Thinking Allowed

Thinking Allowed: Royal Belum is a Cronies’ Paradise

Instead of being a trendsetter and true reformer, the Perak Menteri Besar, Ahmad Faizal Azumu, would rather emulate his predecessor, Zambry Abdul Kadir, in refusing to protect our precious jungle.

Ahmad Faizal is the caretaker of one of the world’s oldest rainforests. A Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) report (2005), states that the Royal Belum forest reserve is approximately 130 million years old, and is older than the Amazon and the Congo. Its biodiversity is complex. It supports a wide variety of flora and fauna, some of which are unique to this forest.

Yet, on October 10, the MB shocked many Malaysians when he dismissed the importance of the UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the Royal Belum State Park, in Gerik.

He said, “It is not fair on us to stop all logging there because the state government will be deprived of the revenue needed to provide services to the people”.

Leaders like Ahmad Faizal place little value on the UNESCO status. For him, Royal Belum is just another place for individuals, companies and the state to make vast amounts of money. The state will issue logging licences, and then collect revenue. A UNESCO status carries with it a lot of responsibilities.

The Perak MB is being shortsighted. In 2010, the former MB, Zambry, rejected a proposal by a German joint venture company, to carry out a sustainable conservation project in the Belum-Temenggor forest.

The former MB was not happy about the monetisation from ecotourism of the rainforest, as the return was too slow, unlike the issuing of logging licences to bring in easy and ready money.

Leaders should be aware that their decisions affect conservationists, environmentalists and the Orang Asli (OA) people who reside in the area. The OA and the animals in the area, have made their homes in Royal Belum. Some of the rarest flora and fauna are only found here. Who knows, perhaps, another cure for a disease will be discovered from a plant or animal species.

If we are not careful, Royal Belum will only be featured in films or books. Loggers, both legal and illegal, harvest the forest for its timber, and jungle produce like agarwood (gaharu). Poachers hunt for rare species and smuggle them across the border, sometimes with the collusion of those in authority.

What is wrong with thinking long-term and also becoming known as a person who helped save the environment? What about sustainable logging and the promotion of ecotourism activities?

It is alleged that many crony timber companies are in collusion with the state forestry department. OA land has been given over for development, despite the promises of the state.

If the state cannot protect the people who live there, then who can? Perhaps, it would be more truthful to say that the UNESCO status will make it difficult for those who want to take advantage of the many loopholes in the state rules.

The state does need a lot of funding to manage Royal Belum, to prevent illegal logging and stop poachers from making a lucrative trade in the forest, such as hunting the Malayan tiger, pangolin and Sun Bear. The government needs to enlist the help of various state agencies and third parties, like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), MNS and the wildlife trade monitoring network (TRAFFIC South East Asia).

To create an effective organisation to control poaching and cross-border encroachment, the state will need to form a task force involving the Army, the Immigration department, the Customs department, the Jabatan Orang Asli, the Perak State Parks Corporation and the Forestry Department.

Ahmad Faizal is being disingenuous when he mentioned logging activities, but failed to describe the massive “encroachment” onto OA lands in the Royal Belum State Park. Development has turned thousands of acres of jungle, the natural habitat of the OA, into oil palm plantations, and mines. There is also extensive illegal logging.

Many acres of forest have been destroyed, so the OA and wildlife, have to fight for their existence and survival. As a result, tigers and elephants wander onto farms and kampungs to eat livestock, because their natural habitat and sources of food, have been taken over by the villagers.

The UNESCO status will oblige the state to recognise the rights of the indigenous peoples, and protect their reserves, traditions and culture. Protecting Belum is also an ongoing part of the effort to tackle climate change.

With careful planning and help from the private sector, Ahmad Faizal could promote eco-tourism and the other sustainable forms of conservation and environmental protection, but that would be too much hard work. The Perak MB should lead the way and not be known as just another man who wants to plunder Perak’s natural wealth.

In many parts of the world, such as Palau Island in the western Pacific Ocean, eco-tourism has proven to be many times more profitable than eco-exploitation.

If Ahmad Faizal is serious about making money for the state, he should promote eco-tourism.


Mariam Mokhtar

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