The responsibility to protect forests

Azmi Sharom

Forests are under state jurisdiction, but Parliament can pass laws to make the various state laws uniform and to meet international obligations.

Azmi Sharom

INDISCRIMINATE logging in the east coast has been attributed as one of the causes of the terrible floods that we have suffered this year. To my knowledge, there has been no study conducted to verify this claim although, of course, it is very possible.

Any school child will tell you that forested areas (especially on hills) are vital to the environment. They act as catchment areas, help to absorb rainwater and hold the soil together. All these actions are important not only for our water supply but also to prevent water rushing uncontrollably down from the highlands and to stop soil erosion; both factors in flood control.

Whose responsibility is it, then, to protect our forests? According to the law, forests are under the jurisdiction of the states. The Federal Government only has power over forests in the federal territories; which is not much at all, seeing that Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur and Labuan are not exactly overrun with jungle.

The main law that governs forest on the peninsula is the National Forestry Act. This is a law made by Parliament. “Hold on”, I hear you say, “why is Parliament making laws for something in the states’ jurisdiction?”

Well, the Constitution allows Parliament to do so if the purpose is to make the various state laws uniform. Before the National Forestry Act, each state had its own forest law and it differed from one another.

After the Act was made, the states then took it upon themselves to turn the text of the law into state legislation by making it a state enactment passed by their legislative assembly. So, even though the law has its origins in Parliament, the fact remains that it is the state governments who have power over their forests and they are the enforcers of the law.

The Federal Government, via its National Forestry Department, has always advised states to establish protected forests, but at the end of the day there is no compulsion for this advice to be followed. States will always be tempted to exploit their forest resources as it is a major source of income. This could lead to poor practices and poor enforcement of existing laws.

Is there anything that can be done by the Federal Government? Theoretically, yes.

The Constitution allows Parliament to make laws even if the topic falls under state jurisdiction, if the reason for making those laws is in order to implement international obligations. There are a few international laws that are relevant to the forests that Malaysia is party to.