A recent tour of forests and forest industries in Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak on Borneo demonstrated the extent of the effort that Malaysia has been making to sustain its forest resources and plantations; to develop and maintain its forest industries through innovation, efficiency and even imports and recycling.

The week, organised by the Malaysian Timber Council (MTC), started with a briefing from the Forestry Department and the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC), both of which have standards that pre-date the current environmental debate. Much of the Forest Department’s work came out of colonial times; the first forestry officer in Peninsular Malaysia was British and was appointed in 1901.

While no country has a perfect forestry record, Malaysia was the first tropical country to establish its own forest certification scheme and gain international, independent endorsement by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Equally important is the fact that 81% of Malaysia still has green cover, of which 61% remains natural forest, way exceeding its commitment to maintain a minimum of 50% forest cover pledged at the Rio Summit.

In Port Klang’s impressive new modern Westports Terminal, the Malaysian Timber Industry Board’s (MTIB) officers play a role in cargo checking to ensure legal trade. In fact, wherever we went for the rest of the week there were forestry officers everywhere checking and monitoring in a way that was clearly routine and not set up for us.

Hi-tech products
Weng Meng’s door production in Olak Lempit, close to KL International Airport, is an example of how hi-tech Malaysian wood products are based on both local and imported material.

Its factory revealed stocks of MDF from Thailand, red and white oak, ash, walnut and maple lumber and veneer from the US, several African species, radiata pine from New Zealand and more.

The company meets stringent ISO and Fire Rating Standards for doorsets supplied to development projects and markets, locally and around the world and is certified for FSC Chain of Custody. Production capacity is 56,000 doors per month in a whole range of species, specifications, special finishes, standards and sizes, with or without door furniture fitted.

Down the road in Telok Gong is Gunung Seraya, which buys in lumber for kiln drying, grading and re-sizing for export, mainly to Australia where it has a huge market share developed over many years. About 70% is local wood and all is certified. The company gained MTCC certification in 2002, was endorsed by PEFC in 2009 and FSC certified in 2012. But when buyers want Australian species specially treated, such as jarrah or spotted gum for example, the company imports, processes and re-exports. It also supplies Weng Meng with components.

Hup Chong in Jalan Kapar is a furniture producer, mainly of bedroom sets, and the story is much the same. The main material is rubberwood, but since 100% of production is exported, it bows to market demands for colours, grains, finishes and other species.
Recently the company has developed the use of American tulipwood (yellow poplar), perhaps a reflection of its 60% sales to the US, and the company also imports European beech – all totalling about 10 containers per month. Exports of furniture, however, run to 200 containers monthly. Recovery of small pieces, particularly of rubberwood, by finger-jointing and laminating, is one of the keys to Hup Chong’s successes and its contribution to maximising forest yield.

Samling’s massive joint venture with Masonite Corporation of America in Bintulu, Sarawak was a revelation. The entire operation, a US$70m capital investment in high-density fibreboard (HDF) production, is based completely on recovery of forest and industrial wood waste from all over Bintulu.

Off-cuts and sawdust from sawmills, log ends from plywood mills and other recycled wood and biomass is used to produce HDF door skins, all for export. Some of its material comes out of its own sawmill Magna- Foremost in Bintulu and also from forest waste from its own acacia plantations nearby.

The company now claims 60% of the Indian market. Its ability to produce higher value ‘moulded’ profile, primed door skins is matched only in four other plants – two in China and one each in Australia and Thailand. Samling’s forest plantation operations in Segan, Sarawak covering 10,800ha, have just become the first to be PEFC certified in Malaysia. Based mainly on acacia, they demonstrate the complexities of pioneering plantations and the need for, and cost of, constant research and development and nursery establishment and experimentation.

Planting began in the early 2000s and now saw logs are beginning to be harvested. There are 23,000ha planted with acacia mangium, acacia hybrid, eucalyptus pellita, gmelina arborea and paraserianthes falcataria. Malaysia is committed to planting 375,000ha of forest plantations by 2020.

The Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation (STIDC), based in the capital Kuching, has the problem of very sparse population, so not much local market, and remoteness from export markets. Nevertheless it is active in promoting the timber trade with Sarawak. Total log production (8.2 million m³ in 2013) and exports are still a mawjor part of the trade but so too are the many plywood mills and wood processing factories centred on the key towns of Miri and Bintulu.

Sarawak Forest Management
Sarawak’s ‘Systematic Management of Forests’ dates back to 1919 but today much of the afforestation through planting is undertaken to relieve pressure on its natural forests.

Sarawak’s plantation log harvest in 2013 was 537,752m³. Tax incentives and soft loans have encouraged investment but labour and land issues still have to be overcome to speed up planting to achieve the government’s target.

Wong Siong Kuan, senior assistant director of the Forest Department Sarawak, called on all plantations to be certified, much supported by the state government.

One of the striking things about Malaysia is the number of national parks and protected forest areas, from the Taman Negara Forest Reserve in Peninsular Malaysia to the fabulous Mulu National Park in Sarawak with its indigenous tribes. Protection of flora, fauna and local people is a sensitive issue.

Despite the protestations of some NGOs, the government is evidently putting great effort into striking a balance between allowing the traditional way of life to continue and providing education and healthcare infrastructure to offer choice of lifestyle to peoples such as the Penans in Sarawak. What is equally striking is the density of forest when viewed from the air, the few roads and frequent rivers in Sarawak which does not reconcile with the often ill informed public perception of the depletion of Malaysia’s tropical forest.