Sabah’s restoration deal raises questions

KOTA KINABALU: Less than 15,000ha of forest were restored over a span of 30 years in one of the largest restoration projects in South-East Asia, thus raising questions on the ability of the controversial Nature Conservation Agreement (NCA) to deliver its legal minimum target of monetising 50,000ha within two years.

Environmental experts said there were major technical and logistic impediments to carry out restoration work on this scale, with the largest area ever restored in a single year by a Yayasan Sabah project only hitting about 2,000ha.

In a joint statement, University of Aberdeen’s Prof David Burslem and South-East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP) director Datuk Dr Glen Reynolds said they were unaware of any project operating in the tropics that had restored forest at the rate envisaged under the NCA.

“Restoration on this scale in mostly remote locations would be extremely challenging. It would involve the sourcing and production of over 10 million tree seedlings, extensive site-species matching assessments and road construction to secure access for planting.

“It will also require long-term seedling maintenance in the remote planting sites and a comprehensive post-planting monitoring programme,” they said.

Burslem has conducted numerous research projects in Sabah, often in partnership with the Sabah Forestry Department and Yayasan Sabah since the mid-1990s. His work includes a 20-year Danum Valley-based study on carbon recovery rates in logged-over and restored rainforests.

Reynolds, meanwhile, has worked in the state for over two decades. He has a PhD in forest restoration from Imperial College. Through SEARRP, he has led and collaborated on many climate change, carbon financing and forest recovery research programmes in Sabah and the wider region.

Citing a report titled “Technical and Financial Impediments to the Viability of the Nature Conservation Agreement”, they said the cost of restoring tropical forests was highly variable, ranging from a few hundred US dollars to tens of thousands of US dollars per hectare, depending on the type and level of degradation and extent of restoration required.

Assuming the restoration under the NCA would mainly involve enrichment planting of tree seedlings in previously logged-over forests, similar to what was carried out by a previous project, he said restoration costs could exceed RM10,000 per hectare over a five year period.

“The cost of restoring 50,000ha during the initial phase of the NCA could amount to well over RM500mil,” they said, adding that, under the terms of the NCA, these costs would have to be borne by the Sabah government in order to generate possible carbon sales.

In addition, carbon recovery rates can be highly variable.

The NCA, signed in October last year, would grant monopoly rights to a Singapore company, Hoch Standard Pte Ltd, for carbon credit sales from state forests covering up to two million hectares.