Green groups say power over the use of Malaysia’s forests should be transferred to central government, as states have over-exploited them for profit.
Malaysia is working on reforms to its decades-old forestry laws, and will consider suggestions from green activists on how to better protect its rainforests, a minister said on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, hundreds of environmentalists marched on Malaysia’s parliament demanding changes to the constitution and laws to step up punishments for forest-clearing, corruption and pollution.
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Organised by environmental group PEKA Malaysia, the demonstrators also called for forest management to be moved to central government control from state level.
Tengku Zulpuri Shah Raja Puji, Malaysia’s deputy minister of water, land and natural resources, told local media this week that discussions on changing the laws had begun, and he hoped new bills would be presented to parliament by early next year.
“We have to take the suggested amendments to the attorney-general’s office first,” he was quoted as saying by the Free Malaysia Today news website, adding feedback would also be sought from green groups.
One proposed change would likely be for the federal government to request closer cooperation from states, he added. “If the states agree, then it is good for our forests,” he said.
A ministry source, who asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the press, confirmed the media report.
The “biggest hurdle” was in convincing all states to back the changes, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Under Malaysia’s constitution, forest management falls largely under state, not federal control. This has led to economic interests being prioritised over the environment and rights of indigenous people, green groups say.
States have the power to give permits for logging and other forest activities, whereas federal government is limited to making policy and monitoring, Tengku Zulpuri told local media.
“If any report on infringements is made, we can only take note and tell the state to act,” he added.
Earlier this year, the Malaysian government said it would sue the Kelantan state authorities for failing to uphold the land rights of indigenous people.
The world lost 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of tropical tree cover in 2018 - the equivalent of 30 football pitches a minute - according to monitoring service Global Forest Watch.
Malaysia was among the top six countries with the biggest losses that year.
Besides being a major producer of timber and wood products, the Southeast Asian nation is the second-largest grower of palm oil, the world’s most widely used edible oil.
Palm plantations in both the Malaysian and Indonesian parts of Borneo have come under scrutiny over logging activities, forest-clearing, fires and labour abuses.
Laws to protect Malaysia’s forests were last changed almost 30 years ago, according to PEKA Malaysia, whose push for reform is backed by an online petition that attracted more than 175,000 signatories.
But Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil, the group’s president, said it was unlikely states would agree to hand over powers, given the revenue they collect from logging activities.
“If the federal (government) is not stern in this action, we can say goodbye to our forests and wildlife,” she said