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Tuesday February 1, 2011

Planters threaten Selangor peat swamp

One of the last tracts of peat swamp forest in Selangor now faces the axe.

IT IS a wasteland. Nothing grows on it save for a single tree species, mahang. Those were the reasons cited by Selangor State Agriculture Corporation to back its proposal to turn Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest into an oil palm plantation.

Many people have assumed the same of the tract of forest near Sepang, thanks to past press reports highlighting how it has been illegally logged, encroached upon by farmers and converted to oil palm estates.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Recent surveys reveal Langat South to host huge, towering stands – some of rare and endangered species – as well as wildlife. Sure, this peat swamp forest is no longer in its original, pristine state but it has enough to warrant protection.

Planted over: Oil palm plantations border the fringes of Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest.

When first gazetted as a forest reserve in 1927, it sprawled over 12,141ha. Development has eaten into it ever since. A huge chunk of it became the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Bits and pieces became oil palm plantations. Farmers continue to slash and burn the forest illegally, to grow pineapple, tapioca, ginger, corn, sweet potato and banana.

Following the last degazettement of 526ha in January 2009, what is left of Langat South today is just slightly over half of its original size. The bulk of the 6,908ha that remains is classed as “production forest” – this means forest that can be logged. Indeed, commercial timber has been extracted from Langat South since the 1950s, which explains the general perception that the forest reserve is a degraded one.

But foresters and botanists say Langat South is worth keeping for sitting right in its middle is 174ha of Virgin Jungle Reserve (VJR). These pockets of untouched forests are usually set aside within forest reserves to serve as an arboreta – a genetic storehouse and seed bank for the future.

The Langat South VJR is especially important because it is one of the last refuge of the critically endangered meranti bunga (Shorea teysmanniana). As the species occurs only in small numbers in several fragmented forest reserves, their future viability is uncertain. Hence, the conservation importance of the remnant population in Langat South. The forest also hosts the yet undescribed Eugenia sp 45 which is a potential new tree species.

The forest reserve is also regenerating from past logging cycles, so there exist some towering trees. The Forestry Department estimates the timber stock to be high, at 142cu.m per ha, and the timber value to be worth some RM500mil. Dominant commercial timber species there include meranti bakau, kempas and ramin. Says one botanist: “The trees are still good in the VJR. Only the edge of the forest reserve has been encroached upon. We should retain it as this type of forest elsewhere is all gone.”

Kuala Langat South forest reserve still harbours plenty of big trees. Its timber stock is estimated at 142cu.m per ha. – Photo by CHOU K.S.

Indeed, Langat South is deemed the most important peat swamp forest in southern Selangor since most other such forests in the area have been lost to development. There is the Kuala Langat North peat swamp forest (once contiguous with Langat South until development sliced them apart) but it has drastically shrunk in size from 5,865ha to 894ha. In the latest excision in July 2010, 60ha was sacrificed for development of a highway R&R. The only other sizeable tract of peat swamp in the state is the North Selangor peat swamp forest, comprising Sungai Karang and Raja Musa forest reserves.

Endangered wildlife such as the sun bear, tapir and white-handed gibbon also find a home in Langat South. The Selangor pygmy flying squirrel (Petaurillus kinlochii) has only ever been found in the lowland forest of Kuala Langat, Klang and Kapar, but it is uncertain if the species still exist in Langat South since no one has bothered to look for it.

Carbon sink and flood control

Aside from being a species treasure trove, Langat South is crucial for global climate control. “The value of peat swamps is in its ecological uses and topping the list is its role as a natural carbon sink,” says botanist Balu Perumal of conservation group Global Environment Facility (GEC). If Langat South is dug up for cultivation, the 27.7 million tonnes of carbon estimated by GEC to be locked up in its soil will be unleashed, further fuelling global warming. “The oil palm plantation plan is clearly in conflict with Malaysia’s commitment to reduce its carbon emissions,” says Balu.

A recent GEC survey shows 75% of the forest reserve to be still forested. With their ability to absorb and store water, peat forests act as natural reservoirs. So they are effective in mitigating floods during periods of heavy rainfall and providing water during droughts. If Langat South is lost, GEC fears that nearby villages and towns could easily get flooded during downpours.

World Wetlands Day is celebrated every Feb 2. This year’s theme is Forests For Water And Wetlands. Wetlands are permanent and temporary wet places such as lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes, swamps, peatlands, mangrove forests, salt pans, sandy beaches and coral reefs. These ecosystems provide us with a myriad of ecological services.

GEC found the peat depth in Langat South, at an average of 3.3m, to be “very deep”. The deeper the peat, the less suitable it is for agriculture.

Canals dug into the earth to drain the swamp for planting, and repeated torching of the forest by illegal farmers to clear the vegetation and enrich the acidic soil, have left the fringes of Langat South parched, degraded, and susceptible to wild fires. This fuels the cycle of periodic infernos and haze.

Urging the state government to review its policy of allowing agriculture on peatlands, GEC calls for measures to arrest the deforestation and further degradation of the peat swamp.

“Conserving this peat swamp forest is crucial not only to ensure sustainable use of its rich resources and protection of endangered species, but also to maintain environmental stability. If we continue to clear and degrade this forest, its role as a carbon sink will be reversed. It will become a carbon source instead,” says Balu.

Intrusions into the reserve continue until now. Just last week, vegetable farmers were caught razing the forest. Orang asli, who claim ancestral rights to the land, have also turned parcels of forest into oil palm plantations.

An orang asli hide, used when hunting wild boars, in the Kuala Langat South forest reserve. The orang asli are claiming ancestral rights to the peat swamp forest.

Canals running alongside the forest reserve drains it of moisture, says forestry consultant Lim Teck Wyn. “The forest still has a lot of big trees but its ecology has been affected by uncontrolled drainage. It is much drier than you would expect a peat swamp to be. The concern is that this will affect forest regeneration.”

His fear is not unfounded. Botanists observe a lack of meranti bunga seedlings in the VJR, despite the many mature stands of the critically endangered species. This could mean the species is not reproducing, perhaps due to deterioration of the peat soil.

Lim sees tourism as one way to preserve Langat South. “People don’t realise we have a virgin peat swamp forest next to KLIA. It is a potential tourist attraction. With more people visiting the forest, illegal activities will decline,” he says.

Approval pending

The oil palm plan has yet to get approval. The state government is scheduled to discuss it next week, after two postponements since December. But by right, any development of peat swamp forests must be brought up to the National Physical Plan (NPP) Council since the habitat is categorised as Environmentally Sensitive Areas in the NPP and the Town and Country Planning Act 1976.

At a time when scientists have stressed the crucial role played by peat swamp forest in storing carbon, it beggars understanding why the state government is even considering the oil palm proposal.

The oil palm plan is also at odds with the state government’s recent effort to reclaim encroached parcels of Langat South. It has revoked the “user permits” which had been issued to some 133 farmers in 2006 allowing them to farm in Langat South, supposedly to better control illegal slash and burn agriculture. Last October, forestry staff destroyed illegally planted oil palm, tapioca and other crops, and replanted the area with saplings of forest tree species.

Of course, the timber revenue from logging the whole of Langat South is appealing, as is the subsequent earnings from oil palm cultivation. But the rewards from keeping the forest intact for carbon storage can be attractive, too. Fortunately, the state government has been advised on this and is in talks with a carbon trading company on the possibility of placing Langat South under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme.

In this United Nations-endorsed scheme, countries which leave their forest standing – and so help to avert global warming – will be compensated by developed countries that need to curtail their carbon releases. By giving a financial value to the carbon stored in trees, REDD is said to create an incentive for countries to manage and wisely use their forests.

But will the state government find the trees more valuable standing, or cut down?

Related Stories:
Vanishing wetlands

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