New Sarawak the same as the old Sarawak?

Just over two years ago, the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo swore in a new chief minister, Tan Sri Adenan Satem. This was the first time in more than three decades that the highest seat of power in Sarawak had changed hands. The question looming in everyone's mind was whether Mr Adenan would allow the pervasive corruption in the natural resources sector that has bedevilled Sarawak for decades to continue, or if his accession would mark the beginning of a new forest-friendly era.

The stakes could not be higher: Sarawak is the global epicentre for the destruction of peatland, the ultra carbon-rich wetland soil that sits under many forests in Malaysia and Indonesia. When burned, it is a major driver of the region's haze problem, and also contributes to global warming. Studies estimate that Malaysia's peatland soils alone contain nine gigatons of carbon, equivalent to 1.5 times the annual emissions of the United States' entire economy.

Sarawak also has the world's highest rate of tropical forest loss, according to data from Global Forest Watch. Satellite images published recently by the organisation Global Witness reveal logging on a vast scale, with highly destructive and potentially illegal operations in some of Sarawak's most biologically rich landscapes, including habitats of orang utans and the majestic rhinoceros hornbill, Sarawak's official symbol. The state was literally running out of forests.

After entering office, Mr Adenan made some grand promises of change that generated genuine hope. He declared that his government would not issue any new timber concession licences, would not approve expansion of palm oil plantations, and would combat timber sector corruption "to the last log". Consistent with these commitments, he challenged Sarawak's biggest logging firms to sign "integrity pledges" against corruption. Local media has published a steady stream of stories reporting on his government's crackdowns on illegal logging.

Indeed, Mr Adenan has a strong economic rationale for supporting protection of forests and native communities' lands: the largest purchasers of Sarawak's raw materials, palm oil traders Wilmar and Bunge, as well as some large Japanese timber purchasers, have or are developing forest conservation and human rights policies under pressure from their customers and civil society.

Personnel from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, police, state forestry department and Inland Revenue Board conducting checks at sawmills and log ponds across Sarawak in May last year. PHOTO: NEW STRAITS TIMES PRESS

We were, therefore, hopeful when Mr Adenan accepted an invitation from an alliance of environmental and community groups to meet last October. At the meeting, our groups presented the chief minister with extensive satellite and field photographs showing that palm oil company BLD is destroying deep peatlands on a 20,000ha concession in the Sibu region of Sarawak. Sarawak's large global customers have also pressed this case. The concession includes lands claimed by indigenous communities.

We also shared documentation of multiple cases of encroachment by BLD. In response, Mr Adenan assured us of his desire to protect Sarawak's natural resources, and we left the meeting with reason to believe that he would take action. His staff even disseminated photos of our meeting to the local press to show his commitment to working with civil society.

Since the meeting, unfortunately, despite many efforts to follow up, the chief minister and his staff have not provided any substantive follow-up, or evidence to show they are taking action. Meanwhile, BLD seems to have cleared more land, and just announced the acquisition of two new companies - suggesting it is not feeling pressure from government to reform.

There seems to be equally little action when it comes to Sarawak's infamous "Big Six" logging companies - Samling, Shin Yang, Rimbunan Hijau, Ta Ann, WTK and KTS - which already hold licences to log most of Sarawak's remaining rainforest. Mr Adenan has promised repeatedly that these firms would not be exempt from his promised crackdown on illegal logging, yet we have seen no sign the government is investigating credible evidence of illegal logging.

Moreover, even as Mr Adenan was announcing that these firms must get their logging operations certified for sustainability by 2017, the same firms were rapidly destroying Sarawak's last tracts of healthy rainforest in a biodiversity hot spot known as the Heart of Borneo. For example, Shin Yang, one of the biggest tropical timber producers in the world, was recently documented decimating intact rainforests at the rate of 42 football fields a day in a proposed national park inside the Heart of Borneo.

Mr Adenan's predecessor maintained a restrictive and closed society in which it was easy for companies to regularly flout laws and offer bribes for land. By contrast, Mr Adenan has committed to being much more open, arguing that Sarawak "has nothing to hide". But he has yet to release the government's own "public" maps that show where timber and palm oil concessions are located, let alone documents that outline the environmental and social impact standards logging companies are supposed to follow. Without even this basic transparency, it's hard to see how Sarawak can change for the better, and maintain access to its global markets.

Unfortunately for Sarawak's indigenous people and its dwindling forests, the future is looking uncertain. Mr Adenan still has an opportunity to live up to his promises, but he needs to get serious immediately about cracking down on companies like BLD, and the Big Six. He can still be the chief minister who put Sarawak's rich natural and cultural heritage on a path to conservation, but his credibility is fast diminishing in the eyes of his own people and the world.

• The writer is Campaign Director at Waxman Strategies, an advocacy and communications firm.

• SEA View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2016, with the headline New Sarawak the same as the old Sarawak?. Subscribe