The Selangor government’s proposal to degazette the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve for development has caused much consternation among nature lovers and environmental health specialists who are concerned about the dwindling size of Malaysia’s peat swamp forests. This third of a series of four articles looks at the efforts of the local Orang Asli community and environmentalists who have been painstakingly rehabilitating certain parts of the forest since 2015.
BANTING (Bernama) – Early every morning, Tonjoi Pipis gets ready for his “jaunt” in the jungle which is just a kilometre away from his dwelling at Kampung Orang Asli Pulau Kempas.
But foraging forest products is not the only thing on this man’s mind – he is also there for another noble mission which is to restore parts of the peat swamp forest that were destroyed by a huge fire seven years ago.
Tonjoi, 51, is among the 2,000-odd Orang Asli of the Temuan ethnic clan living in four settlements on the south-western fringes of the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR), which is located about 21.5 kilometres from Banting town and currently facing an uncertain future as the Selangor government is proposing to degazette it for development purposes.
The father of seven, who is the chairman of Friends of Kuala Langat North Peat Forest, is among the 30 or so Orang Asli villagers who are actively involved in the forest restoration work with the help of several government agencies, private companies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
It is still a work in progress but their efforts at replanting jungle tree species such as tenggek burung (Melicope lunu-ankenda) have succeeded in greening the ravaged areas.
“We are doing all these to ensure that the forest (KLNFR) remains as part of our heritage,” Tonjoi told Bernama when met at his village recently.
He does not understand why the state government wants a chunk of the forest reserve, mainly comprising peat swamp forest that serves as a natural carbon reservoir, to make way for development when the rehabilitation process has been successful.
One of the reasons cited by the state government to justify its proposal to degazette KLNFR – said to be the last green lung left in the southern part of Selangor – is the frequent occurrence of fires which, it claimed, have already degraded 40 percent of the forest.
The 957.63-hectare KLNFR – which was spread over 7,246.96 hectares when it was first gazetted as a forest reserve in 1927 and has since dwindled in size due to the pressures of development – reportedly recorded several fire incidents over the last 10 years.
According to the state government, its records showed that between 2012 and 2017, some 359.60 hectares of the forest reserve were gutted by fires.
However, based on statistics from the Selangor Forestry Department (JPNS), a huge fire in 2014 impacted 132 hectares of KLNFR, while fires destroyed around 82 hectares and 50 hectares of the forest in 2013 and 2012 respectively.
In 2014, NGO Global Environmental Centre (GEC), fearing KLNFR’s vulnerability to peat fires, teamed up with Boh Plantations Sdn Bhd and Gamuda Land Sdn Bhd, as well as JPNS, Orang Asli Development Department (Kuala Langat), Fire and Rescue Department Malaysia and United Nations Development Programme (Orang Asli/Orang Asal Micro-Grant Facility for Conservation and Livelihood) to protect and conserve the forest reserve’s valuable peat swamp ecosystem, which is over 8,000 years old and home to certain endemic species of flora and fauna.
Besides empowering the local and indigenous communities there to conserve and restore KLNFR, the collaboration also aimed at implementing a forest fire management plan to reduce further degradation of the forest.
The local communities there are showing their support for the initiatives through their Friends of Kuala Langat North Peat Forest organisation. Their children have not been left behind either. Through the Junior Peatland Forest Ranger programme, the Orang Asli children are being exposed to the importance of safeguarding the peat forest in their “backyard” and cultivating a love for nature from young.
While Tonjoi and his fellow villagers are worried about their fate if the proposal to degazette KLNFR materialises, they feel frustrated that their efforts to rehabilitate the forest over the last few years have gone unappreciated.
“Nevertheless, our spirit will never be broken and we will continue with our forest restoration work,” he said.
GEC Forest and Coastal Programme manager Nagarajan Rengasamy said the state government’s assertion that 40 percent of KLNFR has degraded is inaccurate.
This is because rehabilitation activities carried out in the areas affected by the fires since 2015 have resulted in the planting of 12,000 tree saplings which are now four to five years old.
“The fact that 40 percent of the forest was degraded was true in 2014 but not now. The report on the progress of the rehabilitation programme we have implemented shows KLNFR is recovering well with our tree planting efforts and natural regeneration of the vegetation,” said Nagarajan.
He said their rehabilitation efforts have led to the formation of a secondary forest comprising 20 hectares of replanted trees that have now reached an estimated seven to eight metres in height and 200 hectares of vegetation that regenerated naturally.
To make it easier for the Orang Asli to replant trees in the forest reserve, a 0.16-hectare (0.4 acre) nursery was opened at Kampung Orang Asli Pulau Kempas. Species such as tenggek burung (Melicope lunu-ankenda) and mahang (Macaranga pruinosa) were selected due to their hardy nature and ability to survive in degraded areas as well as adapt to water-logged peatland soil.
FIRE MITIGATION SYSTEM
Explaining their forest fire management plan, Nagarajan said they have installed 12 canal blocks and nine units of piezometers to manage KLNFR’s hydrology.
He said GEC taught the members of Friends of Kuala Langat North Peat Forest the workings of the canal blocks and that they (members) also lent a helping hand in installing them in the areas most prone to fires.
“They have also been taught how to maintain the canal blocks and monitor the water level in the canals concerned using the piezometer,” he added.
He also said that five Fire Danger Rating System signboards have been installed in high-risk areas in the forest as an early warning system for fires.
A motorcycle patrol team manned by the Orang Asli has also been established to patrol and monitor KLNFR three or four times a week. There is also a watchtower to enable the locals to look out for signs of burning.
The fire mitigation efforts taken since 2014 have proven to be effective because, according to JPNS statistics, not a single fire was reported in KLNFR in 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
However, one fire incident was reported in 2017 involving 95.6 hectares of the forest. The latest fire occurred in March this year but only five hectares were affected as the blaze was brought under control swiftly.
Nagarajan said they have strong reasons to believe that the latest fire incident was not caused by natural factors but by humans.
“This is because the gravel road near that part of the forest where the fire broke out is usually used by people to get to Dengkil, Putrajaya and Cyberjaya. Someone passing by might have thrown a cigarette butt into the forest,” he said.
Translated by Rema Nambiar