World Environment Day 2020 with the theme ‘Biodiversity’ took place on 5 June. Malaysia is one of 17 mega biodiversity countries in the world. And within Malaysia, Terengganu is known for its natural beauty and mesmerising wildlife.
However, rather than celebrating our environment, the Terengganu branch of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) would like to announce its disappointment of recent happenings in the state and the alarming loss of its forests.
The Belara forest reserve is one of the state’s iconic lowland tropical rainforests. Little research has been done on this reserve, 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 4,588 hectares of land. The forest is surrounded by plantations and old growth orchards tended to by villagers, producing a wide variety of valuable fruits.
These orchards provide a strong economic foundation upon which the locals rely. These same orchards and nearby plantations depend on the forest to provide valuable ecosystem services such as clean water supply for agricultural activities.
In addition, the forest provides major agricultural pollinators, which include birds, bats and insects such as bees and butterflies. Without these naturally occurring pollinators, the agricultural practices will collapse.
If this forest and its biodiversity were to disappear, so too would the richness and economic foundation of the surrounding region.
On a recent brief drive along the edge of the Belara forest reserve in late May, MNS members were thrilled to see a variety of forest birds including great hornbills (buceros bicornis), which are classified as vulnerable under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of threatened species. Families of dusky langurs (trachypithecus obscurus), classified as near threatened, swung carelessly from tree to tree.
Their presence on such a short casual drive indicates the forest is healthy and rich in wildlife and biodiversity. But the observers also saw poachers exiting the forest reserve with trapped animals and came up against a newly built logging camp.
Further investigation has revealed even more distressing news. The Belara forest reserve has been degazetted, with most of the original 4,588 hectares of land no longer under any protection whatsoever. A federal government audit report from 2017 confirms this beautiful forest will be clear cut and replaced with oil palm plantations. This is unacceptable.
As the world is suffering from a steep decline in natural areas that provide invaluable economic services, Terengganu has a major role to play in protecting what little healthy forests we have left. Tropical rainforests are known to provide a host of valuable services that include regulating climate and air quality, preventing soil erosion, storing carbon, preventing floods and supporting agricultural.
Forests play a crucial role in the fight against climate change, with trees able to absorb one third of greenhouse gas emissions produced globally. Malaysia is currently sixth in the world for annual loss of forest cover.
Covid-19 and its spread throughout the world has had an unprecedented effect on the global economy and the wellbeing of communities and individuals everywhere.
It is well known that this new destructive virus had its origins in wildlife trafficking. Forest clearing will result in a drastic increase in human-wildlife conflict as the animals from the forest have nowhere to go.
Have we forgotten that in the 1990s, large-scale deforestation to establish oil palm plantations displaced wildlife, which indirectly led to the deadly Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia?
Terengganu MNS would like to hear from the state government what possible justification there could be to quietly de-gazette most of the Belara forest reserve? Given 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 (FRIM), 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 with such a dwindling and valuable resource such as our forests must not be allowed to happen.
In general, the oil palm industry in Malaysia is committed to increasing production without the further loss of any natural forest. And with a federal commitment to maintain at least 50% forest cover in the country, we cannot allow any further forest destruction which brings irreversible and permanent impacts to the environment.
MNS believes in the sustainable use of our forest resources. In the past, we have commended Terengganu for its efforts in establishing state parks at Tasik Kenyir and Setiu, and we continue to work with the state to support these wonderful parks.
Sustainable logging practices in other forest reserves in Terengganu which meet strict Malaysian Timber Certification Council rules with oversight from our Forestry Department have long been the practice.
In addition, the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities has pledged zero-deforestation palm oil as a means to be in compliance with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
Terengganu MNS hopes the state will look seriously at the unjustifiable de-gazetting of the Belara forest reserve and put an end to the permanent loss of our biodiversity.
Source: Malaysia Nature Society (MNS)