The global economy will look vastly different in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. The virus has uncovered the grave risk that the world faces from deforestation. Prior to the crisis, many scientists had warned that deforestation and other industrial processes that encroach into wildlife habitats and natural ecosystems are raising the risk of exotic diseases jumping to humans. In a sense, COVID-19 is a dry run for the next, potentially worse, pandemic. If deforestation continues, it will increase the risk of new disease outbreaks.

In line with global goals, Malaysia has enhanced sustainable forest management and mainstreamed biodiversity programs into its socio-economic development agenda, post-2020. This includes increasing Totally Protected Areas from 13.2% to 20% by 2025, as set out in the National Policy on Biological Diversity and a five-year 100 million trees planting campaign. 

Mandatory regulations under the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme have restricted the planting of oil palm on peatland and in permanent forest reserves. The scheme also encourages efforts to enhance the oil palm yield, instead of expanding cultivation, and this has shown significant results.

Malaysia has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to establish WWF-Malaysia’s Forest for Life Program. This organization works to improve forest preservation and management practices, paying particular attention to the restoration of degraded areas where critical corridors are required by wildlife for safe travel throughout their habitats. The WWF’s Forest Conversion Initiative works with producers, investors and retailers around the world to ensure that expansion of oil palm plantations does not threaten High Conservation Value Forests. New technologies, such as radar and drone flights, have been applied to ensure that such mandates are followed, even in remote regions of Malaysia.

The Malaysian palm oil industry has been developed sustainably, with support from the government in preventing the destruction of forests and wildlife habitats. Data from the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources confirmed that more than half of Malaysia’s land area – 55.3%, or 18.3 million ha – is covered by forests. This exceeds the 50% pledge made by then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Thirty-five percent of the country’s plant species are found nowhere else in the world. Although there has been rapid economic development over the years, the government is committed to preserving the rich biodiversity of the rainforests.