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Penang's commitment to safeguard its forests

LETTER | The recent news of continued logging in the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve, Kedah has troubled nearby residents and the rest of Malaysia.

Small logging concessions and illegal logging activities hidden from public eyes have punctured the heart of the pristine forest and affected both water source and water quality. Such activities have also snatched away homes and feeding grounds for elephants, hornbills, leopards and other protected wildlife species.

The rampant logging activity upstream of Sungai Muda consequently affects the livelihood of over four million people from three states: Kedah, Perlis, and Penang.

To be more specific, 80 percent of Penang water supply comes from Sungai Muda, 96 percent for Kedah, and 50 percent for Perlis.

Even though the Kedah Forestry Department issued a claim that there is no environmental impact from the logging activities, and water quality is not affected, this short-sighted and dubious claim fails to look at the long-term water supply issue.

These impacts of logging on human lives mean only one thing: gazette the forest reserve as water catchment area or risk our livelihood. All logging activities need to stop immediately. Delayed action will only cause more cascading effects.

The tragic fate of forests in Malaysia continues to be aggravated after the degazettement of 4,515 ha forest reserve in Terengganu earlier in January. The state government granted the land to TDM Berhad, which plans to turn the area into oil palm plantation. This move angered most environmentalists.

What happened to our forests so far seems to contradict Malaysia’s commitment to maintain at least 50 percent of its forests, pledged at the Rio Earth Summit 1992 and emphasised again at the Conference of the Parties (COP21) in 2015.

By losing 200,000 ha forested area since 2010 to 2015, the satellite images of Peninsular Malaysia have slowly turned from green to brown.

Penang’s efforts to protect forests

While the situation is disheartening in other parts of Malaysia, forest reserves stay intact in Penang.

The state government of Penang has retained forest reserves’ sizes ever since 2006. Since 2008, there has been no logging in Penang's Permanent Forest Reserves. The state government has also planted 271,000 new trees since then.

Penang has a total of 7,761 ha forested area which consists of 6,060 ha Permanent Reserved Forest. The greenery of Penang is one of the main pillars in hearts of all Penangites. The state government did not undermine this and has put in a lot of effort to protect our forests.

First of all, a plan to declare Penang Hill as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, initiated by the Penang state government, is in the making. The application is in the process of being drafted and fine-tuned.

The submission’s research programme, a collaboration between The Habitat, Penang Hill Corporation, and Universiti Sains Malaysia, plans to send the dossier to Unesco this year. The exciting finding of 1,500 different wildlife species during BioBlitz 2017 further supports the submission.

Located next to Penang Hill, the unique Penang Botanic Gardens is also seeking opportunities to become a Unesco World Heritage Site. Obtaining yet another Unesco status, especially for a nature site, will not only welcome more tourists but most importantly attract more funds and research for conservation.

Following that, the concept of “forest bathing” has been introduced with the revitalisation of Bukit Juru Forest Reserves. The flawed model of forest management in Malaysia, which focuses on timber harvesting, fails to regard the non-monetary and intrinsic value of the forest.

On the other hand, “forest bathing” in Bukit Juru is a form of forest therapy originating from Japan. Some studies claim that “forest bathing” can enhance physical and mental health.

The Municipal Council of Seberang Perai and IOI Oleochemicals installed handrails, benches, signboards and tree-tagging at the 150ha forest in September 2017. The forest reserve now has a new look after the refurbishment.

Protecting hillslopes

Equally important, the state government has allocated RM10 million for hillslope protection, especially in tackling illegal farming, under the 2018 Penang Budget.

Illegal farming is an ongoing issue that has always been happening on the hills all around Penang. Illegal farming also alters forests landscape and wildlife habitat.

From what we can see in Cameron Highlands, huge-scale and uncontrolled illegal farming have caused destructive landslides. We also witnessed the catastrophic consequences of the extreme weather patterns due to climate change in Penang on Nov 4, 2017.

It is unexpectedly shocking that the most intense and most serious landslides had occurred in the forests reserves around Penang Hill where there are no development projects.

This has raised the alarm for all the relevant authorities which must then ensure the safety of the land slopes and residents in the developed areas. Active monitoring and enforcement by relevant departments using the latest technology is therefore crucial.

Finally, the RM10 million state allocations also include climate change study.

Forests are deeply connected to climate change. A great deal of research has shown that deforestation causes increase of temperature, reduced rainfall, intensified droughts, and forest fire.

Trees also absorb carbon dioxide – the gas that we released through vehicles, factory combustion, and indirectly through the use of electricity. Maintaining our forests can, therefore, slow down global warming and stabilise climate change.

Protection of Penang’s forests is the restless effort of its people. In addition to scientists who use facts and data to show us the beauty and importance of nature, we have citizens who protect the environment restlessly.

Safeguarding our forests is possible even if we are still developing. For example, China is replanting new forests as large as Ireland within this year to increase its forest coverage.

Although we still need to do a lot more for our forests, the state is nevertheless heading towards a green state with great momentum and great government commitments.

CHOW MEI MEI is a researcher for the Penang Green Council.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.