Tightening the system for approving timber licences

SINCE the article – Directive of Timber Licences Flouted? – was published on Dec 4 last year, The Borneo Post/thesundaypost Team has been receiving calls from different quarters, indicating they have more information on what has actually been happening on the ground.

Indeed, what one reliable source said, in particular, can rightly be described as a revelation.

OT (Occupational Ticket) licences, covering areas of about 70,000 ha of NCR land, are on the table for approval. If this is proven to be true, more chaos, resulting from land disputes, is anticipated this year (2017), according to the source.

Such a daunting possibility has prompted The Borneo Post/thesundaypost Team to take a closer look at the figures provided by the Sarawak Forestry Department (SFD) in a press statement published on  Dec 6, 2016.

On Dec 5, in response to Dec 4’s article, Permanent Secretary to the Resource Planning and Environment Ministry Datu Sudarsono Osman, SFD director Ahmad Sapuan and Sarawak Forestry Corporation chief executive officer Wong Ting Chung had called a press conference to clarify the issues that had been raised.

A statement was given out after the press conference and published in toto on Page 4 of The Borneo Post on Dec 6. Rather than being enlightening, the statement gave rise to more confusion instead as The Borneo Post/thesundaypost Team discovered on closer scrutiny.

First and foremost, it has been clearly stated that the Forestry Director (FD) is the only authority to approve licences, involving land size of 1,000 ha and below.

What this means is for land size less than 1,000 ha and more than 100 ha, the FD has the authority to issue OT for harvesting timber to give way to agriculture development and/or other development.

And for land size less than 100 ha, the FD has the authority to issue LA (letter of Authority) for the same purpose. But for the clearing of land, involving more than 1,000 ha, the approving authority resides in the Resource Planning and Environment Ministry – NOT the Sarawak Forestry Department.

The question that goes abegging is why has the case of Ulu Ngemah – with a land size of 4,800 ha – been placed under the jurisdiction of SFD and not the Resource Planning and Environment Ministry?

“The area applied covers approximately 4,800 ha but the Forest Department approved 908 ha under the first phase of the development, according to the planting plan,” the press statement said in reference to the aforementioned case.

 

However, on closer study, one could not help but ask the following questions:

(1) Why did the applicant only apply for approval of 908 ha and not the whole piece of land in question?

(2) Why, rather than getting approval once and all, the applicant preferred to apply multiple times to develop the land?  

(3) Was it because the applicant wanted the case to come under FD and not the Ministry?

 

The Borneo Post/thesundaypost has seen a copy of the document showing SFD actually approving some 4,200 ha in the Ulu Ngemah case. This has prompted a certain party to lodge a report with Malaysia Anti Corruption Commission on Dec 9.

The report stated that “the issuance of this Licence No OT/3666 by the Director of Forests, Encik Sapuan Ahmad, is wrong and unlawful.”

Is such a practice allowed by the Ministry? Or has there been an overstepping of authority by the individual concerned?

Those affected by the Ulu Ngemah case are, in fact, the fortunate ones. Some of their well-educated leaders were well-informed and courageous enough to highlight the situation in the media.

Following the wide coverage given to the issue, the SFD suspended the OT licence issued on Nov 2, 2016, and due expire on Nov 1, 2017.

Despite this turn of event, the Ulu Ngemah folk still made a trip to Kuching to see SFD officers to express their wish that the OT/3666 would not be only suspended but revoked.

The delegation, led by Persatuan Penduduk Asal Pang Junan of Ulu Ngemah chairman Entili Garaji, and comprising four other associations, met with Senior Assistant Director (Licensing Division) Hamden Mohammad on Dec 22.

Entili described the outcome of the meeting as “positive” with the SFD promising to look into their “total” objection to the issuance of OT to the private company concerned.

Besides the Ulu Ngemah case, one other thing that caught the attention of The Borneo Post/thesundaypost was that the figures, provided by the SFD at the press conference, served more to confuse than to clarify.

According to the figures provided, in 2015, there were 100 OTs while in 2016 (as of Dec 5), the Department only issued 42 OTs and seven LA.

But if we refer to Sapuan’s briefing on Jan 27, 2016, he clearly stated that as of Jan 12, 2016, 102 OT licences and LA (Letter of Authority) had been issued.

This figure should not be doubted because the PDF of his presentation is still available online at www.forestry.sarawak.gov.my and his report that day was quoted by the Sarawak Timber Association and Rakan2, a periodical of STA, in the January 2016 edition, accessible at http://sta.org.my/images/staweb/Publications/STA_Rakan_/2016/January2016.pdf.

(refer to pictures).

Yet, during the press conference, the SFD provided figures showing there were only 42 OTs.

The question here is why were about 80 OTs or LA missing from the records? Even though some OTs or LAs might have expired in 2015 and 2016, the SFD must also show the records to give a clear picture of the whole situation.

To ensure transparency, there must be figures to show the number of applications approved and the number of those expired within a year and also how many had been carried forward to the next year.

The figures given on Dec 6 were confusing. If the press conference was called on that day to clear the air, comprehensive figures should have been provided to ensure transparency rather than leaving more room for more questions and speculations.

On the same issue, the opposition read the figures differently.

“Figures from the Ministry showed that 100 OT licences were issued in 2015 and 42 more up to December this year. If the 2014 OT licences had been reduced to 42 by February 2015 and another 142 new OT licences issued, resulting in a threefold increase, there are now possibly 184 valid OT licences issued by the Forest Department in the state.

“Quite clearly, the situation has now worsened,” said See Chee How who is Batu Lintang state assemblyman.

See who is also state PKR deputy chairman, said since Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem assumed office as Chief Minister and Minister of Resource Planning and Environment, 251 OTs and LAs had been issued.

Regardless of whether or not See was right in interpreting the figures, one thing quite certain is that the figure the SFD provided at the press conference on Tuesday has created more confusion than clarification.

The Borneo Post/thesundaypost had tried to get the figures from the Forestry Department but after almost a month, the figures have not been forthcoming. For the record, at the press conference in question, it was promised that the data would be made available to the press.

There is a general complaint from timber industry players, alleging OTs abuse, and questions have been raised on whether SFD officers having been going to the ground to check on land involved in applications of OTs and LA.

Consider the following scenario which has been painted on the issuance of timber licences — Area X has no timber but is owned by Mr A. Immediately next to Area X is Area Y where there is a lot of harvestable timber. Mr A applies for an OT or LA for Area X.

Upon approval, he starts extracting timber on Area Y. With the OT or LA, he can safely and easily sell the timber in local markeAnother scenario is that both Areas X and Y have timber. Mr A, owner of Area X, applies for OT and it is approved. As the OT holder, he starts to first fell trees at Area Y instead of Area X.

These have been some alleged abuses described by industry players. Their call to the SFD is – Please monitor the situation on the ground. Make sure an area has timber before giving away any OT or LA to prevent abuse of these licences.

Power comes with responsibility. Even though the FD Director has only been given the power to decide on issuance of timber-felling licences, involving land size not more than 1,000 ha, the system can still be manipulated.

Let us look at the Ulu Ngemah case again. The land size involved is 4,800 ha — clearly under the jurisdiction of the Ministry.

However, it has been “approved” in such a way that it comes under the SFD whereby, in the name of progressive development – from one phase to another – only 908 ha is approved – which is within the FD’s authority.

The most crucial question the Forestry Department needs to answer is whether or not the directive prohibiting the issuance of timber licences with immediate effect has been flouted?

As far as the people of Sarawak are concerned, the Chief Minister has promised “no timber licence” and “no small timber licence.”

Sarawakians have no doubt about Adenan’s desire to combat illegal logging and corruption.

He is still a well-loved and respected Chief Minister.

The question is – are the civil servants entrusted with the responsibility to implement policies sharing his vision?

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