Isn’t there a cheaper method of catching illegal loggers?

Facebook is smarter and faster than any ‘smart’ plane.

A SMART aircraft to monitor illegal logging in Sarawak will be deployed by the middle of next year. It costs the Malaysian government, rather the taxpayers, a whopping RM35 million!

One of Sarawak’s prominent opposition legislators has questioned the purchase price of this particular type of plane because another version of the plane is available for very much cheaper (between RM3 million and RM6.5 million) – lower by a margin of around RM30 million.

For the politicians, the issue is the purchase price. However, for the rest of us, it’s the pros and cons of using such an expensive plane for detecting illegal logging and mapping.

What are the merits and demerits of such an aerial method anyway? If by 2020, it can reduce and eventually eliminate illegal logging in Sarawak, then go ahead and buy one now. Otherwise, think of an alternative method which can do the job just as well.

But it is said that this particular type of plane can identify timber species on the ground.

If that’s its specialty, may I butt in?

From timber industry sources, I’ve discovered that most timber species have long been identified by the surveyors of the present concession holders before the licence to log was issued, prior to and after the formation of Malaysia.

Existing timber companies need not buy the information collected by the plane from the Forestry authorities because they have their own inventories of the merchantable species. They know better than any flying machine does in terms of collecting data for the purpose of timber extraction.

The plane may be useful for the purpose of identifying tree species before a new concession is granted. If there are any new concessions to dish out to justify such a huge expenditure on the plane, I want one. I mean the concession, not that plane.

It would be an ideal plane if it could identify the boundaries between the forested areas known as Pulau Galau and Pemakai Menoa and state land. That huge expenditure on an aircraft would be worth it. I will endorse the purchase.

But I have my doubts that it has this technical capability. I may be wrong. Timber workers use chainsaws to fell the trees and the standard saws make a lot of noise. Bulldozers also make a lot of noise in the jungle; so do the trucks that carry the logs to the pond.

Can the pilots hear the noise from a few hundred thousand feet below?

Can it fly at night when illegal loggers are at work?

The plane can do mapping, no doubt. Aerial mapping of Sarawak was done in the 1950s by the British government. It may be time for another mapping exercise to show which timber or an oil palm plantation company owns what and the extent of its concession. But this is only to confirm the size of the licensed area/lease stated in the document.

This method of surveillance by plane has some useful purpose if that plane can discern the actual size of areas being worked by a timber company on the ground. If seen from the air the area is larger as compared to the area stated in the licence, then there would be a problem down there. The concession holder could be working outside his licence – illegal logging done there or an encroachment on someone else’s property.

I think the large amount of money for any plane would be better spent on recruiting people from the forest areas where illegal logging is suspected. The locals can do a better job that a plane does, however smart it is. The people can do the job even at night and during the landas season, or even during stormy weather while the plane can only do this surveillance during fine weather. For the rest of time it will be standing on the tarmac or inside a hanger.

The RM35 million can go a long way for the recruitment of local people acting as the eyes and ears of the Forest Department. They can hear the sounds made by the chainsaws for miles. And they can identify the thieves by name or even those from another company. Can the plane do all this?

And the whole human method is much cheaper to maintain compared to the maintenance of the plane, which has to undergone checks for airworthiness from time to time. During ‘docking’ time, the thieves will work extra hard. Maybe you need two or three planes.

Give employment to the locals by empowering them as official catchers of the timber thieves, if the present number of forest rangers supplied with shotguns is not strong enough.

But you don’t trust the locals, do you? That’s another matter altogether anyway.

The timber companies can in fact employ locals as part of their own security system. They can catch the thieves red-handed without the aid of the information from the plane.

Human power saves government some money. Don’t you think so?

The suggestion to enrol the soldiers and the police to help reduce illegal logging implies that the local rangers, who have been supplied with shotguns are not good enough. Soldiers and the police have their own work to do unless we are at war. We are in a mini war, by the looks of it – jungle warfare involving a stake of millions of ringgit.

Some forest concessionaires themselves know who these thieves are, but they prefer the authorities to find out and catch the culprits while they mind their own business.

 

When the plane comes

The combined assets will be enhanced by the middle of next year when the plane comes. In the air we will have the smart aircraft and on the ground we have the foot soldiers and the cops supplied with the necessary equipment and ample rations. With that kind of assets at our disposal, illegal logging will end in three months to six months, not three years.

Total cost of operations may add up to many more millions.

 

What about other systems?

For aerial mapping purposes, have we exhausted the list of systems which are cheaper to maintain than the running and the upkeep of the plane? It will be usefully deployed within the next two years only. Then what will we do with it after that? Use it as taking four wealthy tourists for a spin above Mulu or Santubong?

 

Drones

What about the drones? Are they not smart enough for the surveillance work? They can take snaps of trees being felled and follow the truck that carries the log to the pond. Almost anybody can operate a drone. And it is even smarter than our famous plane and very much cheaper to manage and maintain.

The end result is what matters – detection of illegal logging followed by arrests of the suspects. Isn’t this capability what we want in order to curb the theft of valuable timber from our forests?

What about a helicopter?

Can’t they do the surveillance work and the mapping? How much cheaper is it than the plane?

 

Cheapest in town

The cheapest method is Facebook tip-off! Did you read about the discovery of illegal logging at Sungai Bungan, Igan? The information was supplied by a member of the public to the Facebook page of the Sarawak Forestry Corporation. That’s the cheapest method! Use it.

 

Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.com.

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