This story examines the performance of forest management in Peninsular Malaysia since 2000. In Malaysia, state governments rule over land and forests, and they manage forests via forestry departments. Forest loss to development triggers public outcry but governments often say it’s needed for revenue and the economy. In public discourse, what’s missing is a quantitative and critical assessment of how well (or not) the authorities manage forests. This story does that by analysing 20 years of data extracted from government and independent sources and compare performance under 6 indicators of sustainable management. Readers are prompted to decide which matter most.
- Readers actively discussed the findings of the story – on our website itself and on social media. Many of the comments came from veteran loggers, foresters, and environmentalists who had struggled to gather enough data to form a big picture view of forest management that encompasses environment and the economy.
- Forestry and land-change data in Malaysia is extremely difficult to acquire and clean. Much of the data is kept physically across government agencies, and often data fail to tally between sources. This challenge likely explains why almost all NGOs and media reports focus on piecemeal issues rather than comprehensive nationwide view. The story shares its data publicly, and that has been a boost for journalists, researchers and environmentalists who haven’t been able to get forestry data. For that, this story was featured in a national “Data Journalism Assessment” report.
- A month after publication, the Peninsular Malaysia Forestry Department invited us into a 2-hour discussion with 15 officers, including the second-most senior officer. They wanted to hear how we acquired and analysed the data; at one point, they wanted to learn how we presented the data even. Forestry departments are often wary of media; this is the first time we have heard of them inviting the media to discuss a story. We view this as an acknowledgement.
- A lot of the forestry data were in hardcopy, so I scanned or took photographs of them in government libraries, and extracted data using ExtractTable.
- Changes in forest reserves were recorded in state gazettes in PDF formats, and I used Google Pinpoint to quickly search through the thousands of PDFs (20 years, 11 states)
- Data management and simple analyses were done in Excel
- Maps were done in QGIS or Flourish. The interactive map that shows changes in forest reserve areas across districts across time is a unique contribution to environmental reporting in Malaysia. The Forestry Department itself was impressed and wants to emulate our approach.
- Satellite data on forest changes were taken from Global Forest Watch
- Most data were presented in graphs done in Flourish
- We designed a quiz to engage readers and present the data to them, as a hook to pique their interest. The quiz was done using a WordPress plugin.
- The layout of the story was crucial too, and for that we used Elementor Pro and various plugins to experiment and decided on a two-column, visual – text combination.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Amassing, cleaning and analysing the data was tough, but it wasn’t the hardest part of this story. What was most difficult – also most crucial – was strategizing how to tell the story out of the data. Over months, I had collected various datasets that relate to forest management – logging revenue, reserve area, wildlife conflict reports, sustainability measures etc. But I wanted to write a story that helps readers evaluate how their state governments have been managing forests, not a technical report. My challenge was to present the forestry data and policies in a way that would engage the reader enough for them to not just see where management has failed, but also to appreciate that states that have been notorious for deforestation could actually perform quite well in other aspects. To that end, I decided to frame the story as an evaluation of forest management according to standards set by the authorities themselves. Malaysia has a sustainable forest management policy to sustain both ecology and economy, and a goal to keep 50% land forested. I chose 6 quantitative indicators and used the data I analysed to rank the states. Keeping in line with the “evaluation” approach, I piqued readers’ interest at the start with a quiz built on forestry data. As expected, most readers scored badly, and I used the readers’ curiosity for the right answer to lead them on to the rest of the story. At the end, in light of the nuances in forest management, I decided against a Report Card for all states, but rather let the readers answer a poll on how they would like their forests managed. The public poll reveals what people think, and I was surprised that the top choice was to go for certification.
What can others learn from this project?
- Data isn’t story, and if left alone, data is hardly interesting to anybody but those who were already heavily invested in the topic. When a journalist gives context to a dataset, it becomes a lot more approachable to the general reader. But for issues like forest use, it’s even better if the readers could be engaged on their own presumptions and then showed how their presumptions measure up against data. And in the end, let them decide. This is because forest use isn’t a black and white issue, but rather a decision-making exercise balanced on many different values. It is highly subjective and yet of great public interest and importance. Smart and fair use of data journalism can facilitate sharp and spot-on public discourse.
- When reporting on a subject that the authorities are sensitive about, like forest use and possible shortcomings in their decades of management, we can benefit by playing the game in their court. Approach the issue by the standards set by the subject or authority in question, then use strong data to show how well (or not) they have met their own standards. Because the standards or criteria were set by them, they cannot question our choice to evaluate them. There will be nuances, and loopholes in the standards, and we can use the data to show these too.