Malaysia — A year ago, the Raja Musa forest reserve near Batang Berjuntai was in a deplorable state with hardly any of the original species of trees seen at the peat swamp.
What used to be a heavily forested area had become barren land. Pockets of the forest reserve were planted with cash crops like tapioca, pineapple, starfruit and banana trees instead of the original species like Mahang (Macarangspecies), Meranti (Shorea spp), Jelutong (Dyera sp,), Rengas (Gluta renghas) and Ramin (Gonystilus bancanus), which are commonly found at peat forests.
For more than 10 years, more than 500ha of the forest reserve was illegally cleared and burnt for large-scale farming.
At the end of last year, the Selangor state forestry department, on the instruction of the state government, ordered the eviction of the illegal occupants and started clearing all vegetation and agricultural activities in the area.
Access roads were cut off to prevent entry to the area and all the illegal settlers were evicted from the forest reserve. The drains and canals were blocked to contain the water and raise the water table.
Since then, the department together with various NGOs have put in continuous effort to save the 23,000ha peat swamp forest reserve. It includes replanting seedlings indigenous to the peat swamp in an attempt to return it to its original state.
Now, after a year, the area is showing signs of recovery, thanks to the efforts of the state forestry department and several nature-loving NGOs.
For the past year, we have been carrying out continuous efforts to restore the forest.
Initially, we provided everything including the tree saplings to be planted in the area.
But now the NGOs have started to come in with their initiatives to help restore the forest, Selangor Forestry department deputy director for silviculture and forest protection Samsu Anuar Nawi said.
He added that the tree-planting was being held regularly at the forest reserve.
Initially, the department had supplied several species of saplings to be replanted. However, the method was found to be less successful as some of the species were not suitable under those conditions.
He said the rehabilitation process was going at a much slower rate than expected. Only some of the replanted trees survived.
We only had a survival rate of 30% from what we had planted in the area.
Now we are focusing on one particular species the Mahang tree.
The tree is more suitable as it is fast-growing and can create forest cover rapidly, he said.
Samsu added that Mahang, which was considered a pioneer species in peat forests, had a higher survival rate. It had up to 80% survival rate compared with other species. The Mahang species would take about 10 years to muture but could reach maturity faster with proper care.
The result can be seen in three years, with the trees providing enough cover for the introduction of other species.
Samsu added that the department hoped to restore the ecology of the forest and having the trees would also help prevent the encroachers from coming back.
The replanting project is part of efforts to create awareness on the importance of preserving the existing trees and to help prevent any illegal activities that would damage the natural forestry at the peat swamp, said Samsu.
He added that the young trees were also eaten by cows and goats grazing in the area.
Peat swamps are like sponges that absorb rain and river water. They help control floods during the rainy season and release much needed water during the dry season.
The accumulation of organic matter from the debris of the vegetation above it over a long period of time, even to the extent of thousands of years, has caused the trees, twigs, leaves and roots to decompose and create a layer of blackish peat soil.
Draining the peat forest will lower the water table and increase the risk of fire in the peat soil.
Once dried, the peat would oxidize and break down, causing the soil to collapse.
Drainage of peat land led to aeration and decomposition of the peat materials and oxidation that triggered carbon dioxide emission.
Numerous studies have shown that disturbed peat swamps in Indonesia and Malaysia continued to emit carbon dioxide for years after clearing had stopped.
Malaysia, with nearly 2.5mil ha of peat forests, is the second largest in the region after Indonesia.
The Raja Musa and Sungai Karang forest reserves form the North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest, the second largest peat forest in the peninsula, covering 75,000ha while the largest in Pahang covers 200,000ha.
The Raja Musa alone covers 23,000ha, but 525ha of it had been illegally cleared.
The largest peat forest in the country is located in Sarawak and measures 1.5mil ha.
Previously, there were many reports about peat fires at the forest reserve, which were set deliberately by the encroachers who were clearing the area for agriculture and plantation.
I am glad that we managed to restore this forest reserve, forestry department enforcement and operations assistant director Mohd Yussainy Md Yusop said.
He added that the department had spent many hours of planning and preparing before carrying out the enforcement operations on Dec 4, last year.
We had sent out officers to the site several times to check and verify the situation six months before the operation date.
Then, we also had to prepare the manpower and equipment involved in the operation, he said, adding that about 300 officers were involved.
Following the success at the forest reserve, the department has decided to carry out similar moves at other problematic forest reserves.
They will continue to reclaim whatever has been taken by illegal settlers and restore the forest back to its original condition, no matter how hard it would be.
With enforcement as its main priority next year, the department looks set to take action against settlers in three forest reserves in the state by the end of next year.
We hope to be able to settle the problems in Hutan Simpan Kuala Langat Selatan, Hutan Simpan Bukit Tarik and Hutan Simpan Hulu Gombak, Yussainy said.
The departments statistics show that 241,568ha has been marked as permanent reserved forest in Selangor with 11,381ha marked as forest plantations (forest which has been planted with various species of timber to be logged in later years) and 1,608ha for wildlife reserve.
He added that more than 2,600ha of the forest reserves in the state, which included peat swamps and mangroves, had been cleared.
The department is also going all out to nab those who conduct illegal logging.
Under Section 15 of the National Forestry Act, 1984 (Amendment 1993) those who conduct illegal logging can be fined up to a maximum of RM500,000 and mandatory imprisonment of 1 year minimum to a maximum of 20 years.