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8,000-ha Excision at Yong Forest Reserve, Mukim Tembeling, Jerantut, Pahang


The pandemic has brought nearly all environment-related engagements with governments to a halt – environmental webinars galore, however, slogs on. We received a request to cover the conversion of a >8,000-ha section of the Yong Forest Reserve next to Taman Negara, Pahang, into an oil palm plantation. The high-profile incident has been variously covered by:

1. Sarawak Report on 27th March 2020, which revealed that Deru Semangat Sdn. Bhd., the beneficiary of the forest reserve conversion, is jointly-owned by:

  • Tabung Haji Plantations (THP; 55% stake) and

  • the younger brother of the reigning Yang di-Pertuan Agong, YAM Tengku Abd Rahman Al-Haj Ibni Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah (45%).

2. Seeking Alpha on 13th April 2020 that highlighted that THP faces the risk of getting cut off from the supply chain with companies sourcing palm oil coming under increasing scrutiny – this is not THP’s first violation of the NDPE policy. Other highlights:

  • Of the companies that have stopped sourcing from THP, ironically, Musim Mas and Wilmar were not included, raising serious questions over their NDPE commitments.

  • This is the third phase of a 12,100 ha THP project that started in 2017, with earlier phases covering 1,619 ha in 2017 and 2,428 ha in 2018 based on EIAs submitted.

  • No High Carbon Stock (HCS) assessment was conducted, which means the project violates the No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) policy of the industry.

*Update: Wilmar classified this Deru Semangat as "case closed" in their Grievance Procedure page for the following reason:

"Based on Wilmar’s investigation with our supplier TH Plantations Berhad (THP), THP does not own any shares in Deru Semangat Sdn Bhd (DSSB). However their holding company, Lembaga Tabung Haji (LTH) owns 55% of DSSB."

In essence, reinforcing the giant loophole that the NDPE policy provides large corporations to continue greenwashing their produce. Like, "it's okay if your left hand steals, just as long as your right hand didn't" *end of Update

The project, however, isn’t new. Based on the documents shared in the project EIA, the process for the conversion began in 2014 during the ex-PM Najib and ex-CM Adnan Yaakob era. A summary of correspondences is provided below based on the “LETTER OF LAND STATUS”, “Endorsed TOR TH20,001AC“, and “Petukaran Ketua Pasukan EIA“ files found along with the EIA documents (Table 1).

Table 1 Summary of correspondences found along with the EIA for Deru Semangat’s 8000-ha project.

Good people in the government trying to do the right thing?

Each of the requests for payments expires 3 – 6 months from date of issuance. The fact that the same 809.37 ha plot in Yong Forest Reserve (no mistake here, that’s what’s written in all the letters) requested for alienation was approved in 2014, followed by 2 approved requests for premium reduction (first approval rescinded in 2016 letter) hints that there was resistance against this project from within the government. It also suggests that Deru Semangat failed to make payments from 2014, despite a 75% reduction in premium being approved in 21/4/2015 and 29/6/2016 – it is unclear when payments were finally made (or if they were at all). With state governments regularly citing lack of revenue when justifying logging and oil palm expansion, one wonders why the Pahang government would perform a double flip-flop between approving and rejecting the request to gift over RM3m of its logging revenues away to Deru Semangat – was there pressure from high places being unfairly placed upon a civil service trying to do the right thing?

*Also, with the letters consistently listing only 809.37 ha (Plot E) for a 99-year lease for "oil palm only", how did >8,000 ha get approved in the end? We're not raising alarm bells, but it does seem like there's either been a mistake with that number that carried through all letters, or that correspondences detailing further approval of the eventual >8000 ha were excluded in the public documents.

What’s at Yong Forest Reserve now?

The Yong Forest Reserve consists of recently logged-over forests (mostly logged from 2014-2019; see Figure 1). In 2020, areas surrounding the Project site have also been logged (Figures 2a & 2b). While it is easy to dismiss the area as degraded forests that are better maximized as plantations, its proximity to Taman Negara implies increased occurrences of human wildlife conflict and potential poaching activities – a problem that our critically endangered wildlife does not need right now.

Figure 1 Time lapse showing forest loss in the Project site (black polygon) and its surrounding (2014-2019). Base satellite map is a mosaic of Jun-Aug 2020.

Figure 2a GLAD alerts from Jan 2020 – Nov 12 showing where potential forest cover was lost in the period.

Figure 2b Satellite mosaic of Jun-Aug 2020 confirms areas affected from GLAD alerts.

The Malaysian EIA: A Rubber Stamp

Below are excerpts from several of the documents found along with the EIA:

“The land use changes (secondary forest to plantation) in the upstream area could result in the tremendous increase in surface runoff. The problem may aggravate due to removal of flood storage such as swampy area. This phenomenon could result in the sudden increase of peak flow to the reservoir. Large overflow from the reservoir may cause extensive flooding to the downstream area where property damage and loss of lives is imminent. Both studies require general hydrologic data such as rainfall, stream flow and evaporation data. It also depends on the catchment and channel characteristics. However, each study might require different spatial and temporal data resolution.”

In the highlighted selection of “Hutan Dipterocarp Pamah (< 300 meter)”,

“Tiada penukaran penggunaan tanah selain perhutanan”

c) From “LAPORAN RTD JERANTUT - JILID 2-312-314”, under “Tahap 2 (Kawasan Pembangunan Terhad”, the following was highlighted,

Yet, the project carries on, hinging on Yong Forest Reserve’s land status as a production forest reserve as highlighted in the EIA. I suppose the selective enforcement of laws isn't new here in Malaysia; 2020 has been a grand display of such double standards. Harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi. What more can the regular Malaysian do but to continue speaking truth to power? Ending on a bitter note today,

"When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can't eat money."

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