Sunday, June 18, 2023


Ah, the majestic Rainforests of Southeast Asia. The Equatorial region which has spawned millions of species of life forms which make the great living machine that is our earth run smoothly. From insects, fungus, reptiles, mammals, birds and plants in numbers you can't imagine, many species of which remain undiscovered.

Think about the above image for a moment. Listen to the river flowing over those rocks, hear the constant buzz of cicadas, insects, the songs of gibbons, the calls of the hornbills. Try and picture otters running along the banks, breathe in that pure air. Imagine that in that great forest, tigers prey on wild boar, elephants control the growth of saplings on their 3-month lap of the forest which they and their ancestors have trodden for centuries.

Termites are actively breaking down the fallen trees and foliage to ensure it doesn't build up. Birds and primates are feeding on fruits and depositing seeds to spread the growth of the jungle. Egrets and kingfishers taking their feed of fish from the rivers and streams. Deer feeding on small growth plants and ferns. Bears feeding on combs of honey, Geckos feeding off insects, tapir feeding on termites and anthills.

A fabulous never-ending cycle which has been on-going since before man arrived.


The system is rapidly failing. Forests are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. We have written this "postcard from the forest" to try and convey an understanding of the consequences behind the actions and decisions we as individuals make.

Here are some images I took yesterday (1st June 2008). We were supposed to go to this well-known forest reserve to look for a particular species of bird known to be present there, but when we arrived, we were greeted with this heart-stopping sight.

Sights like this are not uncommon in Malaysia. Much of the forest in South-east Asia, Africa and South America has already succumbed to such ill treatment to fuel our personal demands for timber products, and the use of products grown on the converted land. This timber is often used for:

Furniture (Tables, Chairs, Dining sets, beds, etc.)
Housing materials (Doors, Window frames, Flooring)
Construction materials (plywood, roofing, pallets, etc.)

Once denuded, the land is converted into agricultural based businesses. In the case of Malaysia/Indonesia/Thailand, the land will be converted into a monoculture (single species) by planting oil palm trees. Millions of hectares of oil palm plantations are now in operation throughout Southeast Asia, fueling the demand for edible oils and bio-fuels. The oil palm tree is not native to Southeast Asia, it is an introduced species. Therefore, no animals or plants can adapt to this environment. There is nothing that feeds or lives in these vast estates except for rats, snakes and domesticated livestock grazing on the grass.

Other forests around the world have been cleared for soya plantations, livestock pastures, sugar, coffee, tobacco farming, and so on. With over 6 billion mouths to feed, the demand for food has never been greater, and the land required to fulfill these requirements keeps increasing in area... to the detriment of the forests.

With the destruction of this particular forest, the direct sunlight has dried up the soil, killed off the insects and fungus which enable the soil to be so fertile. Birds now have no nesting sites, the mammals will most likely have been killed while the loggers were ripping through the land. In effect, the system has died.

I walked along this logging trail and the sound was eerily quiet. It was very disturbing, as one should be hearing the orchestral sounds of millions of living creatures - but, instead, I heard lone chirps from distant birds, perhaps wondering what the hell has just happened to their home.

You may ask why there are still trees standing when the loggers have already finished their job. Well, look at what remains. There is little economic value in what is left, as the loggers are mainly interested in the high value old growth, the trees that are hundreds of years old.

The job is not yet complete. While standing at this point, I faced a stretch of rubber plantation (those tall skinny trees in the distance) that had encroached upon the original jungle, and from beyond, back into the main jungle, I could hear the constant roaring of huge diesel engines at work. It's a really nasty sound - to hear the huge Caterpillars and chainsaws at work. The rate at which they can destroy swathes of forest is unimaginable.

So what will become of this land? Most probably, the Caterpillars will gather up all remaining trees and cuttings into huge piles, and the whole lot will be burnt, releasing thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and choking millions of people. It's illegal to do such things here in Malaysia, but it is still done, as is the case with our neighbor, Indonesia.

Consider every large tree felled. A fraction of those trees can support the nesting requirements for Malaysia's prized hornbills. And while the numbers of these great birds still appears to be quite healthy, we will see in a short period the numbers falling to grossly endangered levels. These birds are capable of living up to 30+ years old, so today's destruction of forests will result in a drop in numbers of these birds in the coming years, where less reproduction has taken place.

Believe it or not, but this area, known as Bukit Sepang is actually a forest reserve. But in Malaysia, as you can see, this holds no meaning in terms of conservation. The only form of protection a forest can gain here, is to be raised to the status of a National Park.

Malaysia has few such parks, and whilst one can visit them, one can feel that they span for miles upon miles, the truth is that on the whole scale of things, they're actually quite small islands of rainforests which have been granted protection, surrounded by much larger areas of oil palm plantations.

For those living in the West, you may not know how much forest remains in South-east Asia. You may think that there's still plenty of it, and we should start being concerned in a few more decades. Well, I'm sorry to say that the world's richest and oldest forests have just about gone.

Take Borneo for instance (synonymous with pristine virgin jungle), where vast areas of wonderful forests have disappeared and been replaced with oil palm plantations. It's irreversible (in our lifetime and many generations to follow), I'm sorry to say.

So why am I writing this?

1. To get it off my chest, as it's still a fresh open wound.

2. To try and raise awareness among those who do not witness the savagery of man on a daily basis.

3. To try and provide an understanding of the consequences of buying products which come from such environmental destruction.

I'm not sure how this will leave you feeling, having read thus far, but it must be understood that the countries playing host to the world's richest natural resources are often some of the poorest, so you must appreciate that what appears to be their "savagery" is no more than a means to an end when it comes to economic growth.

I often feel like blaming the Malaysian government for permitting such destruction, but ultimately, a demand is present, and that demand can be supplied. Take away that demand, and the supply will have to stop too. Whether it be demand for timber products or palm oil products.

So, think twice about that nice hardwood flooring, think again about whether you need that garden furniture, that lovely teak dining set, that lovely mahogany dining table. The pictures show exactly where the wood has come from. "But the shop says it's from sustainable sources," you might say.

Rainforests can't be planted, they're not planned or designed by man. You can't match the perfection of nature or replicate its complexity.

You NEVER see a plantation of hardwood trees. It takes hundreds of years for them to mature, so it is not an investment many would be willing to make. Some forests are set aside for regenerative purposes, so that trees can be pulled out once matured, but as I have just highlighted, rainforests can't tolerate any interference from man.

Take the above photos as an example. If the government were to set aside this land for regenerative purposes, you can see already that the majority of living organisms have vanished, therefore, the rainforest will not operate as a living organism such as those few precious primary forests remaining, those that support the millions of lifeforms I mentioned in the first paragraph.

So, sustainable sources are a myth when it comes to tropical timbers, and you should be cautious about buying into such notions.

Thanks for reading this, and I hope it has raised at least some awareness of what the timber trade and edible oils business is doing to our environment here in Malaysia. Don't let this information stop you from visiting Malaysia. Eco-tourism is on the increase, and with enough pressure placed in the right places, we may be able to turn this mess around as the economy gains from the increased interest in the amazing diversity of this wonderful place.

Jas & John

[First posted 6 June 2008. Reposted 17 June 2016]