EnvironmentFeatures

Saving Perak’s Forests

Cover Story

By Khaleeja Suhaimi & Ili Aqilah

The once pristine and “impregnable” tropical jungles of Perak are slowly but surely dwindling in size and numbers. These wooded areas, stretching from Belum in the north to Tanjong Malim in the south, are a God-given treasure to Perakeans to behold. They are homes to the some of the country’s endemic flora and fauna.

However, due to human encroachment and insatiable greed these forests are being systematically destroyed on a horrendous scale. And unless there is a will to arrest the decline we will lose this treasure for good.

Inculcate awareness of sustainable and clean environment in public mind

Last year the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the Forestry Department conducted a joint-operation to assess the extent of illegal logging in the Temenggor region. The authorities, including Menteri Besar Dato’ Seri DiRaja Dr Zambry Abd Kadir, were shocked by the outcome. They discovered three hidden spots where stolen logs were stored for disposal.

According to a 2015 report on illegal logging in Malaysia by London-based institute, Chatham House, our anti-corruption commission has been working hard to stop the carnage. It includes negotiating a Voluntary Partnership Agreement, a legally-binding trade agreement between European Union (EU) and timber-producing countries outside the Union, initiated in 2007. It is, however, difficult to stop the illicit practice due to the high demand for tropical hardwood and its by-products worldwide.

Destroying Jungles and Animal Habitats

Not only do jungles suffer from deforestation, human activities impact the ecological systems. Tracks and trails made to extract timber cause water levels to subside and catchment areas to disappear. Unmitigated human activities not only destroy the jungles but animal habitations as well.

A case in point is the Belum Forest Reserve above the East-West Highway. This thickly wooded area was virtually untouched until the signing of the peace accord between our security forces and the outlawed Malayan Communist Party in December 1989. Following the momentous event that saw the end of communist terrorism in Peninsular Malaysia, the floodgate was opened. Once opened it is difficult to close.

Today the Belum forest is no longer what it was before. Where tigers, deer and tapirs once roamed these wild animals are no longer seen or spotted. The rivers and streams in the area were stocked with freshwater fish such as kelahtengaspatinbaung and seberau. Today the same streams and rivers are empty. Poaching for the much-valued kayu garharu (agarwood) is also a contributing factor.

One pertinent question now remains. How much longer must our trees and animals suffer? Ipoh Echo sends its team out to source for answers. And this is what we found.

What is Illegal Logging?

Illegal logging is a term that is difficult to prove. As the activity is rather widespread, the right term to use is “encroachment”. There are two types of encroachment, one is selective while the other is converting forest reserves into lands for agriculture and housing.

These activities have been going on for a while in Perak but they are not an issue, as they are considered legal insofar as policies and laws are concerned. To find out more, our team interviewed two staunch environmentalists. They are Hafizuddin Nasaruddin the president of Persatuan Aktivis Sahabat Alam (KUASA) and Mat Saman Kati an old hand with non-governmental organisations dealing with the environment.

“Isn’t this odd? My suggestions to the Perak State Forestry Department for the establishment of plant nurseries are summarily dismissed while applications for logging are approved within two weeks,” said Hafizudin.

Mat Saman’s involvement began with Vale Malaysia Minerals Sdn Bhd’s jetty project in Lumut. It started with two nature-lovers who were monitoring developments within Perak’s forested regions. While hiking in Teluk Rubiah, Lumut one day the duo was stopped from entering the area, a golf course owned by the naval base nearby. They later found out that the land had been sold to Vale, a tin-ore producing conglomerate based in Brazil.

It was too late for KUASA to say anything, as an agreement between the state government and Brazilian company had been duly signed. They initiated a “Save Teluk Rubiah” campaign instead to create public awareness despite knowing it would not matter much. People will only take notice when something bad happens. When the area was developed accidents did occur and the public’s attention was diverted.

“Our approach at that time was rather radical, we refused to negotiate. We worked with Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) who did the negotiating,” said Mat Saman.

KUASA, an environmental non-governmental organisation, was formed in 2012 and is based in Manjung. There were many environmental issues to contend with. They held seminars and roadshows in the district but response was poor.

Why Does Encroachment Occur?

Encroachments in Teluk Muroh and Segari in Lumut started in 2011.  The proposed steel factory and a liquefied natural gas plant would affect the turtle sanctuary nearby.

RM4.2 billion was invested in the projects. Incidentally, an area within the Bukit Merah forest reserve near Papan has been earmarked for a goat farm. They fear Rotavirus, a contagious disease which affects children would spread if these projects were to proceed. Unhygienic conditions are the causes for the proliferation of these viruses.

Big-time contractors and farmers would burn or leave logs to rot so as not to get into trouble with the Forestry Department. Some would resort to the primitive slash and burn method of land clearing for cultivation, as seen in Cameron Highlands.

According to provisions by United Nations, every member country must have at least 50 per cent of its land covered with trees. However, in the Malaysian context, oil palm and rubber plantations are considered as forests. Thus Malaysia has an aggregate area of about 68 per cent covered with wood when in actual fact less than 40 per cent are forested.

Mat Saman and Hafizudin stressed the importance of the UN classification and the need to redefine it. The state government insists that lands need to be cleared for housing and developments. That is the underlying reason for opening up lands, therefore, forest reserves are fair game.

“What about empty lands or places without forests? Why can’t they develop them instead?” asked Hafizudin.

How to Prevent?

“What can we do?” Hafizudin lamented. “The only thing we can do is create awareness and educate people.”

Logging can be done but with limitations. Sustainable logging is the answer. While one area is logged the barren area nearby is being progressively replanted. There are 17 mini hydroelectric projects throughout Perak and most of it are within forest reserves.

The clearing of land for logging or development should be overseen by three parties namely, the state government, NGOs with environmental knowledge and the people. For this to happen there is a need for a policy change which has to be done openly by all states, as land is a state responsibility.

“If all of us come to an agreement, then there wouldn’t be a conflict. But for now, the only thing we can do is protest,” said Hafizudin.

“Most of our timbers are exported to America and China where the demand is great. Why don’t we use them locally and generate our economy instead of exporting?” Hafizudin reasoned.

Interestingly, a new development is taking place in Tanah Tinggi Kinta near Simpang Pulai. It will involve the clearing of another forest reserve. This is worrying but the lack of opposition is just too glaring. Could apathy be the cause? There are many inactive NGOs who show up when big issues are in the offing but disappear when the going gets tough.

The problem with the authorities is that they do not think in the long term. Short-term gains seem to be the mantra. However, it is good that the younger generation is beginning to realise the benefits of a clean environment. As they immerse themselves in nature, they begin to appreciate its significance and take stock of their surroundings.

Topping KUASA’s agenda presently is to start a camp to inculcate awareness in the public. If this gets going, their next project is to establish a school of environment. The reason is obvious – to make the teaching of sustainable and clean environment a fixture.

When Will It Stop?

This famous Native American saying has much relevance: “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realise that you cannot eat money.”

Does it ever dawn on us that the encroachment of our forests is nothing but a total destruction of nature? Although the need to develop is paramount, perhaps it is time to slow down the pace and leave Mother Nature alone.

Although the concrete jungle is what drives aspirations, trees and animals should remain the core ingredients not buildings.

Let us save the forests, including the people and animals who dwell in them.

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