KUCHING: The cutting down of trees at Fort Alice, one of the oldest surviving monuments from Sarawak’s White Rajah era, has attracted widespread condemnation.
Photos making the rounds online since mid-week show about half a dozen trees chopped up surrounding the fort, which has just been rehabilitated in a RM5mil two-year project.
Conservation architect Mike Boon expressed outraged when contacted.
He told Sarawak Metro he had no idea who authorised the cutting of the trees, which could be centuries old.
“I am disappointed and disheartened. I don’t understand why the trees, which are part of the heritage consideration, had to be cut down. We are handing over the project to the client (Museum Department) on Monday. Now it feels the setting of the fort is partly lost,” Boon said.
Calls to the Museum Department for comment yesterday were not returned before press time.
The photos indicate the cut trees were not from within the fenced-up compound of the fort. The trees cut were mostly on the slope between the hill top, where the fort is located, and the Tidal Bore Observation Deck (also designed by Boon).
Boon said whether the trees were inside or outside of the fenced-up area was immaterial. “They formed part of the public space. Heritage and conservation values aside, with the trees gone, there could be erosion issues. They must think of preventive measures now,” he said.
The architect had intended to submit the restored fort for competition to the Malaysian Institute of Architects and to Architects Regional Council Asia. (The tidal bore deck had won several awards.)
“With the trees gone, the setting is gone. When you submit for award considerations, they don’t just look at the building; they look at the context too. We can’t lie because the accessors will visit the site. I might as well disqualify myself because I cannot justify why the trees are gone,” Boon said.
Calls to Sri Aman’s Resident Office and council yielded little answers as to why the trees were cut down.
The offices directed reporters (including queries from the Chinese media) to call different departments. Nonetheless, a council senior staff claimed the cut order came from the Resident Office.
“The instruction to cut was made in January. The council was instructed to do it for reasons of public safety ahead of the official opening (of the fort as a museum),” said the council member, who took pains to point out that not all the trees were cut. “Some were just trimmed.”
A source familiar with the on-goings told Sarawak Metro the chopping down, rather than just trimming, of the trees could boil down to neglect and miscommunication.
Meanwhile, Malaysia Nature Society’s (MNS) Kuching chairman, Anthony Sebastian, described the incident as deplorable and due to “thoughtlessness”. Any excuse was “unacceptable”, he said.
“If it really was miscommunication, that is unacceptable. Anyway, whatever the cause, the result is the destruction of heritage,” Sebastian said, calling for stiff penalties to be placed on such acts.
“As far as MNS is concerned, the cutting down of any big tree is a huge no-no. Heritage trees, especially in urban spaces, are not just green lungs, they give character to the place. They become part of history. The environment that monuments sit within are equally important,” he said.
Peggy Wong, an architect who is a founding member of the Sarawak Heritage Society, agreed.
Wong, who organises monthly sketching outings usually around older structures, said what had happened showed a lack of a conservation awareness.
“ I don’t necessarily think it was done with ill-intentions. I just think it shows lack of communication and consultation. In this case, whoever authorised the cutting of the trees should have consulted the conservation scheme,” she said.
“It’s a pity because the trees have been there for a while as part of the landscape, which could have encouraged more people to spend time around the newly-rehabilitated fort,” Wong added.