ConnexionOPINION

Connexion: Ongoing forest loss heightens threat of new pandemics

By Joachim Ng

If a housing estate stands next to a miniature forest park, you will find the temperature to be lower by at least 1 degree C. The spread of trees performs natural air-conditioning by shifting heat from ground level skyward using the sun’s energy to vaporise water, and the treetop canopies also help keep heat away from the ground surface.

Malaysia’s urban housing suburbs are mostly heat islands because rarely is there a tree park nearby. Our city planners miss out on this vital ingredient of healthy living, stipulating only that open spaces must be provided.

Moreover, without forest cover to protect the topsoil and trees to soak up the rainfall, excess water runoff increases the potential for floods every year end as is happening this year, has happened last year, and will continue happening next year.

Although Malaysia has set a goal to achieve 50% forest cover in the peninsula, the target is unlikely to be hit. Data from Global Forest Watch showed Malaysia lost 2.7 million hectares of primary forests between 2002 and 2020. Global Forest Watch said Kelantan was responsible for 63% of all tree cover loss in those years.

Environmental watchdog Rimba Watch has estimated that 2.3 million hectares of forests in Malaysia have been earmarked for future deforestation by various states. In its “State of the Malaysian Rainforest 2023” report, Rimba Watch said the country’s forest cover is at risk of decreasing to 47.35% of our total land area.

The report said the 2.3 million ha earmarked for deforestation is an area 100 times the size of Kuala Lumpur and is larger than the size of Perak, Penang, and Melaka combined.

Perak is in quite a fix, along with the rest of Malaysia and the entire world. Like a motorist who is highly uncertain and drives his car forward one minute and backward the next, we are losing our sense of direction in handling climate change.

Two contrasting development projects a mere 14km apart from each other in Kinta Valley epitomise the horns of a dilemma that humanity is entangled in.

Two months ago, the Regional Sewage Treatment Plant (RSTP) Papan 2 located near Pusing began operations upon its inauguration, Ipoh Echo reported. This state-of-the-art plant that serves the residents of Ipoh and surrounding areas is capable of reducing the potential of river pollution and guaranteeing sustainablity of water resources. The green technology incorporated into the plant’s construction helps reduce the carbon footprint.

On the opposite side of the north-south railway line, Orang Asli villagers in Simpang Pulai who had been harvesting forest produce near the Bukit Kinta Forest Reserve and carrying out small-scale farming saw their lifestyle come to an abrupt halt last February when their farm plots were bulldozed and secondary forest land cleared to make way for a durian plantation.

Last year, a Temiar tribe living near the Bintang Hijau Forest Reserve in Gerik saw contractors clearing land to build a road to a new logging site. Their fear is that the logging project will cause heavy flooding and affect their livelihoods as well as safety.

Kelantan is making changes to its development plan involving environmentally sensitive areas (ESAs), a move that Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad said the Federal Government disagrees with. Sahabat Alam Malaysia has urged the State Government to cancel these proposed amendments which declassify ESAs that are not water sources or water catchment areas.

The declassification runs a huge risk of land use change for development or mining, which will involve forest clearance and loss of wildlife habitat. Populations of the tiger, elephant, and tapir among other animals will be endangered.

In Jentiang forest reserve deep within Kelantan, plans are afoot for a gold mining project spanning nearly 200 hectares. Sahabat Alam Malaysia has raised the question: “How can gold mining be allowed in a permanent reserve forest? Mining is not a forest product under the National Forestry Act.”

The Central Forest Spine, an important backbone that links fragmented primary forests together, may lose some of its vertebrae if plans are pursued to mine iron ore in Pahang’s Jerantut area and rare earth in Perak’s Kenering area.

Objections have also been raised over Kedah’s proposed move to allow logging of 25,000 hectares of the Greater Ulu Muda rainforest region. Critics said logging might severely affect Sungai Muda and the Muda Dam during prolonged dry seasons, weakening its ecological and water supply role for Kedah, Perlis, and Penang.

The Greater Ulu Muda rainforest is home to many threatened wildlife species such as the elephant, sun bear, tapir, pangolin, tiger, leopard, sambar deer, hairy-nosed otter, and well over 320 species of birds.

Three years ago, the Malaysian Nature Society and Sahabat Alam Malaysia decried the fact that the Terengganu State Government had degazetted most of the Belara Forest Reserve, home of the hornbill, to make way for plantations.

Malaysia is caught between the need for quick income to spur the economy and the apparently competing need to protect the environment for sustainable growth.

 

There is little recognition that our nation’s and the world’s GDP depends heavily on nature and its services. Our natural ecosystems, including forests, underpin the economy by providing a wealth of services that businesses rely on.

Apart from regulating the climate and removing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from our atmosphere, forests help supply water, control pollution, support pollination and healthy soils, and provide wood-based products and livelihoods.

It has been estimated that every dollar spent on ecosystem restoration gives a return 10 times this amount in ecosystem goods and services, for example, improved agricultural yields, clean air and water, pollination, pest control, carbon capture, and a much reduced likelihood of pandemics. The benefits of nature conservation far exceed the costs.

However, nature is losing its capacity to provide such services because of increased deforestation. The world has lost more than 72 million hectares of primary forest in the past 21 years (2002-2022), according to The Guardian Weekly. Last year, tropical regions lost 11 million hectares or over 15 million football fields of tree cover.

The top five countries losing tree cover are (in order of hectares) Brazil, Indonesia, Congo, Bolivia, and Malaysia.

A consequence of forest loss is the loss of biodiversity including the extinction of plant species. This carries frightening consequences for the survival of animals and humans, because plants are the roots in the tree of life. In Sabah, 39 endemic tree species have been identified as critically endangered.

An estimated 350,000 plant species in the world have been identified, with another 100,000 yet to be formally named. But three in four of these un-named plants are already likely to go extinct, according to Kew Gardens’ State of the World’s Plants and Fungi 2023 report. To quote from page 68 of the report: “Our findings indicate that 45% of flowering plant species are potentially threatened with extinction.”

The World Wildlife Fund and Zoological Society of London in their joint Living Planet Index report last year said that between 1970 and 2016 the global populations of wild land animals, birds and fishes have declined by 69% through deforestation, human exploitation, pollution, and climate change. It said this “serious drop… tells us that nature is unravelling and the natural world is emptying.”

Around the world, myriad lifeforms have evolved to depend on each other in complex ways. This biodiversity, at scales from single genes to entire ecosystems, is essential for our existence.

When plants go extinct, their absence causes a domino effect with animals following suit one after another because the food chain collapses. The destruction of jungle for logging, mining, agriculture, livestock breeding, industry, road construction, and housing causes habitat loss with displaced animals forced to roam near humans.

 

The immediate threat is that desperate creatures attack human beings whom they encounter in plantations, on forested roads, near villages, outside towns, and in rural campuses. This is happening in Malaysia with increasing frequency.

Wherever lush forests are cleared for roads, tragic accidents will occur if safe animal crossings are not provided. In Johor state alone, more than 100 wild animals have died in roadkills since 2019.

Human-wildlife conflicts are no longer uncommon as we push deeper into the natural habitats of animals. Since January this year, tigers have been spotted in towns and Felda schemes, wild elephants have encroached into residential areas, and sun bears have been spotted in padi fields.

Between June and November this year, 15 cases of human-tiger clashes have been reported, with four people mauled to death.

But the larger threat to the nation is that close encounters between wildlife and humans will give pathogens more chances to make the jump into humans, sparking off a deadly epidemic or even a worldwide pandemic.

Covid-19 emerged from a zoonotic spillover (transmission from animals), likely from bats to a “bridge” animal suspected to have been a pangolin and then to people. At the height of the pandemic, there were strong fears in Denmark that the SARS-CoV-2 virus had also done a “reverse spillover” jumping from humans to farmed minks, of which there were 17 million in Denmark, and it would then do a “spillback” to humans.

Evidence indicates that most new zoonotic outbreaks have wildlife or livestock origins. An average of 400,000 infections caused by contact with animals occur every year, with each spillover carrying a potential danger of a Covid-like outbreak. According to a 2021 report produced by the EcoHealth Alliance and Duke-NUS Medical School, some 50,000 bat-to-human spillover events occur in Southeast Asia annually.

As forests get thinner, small tick-friendly species such as rodents thrive in place of larger animals. As their numbers grow, they harbour more ticks to bite us and hence increasing the risk of disease spreading.

There needs to be a rapid awakening throughout society that animals and humans are closely linked and live in an ecosystem web. When the web gets damaged, climate change isn’t the only dreadful effect. We also face increasing risk of new pandemics. Economic growth must be planned holistically so that nature is not subverted.

Last year the Sultan of Perak, in his royal address to the state assembly, called for national growth and development to be tempered with respect and love for the environment so that man and nature can co-exist to attain a balance between growth and regeneration. Let us all carry out his wishes.

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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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