departments in Peninsular Malaysia directly manage most of the commercial areas within the PRF and issue annual cutting permits to companies for timber harvesting. Sabah and Sarawak have issued long term concessions to private companies to manage commercial forests within the PRF.
- Timber plantations. Timber forest plantations are often established in the PRF, managed under private concessions. Peninsular Malaysia has 120,000 ha of timber plantations and Sabah approximately 158,000 ha, while Sarawak has so far planted 446,000 ha within 2,368,000 ha of LPF (License for Planted Forests) concession areas. Sabah plans for extensive expansion of timber plantations to support the timber industry. Timber plantations have not been well established on private land, since it is perceived to be more profitable to grow oil palm or rubber trees – See below.
- Agricultural areas. Agricultural areas provide a significant source of timber to the industry in relation to existing rubber tree plantations (for latex) and to salvage logging for site preparation before planting oil palm or rubber trees. Rubber trees are felled when they are considered to be over-mature for latex production, usually after 25 years. Rubber tree plantations are dominated by smallholder farmers associated with government agencies (FELDA; RISDA & LIGS) that support planting, latex processing and replanting. Malaysia has an estimated 1.08 million ha of rubber tree plantations (of which nearly 60% are going untapped due to currently low prices of latex). Sarawak has 165,000 ha planned for rubber tree plantations and Sabah has developed 250,000 ha, including 190,000 ha supported by RISDA & LIGS smallholder agencies.
About 34% of the Permanent Reserved Forest (PRF) is designated as protected. Such protected forests are managed by the state and include: non-harvestable forests (areas above certain altitudes, slopes), virgin jungle reserves, recreational forests, catchment forests and reservoirs; National and State Parks, Wildlife & Bird Sanctuaries. Currently Peninsular Malaysia has 1.83 million ha of protected forests, Sabah has 1.88 million ha, and Sarawak has 0.82 million ha.
The size of the forest sector and the sources of timber vary significantly from one region of Malaysia to another. Sarawak accounted for nearly 60% of the total natural forest production in Malaysia in 2012, Peninsular Malaysia for 28% and Sabah for 12%. Most timber production in Sarawak is from natural forests, while in Peninsular Malaysia production is predominantly from natural forest production but also from clearance of rubber plantations (Hoare, 2015). Sabah relies heavily on natural forest production too, but plantations are becoming increasingly important, accounting for just over one-third of log production in 2013, mainly for pulp.
Much of Malaysia’s forest is degraded: for example, approximately 80% of forests in Sabah and Sarawak have been heavily impacted by unsustainable logging. There have been high levels of deforestation in the country: satellite data indicate that the annual deforestation rate was 1.6% between 2000 and 2012. Expansion of agricultural plantations (mainly oil palm) has been the main driver for loss of natural forest areas in the country (Hoare, 2015).