The 50-km long log-jam that blocked Malaysia’s biggest river shows the scale of deforestation in the highlands of Borneo and raises fresh concerns about how the state of Sarawak manages its natural resources.
This is Malaysia’s mighty Rajang River as it has never been seen before, choked from side to side — for kilometre after kilometre — by thousands upon thousands of dead trees.
The Rajang is Malaysia’s longest river. It flows for 563 kilometres from the highlands of Sarawak to the South China Sea but it was rendered unnavigable last week when heavy rain forced tonnes of tree trunks into the water. They created a floating barrage at least 50 kilometres long.
A local sawmill manager quoted in The Star newspaper said the log-jam represented at least 300,000 cubic metres of wood. That’s a hell of a lot. To put things in perspective, the same volume of plywood would sell for about US$120 million (Sarawak exported plywood worth US$624 million in the first half of 2010).
So where did the wood come from?
Environment and Public Health Minister Wong Soon Koh declared the log-jam to be a “natural calamity of gigantic proportion” and blamed landslides in highland logging areas. He said: “The wooden debris which was swept away could have been accumulated there for the past 40 or more years.”
But he added that if there was evidence that human activities were to blame, “stern action will be taken against the perpetrators”. Land Development Minister James Masing blamed unscrupulous timber companies and said that whoever caused the problem should be punished.
But many local bloggers accuse these politicians of hypocrisy. They are frustrated with the decades of government policies that have enriched a powerful elite with logging dollars but have left Sarawak with just ten percent of its forest intact.
One blogger called Tbsbidayuh summed up the mood when he wrote: “Thank you to the monsoon rain for revealing state government ignorance on taking care of environment.”
Posts and comments on other local blogs such as Planet of the Monyets, DayakBaru and the Hornbill Unleashed point out that the logs are too old, too neatly cut and too numerous indicate that landslides had brought down living trees.
Others (such as this commentator) suggest that the debris was made up of trees that had been cleared to create one of the world’s largest hydro-electric power schemes — the Bakun dam, which will flood an area the size of Singapore.
Last year, the Sarawak Conservation Action Network (SCANE) accused the dam’s developer of planning to burn the trees where they had been felled as this would be quicker and cheaper than removing them.
The flooding of the reservoir behind the dam was meant to begin on 10 October 2010 — just three days after all logs appeared in the Rajang River — but has now been delayed because of the recent extreme weather. And government officials have been quick to state that the wood did not come from the Bakun area but from other streams that feed into the Rajang.
Meanwhile, Sarawak’s chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud (pictured below) urged people not to speculate or jump to conclusions about the cause of the log-jam. But he went on to do just that even after admitting that as he was not a scientist he was not qualified to comment. Taib speculated that heavy rain and the undulating geography were to blame — a natural disaster, then.
This narrative would suit Taib well as it would take attention away from the role his government has played in deforesting Sarawak over the past three decades.
Taib has been in charge of Sarawak since 1981 — when he took over from his uncle — and he is also the state’s finance minister and minister of planning and resource management.
For nearly 30 years he has had total control over all of the timber in Sarawak. In that time he has overseen some of the world’s fastest rates of deforestation and has become one of Malaysia’s richest men.
Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama says the Sarawak Natural Resources and Environment Board (NREB) will publish a preliminary report on the environmental damage this week.
Pak Bui, writing on the Hornbill Unleashed blog has low expectations:
We can look forward to our government officials placing the blame on unnamed “irresponsible” timber companies, or on “illegal” logging. Perhaps the culprit will be heavy rain, causing erosion and mudslides and moving piles of logs, supposedly left on the riverbanks for decades, into the Baleh and then the Rejang.
We will not be offered answers on why the NREB has left the massive stacks of wasted wood on the riverbanks, or why the state forestry department has allowed loggers to strip our forests of ‘bystander’ trees, and then leave these less valuable logs to decay by our rivers.
We know that the logs have now reached the South China Sea. The big question in need of an answer is a simple one: where did the logs come from?