My home country, Malaysia, is famous for its rich and ancient tropical rainforests, as much as it is notorious for overlogging them. The assumed villain of Malaysia’s dwindling rainforests is the palm oil industry. When I went abroad, word of my motherland’s palm oil mania hounded me. New acquaintances who learned of my Malaysian heritage would mention their boycott of palm oil products. The outside world’s righteous anger toward Malaysia’s palm oil industry filled me with embarrassment, until I learned that their indignation was misdirected and their know-better attitudes unjustified, for my home country’s deforestation issue is more nuanced than a feel-good fix can solve.
Malaysian journalist Yao-Hua Law, reporting a four-part series for the local outlet Macaranga, revealed that the vilified palm oil industry is no longer the main driver of deforestation in the peninsula of West Malaysia. That dubious crown now goes, counterintuitively, to an unexpected culprit: a reforestation program that opened its doors to the private sector in 2007. It was one of the government’s earnest attempts to balance rainforest conservation and economic growth by creating artificial forests known as forest plantations. The hope that animated the Forest Plantation Development Program was that loggers would double as planters, clearing only forests whose timber production has declined to the point that they’ve been designated as “degraded inside reserves.” Then, program planners hoped, the loggers would replenish the sites with quick-growing trees that they could harvest in a few years.
Law’s 15-month investigation, funded by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network, started with a simple question: Are the forest plantations working? By examining forestry data and interviewing loggers, planters, business owners, policy analysts, forest managers, government officials, and members of the Orang Asli (the Malay term for “Indigenous people”) community—who depend on the forest’s rich resources for sustenance—he and colleague Siew Lyn Wong pieced together the multifaceted story of Peninsular Malaysia’s ambitious but ill-managed tree-farming program.
Law and Wong’s reporting revealed that the program was a flop. Due to shoddy implementation and weak enforcement of the rules, lush forests were needlessly converted into monoculture plantations. Many program participants were motivated less by conservation than by the opportunity to reap natural timber from the first clearing of the reserves. Some operators razed and ran, leaving behind a scarred, denuded landscape. Lands already cleaned of rainforests outside the reserves never became forest plantations. And not a single wood on the market has ever come from forest plantations in the program so far.
It’s easy to simply scapegoat loggers and businesses, just as the world has already done with Malaysia’s palm oil industry. But Law digs deeper into the economic and sociological forces at play, untangling the messy forest-plantation web with empathy and fairness. His investigation revealed how labor shortages, poor government oversight, uncertain demand for reforested lumber, and other factors outside loggers’ and planters’ control influenced their decisions. Ultimately, Law finds neither heroes nor villains—only flawed humans with different agendas in a capitalist market.
Law’s work also highlights the unglamorous struggles that local reporters in places like Malaysia, where the journalism industry is not well supported, confront in carrying out their jobs and in generating readership. Challenges such as sloppy data records and high-ranking officials not necessarily feeling obliged to engage with the media are part of a day in the life of a local journalist.
Recently, I spoke with Law to chat about how he and Wong overcame or sidestepped these challenges to pull off their investigation. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
After all your reporting, what do you see as the crux of the problem with this program?
The biggest evident issue with forest-plantation efforts in Peninsular Malaysia is that since 2012, about 68 percent of the area cleared for such plantations has not been replanted. Then there is the problem that almost all these [plantation] areas fall within forest reserves, whereas [an] initial feasibility study done in 1997 had aimed to plant primarily outside of forest reserves. That led to the third problem of forest plantations—cutting down natural forests, many of which were allegedly good forests, rather than replanting in real “degraded forests.” The criteria used by the forestry department appear so lenient that more than half of all forests in Peninsular Malaysia could qualify as “degraded forests,” and thus could be cleared with the stated intention of being turned into forest plantations.
Now, the above are the consequences or evidence of flaws in the efforts. The more important question is, how did we get to these consequences? That I don’t have strong evidence for. Some people, including loggers themselves, say that it was because the forest plantations were used as an excuse to clear-cut forest reserves; some others say that it was because stakeholders—planters, loggers, furniture manufacturers, researchers, government agencies—were working in silos and lacked effective discussion and data-sharing.
Your series has a lot of statistics, and they’re not just peppered among the prose but also presented in charts and maps. How did you go about collecting the data for your investigation and ensuring they were accurate?
There were several sources of information that I used. I used satellite imagery to count how much forest has been lost in an area.
Another main source of data was official documents: forestry reports, forestry-statistics compendiums, conference reports. There were state legal documents analyzing changes in the area to forest reserves. There were company documents to show the people involved in all these things. I spent quite some time at the National Library, the forestry department, and the Malaysian Timber Industry board; I went to the Department of Environment.
To say how many documents I have analyzed and gone through—it’s definitely hundreds, if not thousands. There were plenty of dead ends. But my efforts weren’t wasted. Although I was focused on getting a specific set of data, I was often distracted by other interesting details too. The difficulty is actually to know the limits of time and resources and my own mental health, and not to get too distracted, because once you enter the library, everything is like, Oh, dear, so many things to read!
The most troublesome category was the forestry reports. They were very scattered; the collection was incomplete. Sometimes, the state-level data did not tally with the federal-level data. And there was no pattern to these inaccuracies. I asked the forestry department, and they weren’t able to explain to me. In the end, I decided that I would just stick with the official source. And in our stories, where we were really unsure, then we say that we were unsure.
Why is the missing data so important?
The missing data is part of the story because the industry didn’t even have the data that they needed to prepare for the timber coming out from the plantations. For the downstream timber consumers, like furniture makers and timber mill operators, they need to know what type of timber will be provided, when, and how much. It could be hard to tell when one is logging natural forests, but you would expect that sort of data to be available when it’s a plantation—it’s planned, right? Such missing data, or lack of confidence in the data that’s reported, complicates strategic planning for all parties involved. The primary purpose of forest plantations in Malaysia is to provide a sustainable source of timber for the local timber industry. If the data on incoming timber is missing or very unreliable, how well have we met that primary purpose then?
What was your approach to talking with logger-planters, government officials, and government-appointed authorities, all of whom seemed from the outset to be partially involved in contributing to rainforest loss?
I know that they have different spheres of power. But I treated them equally. I didn’t go thinking, you are the victim, or you are the perpetrator.
For all my interviews, no matter who they were, no matter how little time I had, I always told my sources what my story was about, what my intention was, and the rules of [the] interview. I always told them, “You can choose to not answer any of my questions. It’s entirely up to you what you want to say. It is my job to convince you to talk, but you don’t have to talk.” Very often, they would start with, “I don’t want to be named.” They were cautious. But I can tell you, very rarely did they get to the end of the interview and didn’t want to be named.
The loggers themselves really thought that forest plantation was the way to go. They called it an ecological project, because it’s circular: You plant, you harvest, and you plant again, and you are only limited to that area. That is how Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia, Japan—half of Japan’s forests are artificial forests. Same with Vietnam. So, the loggers thought that the work they were doing was beneficial to the country, to the environment, to the business, everything. But they were unhappy that they were not getting enough support. They wanted to voice this out.
The obvious wrongdoers would be the [loggers] who signed a contract with the state government to clear an area and replant, but did not do it after they cleared the area. I did not manage to speak to any of them. Nobody wanted to point me to them. In business, you want to make friends rather than enemies, and, who knows who you end up working with. I think that was why the loggers were very cautious.
The state [executive council] is the ultimate decision maker when it comes to forest plantations. If you want to say who had the most to lose if something was found to be wrong with forest use, I will say, the state government definitely had to be held accountable. But in all my forest stories, [they] never spoke with me. They never replied. But I kept trying.
I was struck by how you portrayed the logger-planters you spoke with also as victims, with their own share of grievances. But I can imagine your sources would be wary of you, aware that their profession gets a lot of bad press. How did you find loggers for sources?
I went to the state of Kelantan for more than a week, having already made an appointment with the state forestry department head. That was my only confirmed interview. But I had given myself a whole week—I also wanted to speak to the local operators of forest plantations and the Orang Asli who were living in this area. I went to Gua Musang, which is one of the districts with a lot of forest plantations and logging. I had no idea where to go.
I saw restaurants in town, four-wheel drives parked outside, so I said, Okay, these are either owned by planters or loggers. I had already eaten dinner, but I still went in and ordered a small plate of vegetables. I asked the waitress, “Do you know any loggers or planters here? I’m a reporter.” She pointed to a table, “Oh, that is a logger. Oh, that guy also, at another table. And that person also.” I realized, every table had at least one logger or planter! I approached the tables—I always told them that I’m a reporter—and they started telling me things, they gave me names for people to talk to.
I was definitely well prepared. There were many things that I did not know, but enough to show them that I knew where the problem was. And I think I was pretty fair, because I wasn’t there to criticize them. I really did go with the intention of knowing, What went wrong? What was your story? What could be improved?
What really broke through for me was, I went back to my hotel, and I told my hotel manager, “Hey, I’m doing this work. If you know anybody, just tell me.” And lo and behold, she led me to somebody. And that somebody—I think it was her church friend—was Corinna Cheah [the first plantation manager Law interviewed] in the story. She convinced the other planters to talk to me. That opened doors, and I spoke to the president of the Forest Planters Association, and that opened even more doors.
Did you use a different approach when you spoke with the Orang Asli in the rainforests? After obtaining permission to visit the village of Kampung Kaloi, how did you gain their trust?
With the Orang Asli, I will say there is one difference. They’ve been on the suffering end of many things. They too often have experienced groups of people coming in with a lot of glamor, taking their time talking to them, and then leaving forever without any impact. Most times I only managed to reach Orang Asli through a prior connection. Somebody had to have already vouched for me. But still, they don’t always trust you. They’re suspicious—correctly so—of people like me. So, you have to spend more time with them. And they deserve that time.
Your piece describing your visit to the Orang Asli community has a more narrative flair than the other, more expository articles. What was the visit like, and why did you decide to incorporate the scenes of a traditional Orang Asli ceremony into your series?
It was just so lucky for me that they had this ceremony. It was to ask the spirits for omens on the health of the wife of the shaman.
When I started talking to the Orang Asli, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about the ceremony. After the ceremony, I realized that it had everything to do with forest plantations, because all the materials that they needed came from the forests. The forest around them had gone, so it was very difficult for them to do this ceremony. There was a definite impact—on social, culture, food, and everything. This ceremony just encompassed all these things.
The shaman’s wife passed away some time after I visited. After she passed away, the Orang Asli still got together in the same hall to hold a several-day feast. And the hall was made of materials from the forest. Without these materials, they would have no place to gather; they wouldn’t have the activity to bind the community together. To me, her death was a change in the village—somebody gone. But what hadn’t changed was the logging that went on behind the hills. So, I used that as the ending.
What was the public’s response to your series?
It did not get the response I had hoped for. It wasn’t widely read, for a work of such effort. Altogether, the four stories probably didn’t even have 5,000 views. In all the statistics, the patterns that I see emerging is that forest plantations are the new driver of forest clearing in Peninsular Malaysia. So, I really thought that the series would have a lot more resonance.
From the government side, there has been no response. The government rarely responds to anything unless it goes viral.
The ones who really appreciated the series were environmental NGOs and people who work in timber from all sides. They appreciated the data, the patterns, the problems that were revealed. They realized, Macaranga knows what they’re talking about, they have a good insight on the forest plantations.
We did get calls from the industry afterwards to speak with them. [A] Malaysian company with businesses in logging, plantations, and furniture approached me [and] asked for my help to connect them with the other planters in my story. I connected them. I also told them that if they only discussed within the industry, it’s the same thing that has been happening for the last two decades, and they will repeat the mistake of everybody working in silos, without fruitful communication among government agencies, planters, furniture makers, researchers, etc. I haven’t seen any meaningful change announced that would indicate that stakeholders would work together to review the flaws of the forest-plantations projects in Peninsular Malaysia.
We’ll probably have to work harder and more creatively and put in more resources to promote the stories, or to have them told in different forms—as if we are not already doing it enough! They have all these visuals. They are multimedia-rich. We translated them into Chinese and Malay, so the language shouldn’t be a barrier to Malaysian readers. We have spoken on it on TV. We have gone on the radio to speak about it. We have done one webinar on it. We have released comic infographics in three languages on it. What more can we do?
What do you see as the main takeaways from your series?
The series did its job of showing that the forest was not sustainably used, and the whole program needs to be reviewed before we continue on with it. [The series] also did its job of presenting the perspectives of different stakeholders. Everyone had something to complain about; everyone seemed to be struggling. Nobody was happy in this whole story, as far as I found. But yet, nobody was working together across their boundaries. They weren’t sharing data or talking meaningfully and productively toward the goal of sustainable use of forest resources.
Shi En Kim is a life sciences reporter at Chemical & Engineering News and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, National Geographic, Scientific American, Hakai Magazine, Science News, and Smithsonian Magazine, where she was a AAAS Mass Media Fellow in 2021. She recently earned her PhD in molecular engineering from the University of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @goes_by_kim.