Malaysia — Enlisting local help to protect vulnerable peatlands.
IN the past, the people have always counted on the Government to supply manpower and resources to protect forests and wildlife. That model has had only limited success as forests, by their very nature, are difficult to secure from determined trespassers. It seems that conservation that involves locals is the way to go.
Take, for example, Selangors Raja Musa Forest Rehabilitation Programme, which is a collaboration between the state Forestry Department and Global Environment Centre (GEC), a Malaysia-based non-governmental organisation working on conservation of natural resources and climate change issues.
Other than the support of the state government, one key asset of the programme is the successful enlistment of the local community in not only regenerating the forest, but also in keeping intruders and squatters out. The volunteers call themselves Friends of the North Selangor Peat Forest. This largely pristine peatland forest measures around 73,400ha, which is about the size of Singapore.
The creation of the group drew from lessons learned in protecting the Kuala Gula mangrove sanctuary in Perak. In 2007, GEC had worked with the community there to establish the Friends of Mangrove to rehabilitate, protect and manage the Kuala Gula mangroves. Since the formation of the group, there has been discernible changes in the quality of the mangroves which support local fisheries and forestry efforts.
Nursing the forest
GEC is rehabilitating more than 1,000ha of degraded forest within and adjacent to the Raja Musa forest, which sits between Sungai Bernam and Sungai Selangor. About 3,000ha has been degraded by logging, encroachment by cash crop farmers and fires. Last year, fires affected more than 400ha inside and outside the forest reserve.
Phase 1 of the programme took place between December 2008 and November 2010 and was marked by many community tree-planting events. Some 2,000 volunteers planted more than 30,000 seedlings on 60ha of land.
Malaysia has about 1.54 million hectares of peat swamp forest, with more than 70% in Sarawak, less than 20% in Peninsular Malaysia, and the remainder in Sabah. Some 76,000ha of peat swamps remain in Selangor and the North Selangor block, consisting of the Sungai Karang and Raja Musa Forest Reserves, is the second largest block of contiguous peat swamp in the peninsula (the largest block is at the Pekan-Nenasi area in Pahang).
Peat is defined as a soil type containing at least 65% organic matter, typically formed from half-decayed leaves, stems and roots of plants that have accumulated in a water-saturated environment in the absence of oxygen. The peat layer can be a thick as 20m. Over millions of years, compressed peat can morph into coal.
Tree planting at Raja Musa will help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere. Peatlands store enormous amounts of CO2 but when burnt (whether as coal, lignite and other fossil fuels), the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. Fires do not generally threaten pristine peat forest as the ground is moist but for peatland that has been disturbed, especially by uncontrolled drainage through man-made canals, fires can wreak havoc as the natural water table has been significantly lowered.
After several decades of logging, the Raja Musa forest is vulnerable to land conversion attempts. This occurred about 10 years ago. Poachers also enter the reserve using abandoned logging tracks and other paths created by illegal settlers. Incursions aside, GECs greatest fear is that the degraded peat will catch fire.
Peatland fires and haze are the most serious environmental problems in Asean, impacting the health and livelihood of millions of people. In 2012, South-East Asia was seriously affected by fire and haze during an El Nino-associated drought cycle. Further fires are expected during the dry season this month, said GEC director Faizal Parish.
In December 2010, a new phase in cooperation was initiated when Selangor Forestry Department and GEC signed a memorandum of understanding to support community-based forest conservation and rehabilitation.
In the second phase of work, GEC and the state are not only supporting replanting but also long-term protection of the forest. The initiative has received financial backing from the European Union, Bridgestone Tyre Sales Malaysia and HSBC Bank.
GEC now has the cooperation of four villages Kampung Bestari Jaya, Kampung Ampangan, Kampung Seri Tiram Jaya and Kampung Raja Musa. The community is protecting the forest through fire prevention education, restoration of the natural water table by blocking free-flowing canals, encouraging natural flora regeneration, and replanting severely degraded areas.
What we do here must also benefit the local community, which is often the first to be impacted by events in the forest reserve. We want them to be our eyes and ears, and hence, they must also stand to benefit from it.
For example, some villagers are now growing tree seedlings. We buy from them, so they get some income, said Faizal.
Other ways in which GEC helps the villagers are by giving them advice on how to improve their agricultural yield. We have been getting plantation giants Felda and Sime Darby to give talks on best practices so that they can increase the productivity from existing plots. There is then less need to get things from the forest or to intrude there. Forest burning means no visitors as the area will be shrouded in haze, so all these rehabilitation and management (activities) are actually beneficial for them. said Faizal.
The creation of the Friends of the North Selangor Peat Forest is one good example of community involvement in sustainable peatland management and peatland forest fire prevention that is promoted by the ASEAN Peatland Forests Project-SEApeat project (www.aseanpeat.net). Initiated in 2011, the project aims to improve environmental awareness, education and conservation of peat swamp forests in South-East Asia. In Malaysia, the Raja Musa forest was chosen as the pilot site.
It is not only those who have a direct stake in agriculture who care about the forest. Syamsul Ramli and his wife Noor Hazan Morah Huddin, both 39 and from Kampung Bestari Jaya, are enthusiastic members of the volunteer group.
When we were young, we had no idea what peatland was, other than the blackish water seen in its vicinity. We did not know about the combustability of peat, but we are now aware. GECs approach is effective, and our challenge now is how to attract more villagers to learn about peat. We still have a lot of work to do in order to arouse interest, said Syamsul, who sells school reference books for a living.
Azmi Md Zaki, 39, is another enthusiastic volunteer. When I was a kid, peat never entered my vocabulary. We just went around playing and swimming in the lakes and rivers. But when GEC came to the village to suss out the interest of the people in caring for peatland, I became aware, and my interest grew from then on, said the company administration officer.
Group chairman Sariat Kadot, 55, revealed that illegal incursions into Raja Musa forest is now under control on account of regular motorcycle patrols in the forest, conducted by villagers who are self-employed or retired. We will advise intruders about the no hunting, no fishing, and no open burning policies. There are some outsiders who challenge us. In those cases, we will jot down the details and file a report. Our job is only to advise, not to get into any violent confrontation. Those who come in to hunt illegally are not only armed, but are sometimes drunk, so we have to take precautions.
With about 100 volunteers, the group is seeing more and more members starting to take an active role in forest management. Last year, some of them battled fatigue during Ramadhan (Muslim fasting month) to help fight an underground fire that eventually burned 400ha.
We lacked the protective gear like those worn by firemen, but we joined in the fight just like the rest. Now, where can you find greater dedication than that? asked Azmi.
With villagers like that looking out for the forest, it appears that Selangors commitment to rehabilitate the Raja Musa forest is heading down the right path.