The WWF-Malaysia team enlightens Zuhaila Sedek on the perils of deforestation
IN a recent conversation with my friend Michele Lin, she mentioned about a group of wild boars roaming in the park near her house in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur.
“It’s so weird. I thought wild boars are dangerous but people even feed them at the park,” said Michele. “I guess they had to come out of their ‘home’ for food as there are development projects going on in the forest there.”
This is just one of the many instances of animals making contact with humans. We’ve also read reports of elephants rampaging human settlements, tigers attacking rubber tappers and snakes making their way into homes.
The animals are not to blame though, as their homes have been invaded through deforestation.
At the launch of the recent Boh Forest Friends School Programme, the WWF-Malaysia team tells us more about deforestation in the country.
Did you know that between 2000 and 2010, the area of deforestation in the country was more than the size of Perak and Malacca combined?
This was what I concluded after analysing data from a research paper written last year by independent researchers — Miettinen, JC Shi and CI Soo — from University of Singapore. According to the study, there were 17,242,000ha of forests in 2000 but in 2010, there was just 14,962,000ha.
The data was collected using satellite images that analysed forest cover change in insular Southeast Asia.
Deforestation can be simply put as the clearing of trees. Often, this is done to make room for human activities that range from property building to agriculture (such as rubber and palm tree plantations).
According to WWF Malaysia, deforestation has many adverse impacts and most of them can be linked directly to human well-being. These are:
INCREASE OF HUMAN-WILDLIFE CONFLICT
Wildlife habitats shrink and get fragmented due to deforestation. The wildlife roaming area as well as their food resources also decrease.
This forces wildlife out of the forests in search of food. As a result, there are cases of injury, death of humans and crop damage by wildlife attacks. There is injury and death to the animals too, sometimes due to vehicular collisions (road accidents) and retaliatory attacks by humans.
JEOPARDISING FOOD SECURITY
Human-wildlife conflict is just the tip of the iceberg. By cutting down the natural forest, we are endangering our food security too. Mangrove forests, for instance, play an important role in sustaining marine fisheries and spawning grounds for commercial fish, prawns and crabs, among others. Removing mangroves lower the production of marine animals.
This is the most-talked about environmental issue. Forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide which is a greenhouse gas.
Climatologist and former Nasa scientist Dr Roy W. Spencer says greenhouse gas controls the earth’s climate. Other than carbon dioxide, there is methane too.
Greenhouse gases range from natural to man-made. These are like a blanket that protects Earth from extra infrared radiation.
Infrared radiation travels in and out of the earth similar to sunlight. The amount of infrared that comes in and out of earth must be the same as sunlight. If there is no balance, the earth will experience global warming or cooling.
Forests help achieve this balance. Destroying them will only alter the order.
Regulating the earth’s hydrological regimes
Forests are like sponges that absorb rainwater and store it. The forests release clean water slowly into the streams and rivers over time. When forests are cleared (especially those at higher elevation), the capacity to store water decreases causing shortage of water flow.
AFFECTS THE FILTERING OF POLLUTANTS IN THE RIVER
Forests help to trap sediment. Without forests, there will be a lot of pollution and sediment in the river’s flow, meaning more rivers will likely be polluted.
INCREASE SURFACE RUN-OFF
As more forests are cleared, more water flows into rivers. When water exceeds the maximum capacity of the river, flooding occurs. This overflow is called surface run-off.
If you wonder what causes landslides, it is soil erosion. The removal of trees exposes the soil as trees are what holds it together.
LOSS OF BIO-DIVERSITY
Without a doubt, the forests are our bio-diversity reserves. Deforestation will contribute to terrestrial bio-diversity loss. In Malaysia, natural forests are being replaced by tree plantations, but the ecosystem services provided by natural forests can never be fully replaced this way. There is no perfect substitute for natural forests.
IT COSTS MORE MONEY
Deforestation can affect us economically in many ways. For example, the worse the water pollution is, the more treatment the water needs. This costs money and in some cases the water treatment plant may not be able to cope with the pollution load, causing water disruption to consumers.
There is monetary cost to any unwanted encounter between humans and animals. A publication by the Peninsular Malaysia Forestry Department titled Economy Value Of Forest In Elephant Conservation, Peninsular Malaysia by Poh
Lye Yong and Dr Mohd Shahwahid Haji Othman states that the cost of capturing and relocating one elephant is RM40,614. This does not include damage done to crops and property.
GOOD, BUT NOT GOOD ENOUGH
The country has plans and policies that support the conservation and sustainable management of forests. But implementation is still very poor.
In Peninsular Malaysia, The National Physical Plan-2 includes a policy that outlines the need to protect forests and sustainably manage them as Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESA). There are different ranks of ESA.
Water catchment forests, forests under the state or National Parks, natural wetlands of high conservation value as well as forests above 1,000m are ranked ESA Rank 1. No development, agriculture or logging is allowed and only research and eco-tourism activities can take place at ESA Rank 1 sites.
ESA Rank 2 includes all forests and wetlands outside of state and national parks. Here, sustainable logging and eco-tourism activities are allowed. Development and agriculture activities are forbidden in ESA Rank 2.
The NPP-2 also states that to maintain the amount of natural forests in the country, Permanent Reserved Forests should not be de-gazetted.
Unfortunately, this is not the case as forest reserves are still being de-gazetted and converted to agriculture and other land uses. PFRs are often cleared to plant monoculture (single plant species in a large area) forest plantations such as rubber plantations even though this is strictly prohibited in NPP-2.
SUGGESTION FOR IMPROVEMENT
The WWF-Malaysia team believes that the best way to overcome the problems caused by deforestation is to stop it in the first place.
Tree planting is a noble act, but it is a poor substitute for a natural forest. It is only worthwhile if it is being done on degraded area or where there are very few trees to start off with.
Ideally, it has to be done on a fairly large scale to increase carbon sequestration (capturing carbon dioxide) and provide sufficient shade or reduce water loss from exposed soil.
This will require considerable amount of resources and is less cost-effective. A strict compliance with land use policies is of utmost importance or else, a well-drafted policy such as the NPP will just go to waste.
The team suggests that more incentives be provided for the different states to conserve forests. The states now depend on the exploitation of natural resources to generate revenue for development.
Some states have called for monetary compensation to be provided by the Federal Government to replace the revenue lost if forests were to be maintained, says the team.
There is no doubt that new and more innovative financing mechanisms must be explored to reduce the dependence of state governments on such a narrow revenue base.
On a smaller scale, exposure to the importance of forest should be introduced at a young age. More effective awareness programmes are needed as they can give a huge impact on creating the right mindset about the environment.
By having enough knowledge about the environment, people will be more likely to respect it.
• One of the worst deforestation events ever documented took place in the Amazon where the forest area lost was converted to pasture land for cattle.
• Although deforestation rate in Asia Pacific is high, the situation has improved in the past 10 years as forest cover has increased mainly due to the afforestation efforts in China.
• Research has shown that plants can “cry” too as they react to danger.