Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources

This paper finds high levels of deforestation and widespread problems in Malaysia, particularly in the state of Sarawak.

A truck hauls fresh timber from mountainous terrain in the Limbang area of Sarawak, Borneo. Photo by Yvan Cohen/LightRocket via Getty Images.A truck hauls fresh timber from mountainous terrain in the Limbang area of Sarawak, Borneo. Photo by Getty Images.

This paper is part of a broader Chatham House study which assesses the global response to illegal logging and the related trade. 

There has been limited progress in tackling illegal logging and related trade in Malaysia since 2010. Widespread problems remain, particularly in the state of Sarawak. There are high levels of deforestation throughout the country: expansion of timber, pulp and agricultural plantations (including oil palm and rubber) is the main driver of forest loss.

Forest policy-making in Malaysia involves both the federal and state governments, but the states have prerogative rights to develop their own policies on land and forests. This poses challenges, not least since governance of the forest sector varies quite significantly from one region of the country to another.

The government has been negotiating a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the EU since 2007. Negotiations stalled for a number of years but resumed in 2012 without the participation of Sarawak. Concerns remain among stakeholders about the limited recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights by the government, as well as about corruption and the lack of transparency.

Awareness of illegal logging and related trade is increasing in the private sector, although the area of natural forest concessions certified as being under sustainable production remained virtually unchanged during the period 2008–12.

Asia is the major export market destination for Malaysia’s timber products. However, both the US and the EU import significant volumes of wood-based products from Malaysia too.

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has recently stepped up investigating corruption in the forest sector. In Sarawak, an intensified focus on combatting illegal logging could signal a turning point for the state’s forest sector.

In order to build on its response to illegal logging and related trade to date, the Malaysian government should fully engage with the voluntary partnership agreement process and improve multi-stakeholder participation. Transparency in decisions about forest allocation needs to be significantly improved and greater recognition accorded to the rights of indigenous peoples.

More concerted efforts are required to tackle high-level corruption – for example, through strengthening the MACC. At the same time, the government should consider options for an independent monitor for the forest sector as a means of improving forest governance.