Protect Sarawak’s Forests to Protect Our Health

If we are to avoid another catastrophic pandemic — and if we are to survive as a human species — the Sarawak government must take serious steps to protect forests and indigenous rights, and disclose real information about the condition of the state’s forests. Our lives literally depend on it.  

Deforestation and the destruction of intact ecosystems are major contributing factors to the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. According to epidemiology and planetary health experts, it is human destruction of biodiversity — such as the massive logging and oil palm expansion we are experiencing in Malaysia — that creates the conditions for new diseases like the coronavirus to emerge.  

“A zoonotic disease is a disease that transmits from wild animals to humans,” explains Dr. Kinari Webb, physician and founder of the organisation, Healthy in Harmony “One has to understand that in a natural ecosystem, which is healthy and in balance, there is going to be very little zoonotic transmission. But when humans invade an ecosystem, viruses spread.”  In collaboration with an Indonesia non-government organisation Health and Harmony establish some very successful conservation programmes in Kalimantan Indonesia.

COVID-19 is not the first time a zoonotic disease has caused a pandemic. SARS, MERS, Ebola, Nipah, and HIV are all the result of environmental factors, whether through deforestation, the expansion of monoculture agriculture, wildlife trade, meat markets or other forms of ecosystem disruption. There is an enormous danger to not honouring and protecting ecosystems.

Given the grave risk deforestation and destruction of ecosystems poses to our health, the government of Sarawak must take the crucial steps of cancelling logging concessions, helping fragmented forests to re-grow, and protecting indigenous land rights if it is truly committed to protecting its citizens’ health.

The Sarawak Forest Department website claims that “more than 80% of the State is under forest cover (based on 2012 satellite imageries).” This figure is very misleading, as it includes monoculture plantations as well as areas that have been logged and are currently being logged.

“The government insists there is a high percentage of forest cover but they’re including tree, oil palm, rubber and other crop plantations as part of this” says Thomas Jalong the General Secretary of the Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) or the Malaysian Network of Indigenous Peoples. “There is a huge gap between what is claimed as forest and what is actually intact forest.”

Monoculture plantations are not healthy ecosystems, and logging severely impacts a forest’s ability to function naturally. Sarawak has over 12 million hectares of land as a state, but only about 1 million hectares, around 8%, are totally protected areas, according to the Sarawak Forest Department’s website. More than half of the state is covered by timber concessions, and one only has to glance around to see that oil palm plantations are quickly taking over huge swaths of land.

Sarawak has had one of the highest rates of timber extraction in the world. While the land of Sarawak makes up 0.5% of the world’s tropical forest, 25% of all tropical-log exports in 2010 came from Sarawak. In that year we as a single state exported more timber than two huge continents – South America and Africa – combined.  

“Intensive irresponsible logging in our village caused the land to be infertile because the barren topsoil are washed away after being logged. Now our crops can’t grow well.” said Stephen Juman Jok from Long Liam in Baram. “In the days before the timber company logged our land we had good harvest from the land and good catch when we fish in the clean rivers.”  

Not only do forests protect our health, trees store carbon and continue to suck more carbon out of the atmosphere as long as they are standing. The forests of the world absorb a third of global CO2 pollution. “We cannot emphasize this enough: if we do not stop cutting our forests, we will not survive as a human species. This is not alarmist. This is not a radical thought. It is simply the truth, and it is high time to act on it,” said Peter Kallang the Chairman of SAVE Rivers.  

Protecting indigenous land rights is increasingly acknowledged by global experts as the most efficient way to protect forests. A working group with the World Resources Institute has confirmed what indigenous peoples across the world have said for generations: That protecting the rights of indigenous peoples who occupy forested areas is the best way to protect the forests themselves. 

Senator Adrian Lasimbang the founder of the Non-Government Organisation, Tonibung said,  “We must use the moment to come together for our collective future. It is not too late for the human species, but we must act quickly.”

The government of Sarawak must act quickly to stop logging and the spread of monoculture plantations on forest land. It must vastly increase the areas of totally protected forests, and protect NCR land. All of our lives depend on it.