Thursday, February 18, 2021

More needed to safeguard reserves, activists say as 8,000-year-old forest faces loss of protected status

They call for a shift in decision-making power, warning that the degazettement of the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve will set a bad precedent.

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Environmentalists are calling for immediate action to protect forest reserves in the wake of a proposal to degazette the 8,000-year-old Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR) in Selangor, a move that could jeopardise the Orang Asli communities and endangered species living in the area.

The KLNFR, the last patch of peatland forest in South Selangor, was gazetted as a forest reserve in 1927. It is home to more than 2,000 Temuan indigenous people as well as rare animals such as the Malayan sun bear, the Selangor pygmy flying squirrel, and the Langat red fighting fish.

The proposal by the Selangor government late last year for the reserve to be degazetted was met with concern and outrage by NGOs and local communities, with petitions garnering over 100,000 signatures.

But this is not enough, environmental activist Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil told MalaysiaNow.

“We need to immediately amend laws in the country, particularly the Forestry Act of 1984 which makes the menteri besar or chief minister of a state the numero uno authority in deciding the fate of forest reserves and the flora and fauna in it,” she added.

She said the authority of those in the state government should be limited to a committee with members given the right to object to proposals for development in forest areas.

“If at any discussion level, a proposal is agreed upon, the final decision must be made by the public which the government must obey without excuses,” she said.

Shariffa, who is president of the Association for the Protection of the Natural Heritage of Malaysia (Peka), also voiced concern over the destruction of forests that had already occurred throughout the country, saying state governments should no longer be given full power to decide on the matter.

She cited the loss of the Sumatran rhino as a result of uncontrolled deforestation and warned that the same could happen to the Malayan tiger, the country’s national animal, if urgent steps are not taken.

Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari had defended the proposal, saying last February that 40% of the forest was already degraded due to fires.

He said the development plan for KLNFR was a good idea as it would stimulate new economies and galvanise new industries on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia as well as Selangor.

But Shariffa said the move would exacerbate the climate crisis and destroy wildlife in addition to affecting the way of life for the Temuan community, which has inhabited the area for over a century.

“Development in a forest reserve is not modernisation as modernisation requires the use of human thinking and planning capacity to create a better life,” she said.

Greenpeace Malaysia had also hit out at the proposal, warning that the degazettement of KLNFR would release 5.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, going against Malaysia’s commitment in the Paris Agreement to a 45% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030.

“The degazettement also goes against the Selangor State Structure Plan 2035 to maintain 32% of the forest area in Selangor and is not aligned with the National Action Plan for Peatlands (2011-2020) and Act 313, National Forestry Act 1984 as well as other international conventions we are part of,” the NGO said in a statement last October.

It likewise cited reports stating that the Temuans would be displaced from their ancestral land if the reserve is degazetted to make way for development.

Activist Andrew Sebastian meanwhile said the proposal would set a bad precedent despite the protest from NGOs and local communities.

He also criticised what he called a lack of environmental vision on the part of the state government which had previously moved to ban all forms of logging.

“This could also be due to desperation for funds,” Sebastian, the president and founder of Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia, told MalaysiaNow, noting also elements of alleged corruption and mismanagement.

He urged the people to continue speaking out on such matters.

“We must continue to push for environmental impact assessments and public hearings for better management processes in terms of getting the voices and opinions of the locals heard.”

He added that developments, especially those involving natural ecosystems, should be grounded in science, good governance and sustainability.

“We have to keep check on transparency, address some alleged corrupt practices, and keep an eye on our forests and natural ecosystems.”

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