TODAY is World Environment Day, with this year’s theme being “biodiversity”. Malaysia is one of the 17 mega-biodiverse countries in the world, and Terengganu is a state known for its natural beauty and mesmerising wildlife.
However, the Terengganu branch of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) would like to express its disappointment over recent episodes in the state and its alarming loss of forests.
The Belara Forest Reserve is one of the state’s iconic lowland tropical rainforests. Little research has been done on this area, even though it is strategically located next to the state’s largest urban centre, Kuala Terengganu.
This green lung sits in the district of Kuala Nerus, and covers 4,588ha. The forest is surrounded by plantations and old-growth orchards tended to by villagers. These orchards provide a strong economic foundation upon which the locals rely. The orchards and plantations depend on the forest to provide valuable ecosystem services, such as clean water for agricultural activities. In addition, the forest provides major agricultural pollinators, among them birds, bats, bees and butterflies, to name a few. Without these naturally occurring pollinators, agricultural practices will collapse. If the forest disappears, the economic foundation of the surrounding areas will also crumble.
During a drive along the edge of the Belara Forest Reserve late last month, MNS members were thrilled to see a variety of forest birds, including great hornbills (Buceros bicornis), which are classified as vulnerable under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Families of dusky langurs (Trachypithecus obscurus), classified as near threatened, swung from tree to tree. Their presence indicates that the forest is healthy and rich in biodiversity. But, the MNS members also saw poachers exiting the forest reserve with trapped animals, and came upon a newly built logging camp.
Further investigation revealed even more distressing news. The Belara Forest Reserve has been degazetted, with most of the original 4,588ha no longer under any protection. A 2017 federal government audit report confirmed that this beautiful forest will be cleared for oil palm plantations. This is unacceptable.
As the world is suffering a steep decline in natural areas that provide invaluable economic services, Terengganu has a major role to play in protecting what few healthy forests we have left. Tropical rainforests are known to provide a host of valuable services, including regulating climate and air quality, preventing soil erosion, storing carbon, preventing floods and providing agricultural support. Forests play a crucial role in the fight against climate change, with trees able to absorb a third of the greenhouse gas emissions produced globally. Malaysia is currently sixth in the world for annual loss of forest cover.
Covid-19’s spread across the world has had unprecedented effect on the global economy and well-being of communities everywhere. It is well known that the virus had its origins in wildlife trafficking. Forest clearing will result in a drastic increase in human-wildlife conflict, as animals have nowhere else to go. Have we forgotten how in the 1990s, large-scale deforestation to establish oil palm plantations displaced wildlife, indirectly leading to the deadly Nipah virus outbreak?
MNS would like to hear from the Terengganu government on what justification there could be for quietly degazetting most of the Belara Forest Reserve. Given the fact that forests are a dwindling resource and valuable provider of a wide variety of ecosystem services, how can such a thing happen in this day and age? How will this grave error be rectified?
Scientific America, in an article on the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, mentioned that once a forest is lost, it “could take up to 1,000 years to get the majority of the diversity of the plant species back”. Such irreversible damage to a dwindling, valuable resource must not be allowed to happen. In general, the palm oil industry in Malaysia is committed to increasing production without the further loss of natural forests. And with the federal commitment to maintain at least 50% forest cover, we cannot allow more destruction.
MNS believes in the sustainable use of forest resources. In the past, we commended Terengganu for its efforts to establish state parks in the Tasik Kenyir area and Setiu, and we continue to work with the state to support these wonderful parks. Sustainable logging practices at other forest reserves in the state that meet strict Malaysian Timber Certification Council rules, with oversight by the Forestry Department, have long been in place. In addition, the Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry has pledged “zero-deforestation palm oil” to be in compliance with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
MNS hopes that the state will look seriously at the unjustifiable degazettement of the Belara Forest Reserve and put an end to biodiversity loss. – June 5, 2020.
* Malaysian Nature Society is the oldest environmental group in the country.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.