Connexion: Pick candidates with a whole-of-society vision

by Joachim Ng

Ask every candidate in your constituency whether he had taken note of the key points in Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah’s royal address during WWF Malaysia’s 50th anniversary celebration at the start of this year. If so, what efforts did the candidate put in to ensure that 50% of our country remains under forest cover?

The Sultan of Perak, in his address, had touched on the profound impact of human activity on forests and wildlife, rivers and oceans. The dangers of climate change had become very real in Malaysia, judging by the increasing flood severity. Hence, we must be bold in our renewed efforts to address the underlying causes, Sultan Nazrin said.

It is not enough for a candidate to extol the virtues of his party; he must demonstrate personal commitment and belief in the value of preserving the jungle. If a candidate has no environmental credentials, should you vote in that person merely on the basis of party loyalty? To his credit, Menteri Besar Dato’ Seri Saarani Bin Mohamad has organised the planting of 1.37 million trees in Perak from January to September this year.

“Perak aims to plant 10 million trees or 2 million trees per year throughout the state for 5 years starting from 2021. In 2021, we have achieved the target of planting 2 million trees with an area of ​​5,568.01 hectares throughout the state,” he said at an International Day of Forests celebration in Gopeng last week as reported in IpohEcho.

But just two months ago, Orang Asli villagers in Ulu Lawin, Lenggong, expressed fears that their livelihoods could be threatened by permitted logging in a part of the Bintang Hijau Forest Reserve. Land clearance to build a road to the logging site had caused Sungai Lawin — a river that the Orang Asli depends on for water — to turn murky.

Logging affects the Orang Asli more than any other community because they are forest people and their economy is intertwined with the fate of the forests. Their attachment to the forest, however, often makes them the butt of jokes. In school, Orang Asli students are sometimes taunted with remarks such as “aboriginal” and “go back to the jungle.”

Actually, we sophisticated urbanites should envy the Orang Asli for being aboriginal and attached to the jungle. We who are non-aboriginal and non-attached to the jungle have brought on climate change, not those who are original in their love of nature.

In Kenya, the Government recently empowered indigenous folks in Cheplanget village to safeguard the village stream on which they depended for water. With the authority to initiate local by-laws and to enforce them, the villagers replanted water-retaining native trees along the bare banks and banned logging along the water source. The stream, killed by logging many years ago, was thus revived.

Forests ensure clean streams by acting as a gigantic filter to keep pollution out of water. Strong roots anchor soil against erosion and the forest floor absorbs sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen. If too much nitrogen and phosphorus flow into the water, it harms the water quality and decreases the oxygen that aquatic life depends on.

Trees are not just carbon sinks absorbing carbon dioxide from the air. Tree islands cool urban areas in many ways: by emitting biogenic volatile organic compounds necessary for the creation of clouds that provide cover from the sun, by filtering out air pollution, by shifting heat from the ground skyward and evaporating water from the leaves to act as air-conditioning, by reflecting sunlight back to the sky, by acting as noise barriers.

Forests soak up excess rainwater, preventing run-offs that lead to flooding of towns, villages, and farms nearby. The water storage capacity of forest soil can also be tapped in times of drought, especially for irrigation of padi lands. Very importantly, the world’s plants soak up more than 10 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from the air per year — nearly a third of global CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuel.

With all these benefits that forests bestow, why does rampant logging still go on in tropical nations? It’s because government economic planners just look at the income. When governments issue permits for jungle logging, they earn huge sums of money from licensing fees and taxation in a short time. What about expenditure? You mean the manpower, machinery and transportation that loggers pay for?

No, we don’t mean these affordable costs to loggers. We mean the expenditure side in whole-of-society accounting. Economists do not practise whole-of-society accounting because the expenditure in logging is spread across the whole of society.

Whole-of-society accounting must include losses suffered by indigenous forest tribes; damage to village and town homes as well as farms through flooding; loss of property and repairs to damaged assets; expenditure on treatment of polluted water for household use; expenditure on heavier usage of air-conditioning. These are not accounted for because victims shoulder the cost.

Loss of wildlife, biodiversity, and carbon storage is the biggest cost. It is absorbed by nature, and the payback comes in the form of climate change. In statistics issued by Global Forest Watch (GFW), Malaysia achieved 6th position in its ranking of the world’s top 10 countries losing primary forest in 2019 through agricultural expansion, wildfires, logging, mining, and population growth.

GFW data showed that Malaysia’s acreage of primary forest shrank by 17% in the period 2002-2020 as jungles were felled to make way for plantations and housing to fill the demands of a growing population.

Brazil held the crown in No. 1 spot as it was responsible for destroying more than a third of all primary forest loss in the years 2002-2019. With the promise of “land without men for men without land” coined in the 1970s, the vast Amazon jungle was seen as a new wild west for loggers, miners, and ranchers to colonise. Many indigenous tribes were massacred or driven out.

More than 80% of the herds in Brazil’s cattle ranches are located in the once-heavily forested eastern and southern parts of the Amazon, with the result that these parts have led a shift from carbon sink to carbon belcher. The Brazilian Amazon now spews out more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, according to two studies conducted in 2021.

A non-environmental group recently argued that more CO2 in the air would be good for plants. That’s false logic based on the assumption that plants are greedy eaters like humans. The reality is that if a plant can get the same amount of C02 from 10 intakes of air as from 20 intakes, it will cut its air intake by half. This also means that it will cut its water vapour release by half, resulting in a 50% reduction in air cooling.

Whichever way you cut it, excess CO2 in the air carries abundant dangers and will eventually shorten your life.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo

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