A passion for trees see two men growing a jungle.
IT takes a willing teacher and a committed student to realise a dream as big as growing a jungle. In this case, oil palm planter Geoffrey Cooper has tree specialist James Kingham as his guru and he can now show off his gene bank of endangered jungle plants at his plantation in Pantai Remis, Perak.
Cooper, with his curiosity for jungle plants, met Kingham 10 years ago at the latter’s 150ha nursery in Tanjung Malim, Perak. His eagerness and passion matched Kingham’s passion for propagating jungle trees and creating awareness on the role of trees in bringing a balance to biodiversity.
Cooper’s knowledge on jungle trees was limited but he was ready to learn. He spent many of his early years in the Bukit Raja Estate before going for further education at the age of 18. Cooper is an accountant but his interest in agriculture took him to Africa where he spent a year in an agriculture college and another four years in Zimbabwe before returning to work with plantation company, United International Enterprises Malaysia (UIEM).
About 4 1/2 years ago, Cooper, who is one of the few European planters in Malaysia, presented Kingham with a 20ha piece of land that UIEM had set aside for restoration.
It was the beginning of a long standing relationship between the two, who eventually established the Cooper-Kingham reserve which is also a gene bank for endangered jungle plants. But the beginning was as hard and rough as the degraded soil they had to work with.
“All the good soil had been taken and this was a very degraded area. We tried to grow small coconuts. We couldn’t. With just the subsoil left we were able to restore the area and now timber trees like meranti are thriving here. With information from James, we were able to grow a lot of food chain trees so that the birds will have food, shelter and a nesting environment,” says Cooper, who manages a 10,000ha estate.
Kingham is a retired planter who relies on his knowledge and experience to help him work with the degraded soil.
“Deep down, I knew, if forest trees were cared for properly over the first three years, they can be adaptable and will grow well,” he said.
Cooper has 220 species of trees in his reserve and 70% are food chain trees. Currently, there are more than 7,500 trees which he hopes will eventually increase to 20,000 and 1,000 species.
Speaking ever so convincingly about the viability of the project, Cooper’s enthusiasm is infectious and you can’t help but join him in picking and tasting fruits from the trees, smelling every flower and peering up tree branches to look for birds’ nests. Although he walks through the reserve every day, Cooper still moves from tree to tree, rattling off their names, with a child-like excitement.
Apart from his own nursery, Kingham is confident that Cooper’s seed bank will be able to provide seedlings for all endemic tree species in the future.
“I will collect all the rare and endangered dipterocarps and put them here because I know Geoffrey will be able to propagate them,” Kingham says.
He explains that his idea of bringing a balance to biodiversity is not about planting trees with high commercial value but rather trees that will provide food for big birds like hornbills and small animals.
“We do not want a forest with the silent syndrome,” adds Kingham.
The seedlings that are planted along the riparian reserve in the plantation are germinated from seeds in Cooper’s seed bank. The riparian reserve is a strip of land that runs along the river that acts as a buffer for flood and a corridor for wildlife.
Kingham wants to encourage planters to germinate their own seedlings from seeds in their own nurseries so that more trees can be planted. This, he believes, can also fulfil the needs of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
“Planters are the last frontier who are able to do good for the environment. Who else can do it? The people in town have no room, no resources and no land (to grow the trees). We have all the knowhow, resources, manpower and land.
“The sustainability of this project is dependent on the company. The support from the directors, managers and shareholders. We all have shelf life and it is up to the company and directors to push this on to the new generation of planters to take over when it’s time for me to hang up my boots,” says Cooper.
Go to Star Online’s SwitchUP.TV website to watch a video on Geoffrey Cooper’s Tree Species Reserve (tinyurl.com/c9rwycw).