Brunei has moved to lock up more of its natural forests by reducing commercial timber quotas and increasing the total area of land covered by conservation orders. While the move will help preserve the sultanate's natural heritage, it will place further limits on the timber industry and add to Brunei's import bill.
On July 21, Brunei announced it was planning to increase the area listed as forest reserves from 41% of the country's forested land to 55%. All commercial logging in the designated areas is to be banned. According to the Forestry Department, 76% of Brunei's 5765 sq km is currently covered by forest, though this has fallen from the 78% of a few years ago.
Announcing the plan at a seminar on measures to control the illegal trade in lumber, Pengiran Hajah Mariana, the deputy permanent secretary of the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources (MIPR), said there was a need for appropriate governance and investment in forest management.
"This will see the involvement of the forestry stakeholders and allow them to have a better appreciation of the basic resource," she said.
Among those forestry stakeholders are the various components of Brunei's timber sector, one of the country's oldest industries. Though once a regional timber exporter, with records showing lumber from Brunei being used in China 900 years ago, the country is now a net importer of unprocessed wood.
Under the Forestry Department's Reduced Cut Policy (RCP), introduced in 1990, the logging industry has been limited to harvesting 100,000 cubic metres of timber a year. This ceiling has been reinforced by a moratorium on the approval of new logging concessions, with the country's 24 sawmills only allowed to process wood taken from strictly defined areas within a 15 km radius of their location.
To preserve the industry, while at the same time conserving Brunei's forests, the government has encouraged both mill owners and furniture manufacturers to import raw or semi-processed wood, mainly from Sarawak, to meet local demand and for re-export after processing. It has also initiated a programme of replanting logged areas to provide long-term access to raw materials.
Though the state allows timber imports, customs duties, issues of quality and high international prices are all putting the industry under pressure.
According to KH Lee, director of Twinwood Kiln Dry Treatment Industries, the government's restrictions are a constraint on growth.
"We are given timber quotas every year. There is 97,000 cubic metres of wood which is divided by 24 saw milling companies; if you are talking about quantity it is a problem," Lee told the local press in May.
Brunei buyers are also having difficulties competing in the international market as good quality timber from Malaysia is being exported to other countries.
While the timber industry has the support of the government, it is going head to head with one of the state's most publicised policies: the "Heart of Borneo" project. The scheme, an inter-government initiative between the sultanate, Malaysia and Indonesia, aims to preserve most of the island of Borneo's forest land. In February 2007, the three countries agreed to set aside 220,000 sq km of equatorial rainforests, almost one third of the island, as a natural reserve.
Brunei hopes that its forests will attract increasing numbers of tourists seeking an eco-friendly tourism destination. According to projections from the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism will earn the sultanate $1.6bn in 2008, an estimated 11.6% of GDP, rising to $2.5bn or 14.1% by 2018. It will be hard for the timber lobby to compete with these figures in its struggle to gain access to new concessions.
Ironically, Brunei's hard line on logging could encourage illegal tree felling in neighbouring countries, where controls are not so rigidly enforced. Illegal logging is a growing cause of concern in the region, threatening both the environment and the future access to raw materials for the timber industry.
"Illegal logging happens in remote areas and it's difficult to exercise control," Hugh Blackett, a forestry consultant, told the local press on July 22. "Therefore making money from harvesting timber is very easy and gives a quick return. A lot of people have taken advantage of weak government controls," he said.
However, according to MIPR's Hajah Mariana, this is an issue Brunei has overcome.
"In view of the global concerns on sustainable forest management, the market for legality verification of wood products has increased," she told delegates at the July 21 seminar. "Numerous systems and services have been developed to check, license and certify timber produced as legal."
Tightly controlled and with limited access to cheap raw materials, Brunei's traditional timber industry faces uncertain times.