If you manage to stop the timber industry from cutting this forest, they’ll cut that forest. If you stop oil drilling here, they’ll go drill there. 

– Woody Harrelson, American actor

I have been following the statewide PBB mini-conventions closely. In previous years, the party held one single major convention, usually in the state capital, but this time around the Covid-19 pandemic forced the party leadership to adopt a new normal — opting for mini-conventions instead in four zones, namely, Miri, Betong, Sibu and Kuching.

The third leg was held in Sibu over the weekend. While I found nothing exciting about the earlier conventions in Miri and Betong, something notable, however, emerged from the Sibu gathering which caught the attention of both delegates and ordinary fellas like me.

A delegate, or rather PBB secretary general Datuk Alexander Nanta Linggi, in his speech touched on the usually sensitive subject of timber concessions. I guess almost all the delegates did not expect him to broach the topic.

Nanta, without mincing his words, claimed some people who had become extremely wealthy over the years from the state government’s generous timber concessions, were now “unfriendly towards the GPS coalition”.

That being the case, he urged Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari to review the state’s forest industry policies in the interest of the people.

“These people have become very rich through the government’s policies and it is time for the state government to come up with a new policy and restructure the whole timber industry so that the rakyat will benefit directly,” he said.

Reacting to Nanta’s suggestion, Abang Johari promised to revamp existing timber policies for the overall benefits of the ordinary Sarawakians.

“The delegates have asked us to look into current policies … We already have policies in place, we can improve and restructure them, taking into account the community’s involvement,” said the chief minister.

It’s no secret that big-time industry players have benefited over the years, thanks to the business-friendly state governments over the past 50 years or so. These towkay kayu balak (timber magnates) have reaped hundreds of millions, some even billions, from our forest resources.

Their wealth and power are embedded in the timber business and their influence on the local economy and politics has grown. The state’s economy is controlled by these people. Had it not been for the good business environment and opportunities created by the government of the day, these tycoons would not be where they are today.

Many in just a short time have expanded into business conglomerates. The timber tycoons’ roots date back to the beginning of the second timber boom in the 1960s and 1970s, expanding their activities and diversifying further and investing their logging profits in construction, extraction of natural resources, oil palm, property development, media and tourism.

Having accumulated profits from their timber extraction, many have expanded their operations worldwide. Major timber tycoons have listed parts of their conglomerates on the KLSE and Hong Kong Stock Exchange to finance part of their diversification strategies with public funds.

I am not able to get hold of the exact figure, but I was told Sarawak has close to 150 logging companies, but logging activities and timber processing are controlled by just a few major timber groups and their subsidiaries.

This has to change. Wealth and business opportunities should be made available to all those who are capable — not just to only those who are close to the powers that be.

I was told there are six main timber players. Together they control at least 4.5 million or so hectares of timber concessions in Sarawak. They have also acquired vast tracks of land for which reforestation permits were issued.

The six players are also among 41 active forest plantation licence holders. As most of their operations are registered as private limited companies, with ultimate control resting with key families, they are said to be able to operate in relative secrecy.

Our state has experienced one of the most rapid log clearances in this part of the region. According to reports, in the late 1970s, some 76 percent of the state was under forest cover, and 90 percent of it was under logging concessions.

Over a period of 23 years between 1963 and 1986, more than 30 percent of the total forest area was logged. Since then, timber extraction has continued at a high rate, and only a few patches of primary forests remain today.

Hopefully, our new timber policies will take into account stricter sustainable conditions for timber concessionaires while at the same time ensuring more Sarawakians benefit from wealth derived from our timber resources.