HE’S a professor but almost everyone I know calls him Pak Teh. He’s the person who can help us realise our dream of making the Royal Belum Rainforest a United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture (Unesco) World Heritage Site.
His full name is Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Abdul Latiff Mohamad and he is in the Faculty of Science and Technology of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
I caught up with Pak Teh, who is holed up in a room full of books and countless pens and manuscripts, on Friday to learn more about Unesco’s list of heritage sites. Pak Teh retired 10 years ago but has been given an extension to contribute to UKM’s academia.
The idea of turning the 130 million-year-old Royal Belum Rainforest into a Unesco Heritage Site gained momentum after Datuk Seri Najib Razak suggested this almost two months ago.
In his speech at the Banding Rainforest Resort on May 9, the prime minister said serious effort should be made to turn the Royal Belum into a Unesco World Heritage Site.
His speech received applause from nature lovers and those who wanted to see our rich environment protected and preserved.
The Royal Belum is extremely rich in plant and animal life; and it is our duty to ensure they are looked after for generations to come.
I asked Pak Teh if it’s difficult to get Unesco recognition. Malaysia already has several sites declared as World Heritage Sites: the Kinabalu Park and the Mulu Caves (categorised under natural sites), Malacca and Penang (historical and cultural sites) and Lenggong (archeological site).
A submission on Royal Belum will be under the natural site category. If one is to look closely, turning the Royal Belum into a Unesco site would actually be a natural progression because it has already been declared a state park in 2007, and then a national heritage site five years later.
These declarations have been duly gazetted, thus ensuring the Royal Belum’s status as a protected forest. Having it declared as a Unesco heritage site would add prestige to the state of Perak and to Malaysia.
It will be a testimony to our commitment in forest preservation, one that can help enrich the whole world in research discoveries.
For the prime minister, this would be a dream fulfilled. For Perak, this would add to the state’s recognition by Unesco. Both state and nation stand to reap enormous benefit from such a move.
There may be fears from some quarters in this whole exercise. They are misplaced actually. Not the whole 117,000 hectares of the Royal Belum will be declared as a Unesco site. The actual size to be declared will be determined by Malaysia, meaning it will be decided after consultation between the state and federal governments. Land, after all, is a state matter.
If the Royal Belum is recognised as a world heritage site, it will be able to draw some funds from Unesco in preservation work in the rainforest. While this may not necessarily be a huge amount of money, it would, nevertheless, be meaningful if utilised properly.
Pak Teh is of the view that now is the best time to prepare for submission to Unesco. The process is quite simple and straightforward: Malaysia submits a written brief of the Royal Belum, followed by a fuller documented submission called the dossier.
Malaysia is now a member of a 21-nation committee which evaluates any proposal for such recognition. Malaysia’s term comes to an end next year. If Malaysia is to submit application for heritage site recognition in a year or two, the evaluation will be very independent and no one can accuse us of internal lobbying.
Unesco says: “Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.”