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Tuesday May 26, 2009

Lost wilderness

Yet another tract of forest will be sacrificed for dams and timber.

AN expanse of green in the upper reaches of Terengganu, home to countless species of wildlife, including the highly endangered Sumatran rhinoceros, will soon be no more. It is being logged and will eventually be flooded for a new hydroelectric scheme. What is alarming is that the area being cleared is three times larger than that needed for the project.

Under the 212MW hydroelectric project in Kuala Berang, 65km west of Kuala Terengganu, Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) will dam up Sungai Terengganu Mati and Sungai Tembat to create two reservoirs north of Kenyir Lake. In so doing it will flood 6,000ha and 130ha of Tembat and Petuang forest reserves.

As if it is not bad enough that over 6,130ha of wilderness will have to make way for the two reservoirs, the Terengganu state government intends to log another 12,620ha around the inundated area.

Much is at stake: forests and riverine habitats, together with the flora and fauna within. What worries conservationists is that the forest here is among the last few refuges of the highly endangered Sumatran rhinoceros, Malayan tiger and Malayan gaur (seladang). It also harbours the Asian elephant, tapir, primates, wild cats and plants, of which 94 species are Red Listed as threatened by extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

When it rains, Sungai Tembat, north of Kenyir Lake, is silted up due to erosion from logged sites upstream.

The Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIA) on the project predicts that logging will have a high impact on wildlife as an area three times larger than that required for the reservoirs will be clear-felled – not selectively logged, which would still leave behind vegetation cover.

WWF-Malaysia has questioned the need to log the additional 12,620ha as not only is the area an important wild habitat, it is also the catchment for Kenyir Lake. Destroying the catchment will hamper water flows, says WWF chief technical officer Surin Suksuwan.

“Erosion resulting from logging can silt up the river and this could reduce the lifespan of the dam and affect electricity generation. It would be a disadvantage for TNB if the catchment is chopped down,” he says.

There are valid reasons for preserving Petuang and Tembat. The presence of a highly endangered species, the Sumatran rhinoceros, makes them high-value forests. Tembat has also been identified as an important site for tiger conservation.

And not only are Petuang and Tembat part of the Central Forest Spine, the tract of forest running the length of the peninsular that is crucial for biodiversity and environmental protection, they sit within the ecological corridor that links Taman Negara with the Main Range.

With this corridor, essentially a stretch of forested lands, a larger wild sanctuary will be created for wildlife dispersion and breeding.

But Terengganu is adamant on exploiting the timber housed within Tembat and Petuang. In June 2003, then Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang had said that in view of the TNB project, the state had awarded timber concessions for some 16,000ha. Last August, the state gazette showed 6,168ha of Tembat forest reserve to have been excised, but the degazettement was backdated to November 2006.

Last November, Mentri Besar Datuk Ahmad Said told The Star that the logging was to prevent loss of timber revenue when the area is submerged – but he failed to explain why the state is allowing logging of an extra 12,620ha outside of the 6,130ha that would be flooded.

Tourist attraction: The damming of Sungai Tembat will mean that the popular Tembat waterfalls will be no more.

The hydroelectric project was mooted in the 1990s. TNB had submitted an EIA in 2000 but the review panel deemed it incomplete and asked for more studies. No fresh EIA was submitted, however, until the latest DEIA dated September 2008.

But in blatant disregard for the law, portions of the forest have been laid bare even as experts were vetting the DEIA. Satellite images in the report reveals logging in the area dates back to 2003. From an image taken in January, it is estimated that 5,500ha have been denuded.

The effects of forest destruction are being felt. “When it rains, Sungai Tembat will be the colour of tea,” says one tour operator who declined to be named. “It takes a few days for the water to clear up. This has been happening for the past two years.”

He foresees that the proposed dams will lead to reduced flows – so boat trips upriver for either fishing or the riverine scenery will be a thing of the past.

The DEIA report states as much. It says silt that is washed into the rivers from barren lands will smother fish spawning grounds and kill aquatic insects which fish feed on. As the river water quality declines, so will ecotourism activities.

Another loss is the Tembat waterfalls, said to be the second biggest in Kenyir. The five cascades along the river will turn into mere trickles with the damming. The stemmed flows downstream of the dams will doom some species, and eventually transform the composition of species. The DEIA foresees a drop in populations of kelah, daun and tengas, which are what draw anglers to Kenyir.

Equally imperilled are endangered plants such as numerous dipterocarp species, orchids, begonias, rafflesia and the ginger kantan hutan (Etlingera terengganuensis) that is endemic to Terengganu.

With the forest destruction comes other problems. The DEIA anticipates more road kills along highways in the area, and poaching too as logging roads will make the remote forest accessible. As it is, the DEIA consultants had come across old and new Thai poachers’ camps while surveying the catchment.

To counter these problems, it is suggested that signboards be erected along the highways to warn of wildlife crossings and there be more enforcement and patrols by wildlife and forest rangers.

The logging and dam construction will drive elephants into nearby settlements and plantations, particularly those at the north near Setiu. The DEIA says to safeguard crops, the elephants might have to be trapped and moved to other forests.

But the jumbos of Tembat and Petuang seem destined for a life in captivity. The Mentri Besar in November said the animals will be relocated to an elephant sanctuary.

WWF executive director Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma does not think this a viable solution. “This would be too costly and the sanctuary would not be able to accommodate all the elephants in the state in the long term. The increase in reports of human-wildlife conflict within the area strongly infers that wildlife habitats are being encroached or are diminishing. More land clearing will result in more elephants and other wildlife being displaced.”

With so much at risk, the DEIA has rightly cautioned the state government against logging what remains of Tembat and Petuang forest reserves, urging it to instead gazette them into catchment areas to protect the remaining wildlife and vegetation.

It says the 12,620ha outside the reservoir site should be selectively logged instead of clear-felled to reduce environmental destruction. Also, the sliver of forest west of Kenyir Lake needs to stay to enable movements of wildlife, otherwise Taman Negara and the catchment will be cut off from each other.

Sharma, however, says the suggestion in the DEIA on selective logging will not be effective. “The forest will take many years to regenerate and resume its ecosystem function as water catchment and to prevent soil erosion.”

He says it is crucial that both Petuang and Tembat be gazetted as catchment forests immediately, and not after they are logged. This will conform to a National Forestry Council directive for states to protect their catchments.

“Logging or clear-felling should not be allowed in these protected forests, in line with the National Physical Plan which classifies all catchment forests as Environmentally Sensitive Area Rank 1. Logging, development and agricultural activities are not permitted in these areas.”

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