AS MALAYSIANS grapple with the heatwave, warnings have been put out to alert the public that water levels are expected to dip in the coming months, bringing with it the possibility of dry taps.
But the dry season also brings with it the risk of wildfires as vegetation loses moisture.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to join the Global Environment Centre (GEC) and the Selangor State Forestry Department (SSFD) on a tree-planting mission to celebrate World Wetlands Day.
I was brought to the Raja Musa Forest Reserve (RMFR) to learn about the unique ecology of the peat forest from the people who have been part of the Raja Musa Forest Rehabilitation Programme.
As one of the 300 plus participants tasked with planting 1,200 trees, I felt small, especially after learning that the RMFR was just one of four forest reserves that make up the North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest (NSPSF).
The others include the Sungai Karang Forest Reserve, Sungai Dusun Forest/Wildlife Reserve and part of Bukit Belata Forest Reserve Extension.
Two species of trees –Tenggek burung (Melicope lunu-ankenda) and Ramin melawis (Gonystylus bancanus) – were planted near the forest reserve’s administration office – a one-storey building roughly the size of a small house.
The fringe of the RMFR, where we planted the trees, was in dire need of rehabilitation as it recovers from a devastating man-made fire in 2014 which wiped about 1,500ha of the wetland.
The particular area we stood on was just a tiny fraction of the RMFR’s 35,656ha, and far smaller than NSPSF’s 81,304ha. To put that in perspective, the latter occupies an area larger than Singapore.
After planting the trees, I was invited to view the peat forest from the observation deck atop the watchtower, where we could see at least four separate sources of smoke rising from the nearby oil palm estates and beyond, posing a threat to the forest.
The importance of the peat forest can easily be overlooked because most people are unaware of its characteristics and the role it plays in the environment. Peat covers about 10% of Malaysia’s land area, at roughly 2.8 million hectares.
Threats to peat forests
One of the biggest threats to peat forests is drainage. Encroachers often create canals to drain the peat so the land can be utilised for various economic activities; at RMFR, there are up to 500km of abandoned logging canals in the forest, spanning from narrow ones to one metre-wide, used to float out felled timber.
Water serves to slow down the decomposition of organic matter and makes peat a highly efficient carbon sink. When parts of the peat forest are drained, organic matter gets dried out.
When this happens, not only
are greenhouse gases released through decay, the peat becomes highly flammable.
While the short-term effect will be the reduction of the water table level, the long-term effects will invariably result in the destruction of flora and fauna.
GEC director Faizal Parish said the parties had been taking active measures since 2008 to keep the water level up. These measures include implementing canal blocking to prevent drainage of the peat, and installing a 3km water pipeline to flood the wetland if necessary.
Apart from being a crucial carbon store, peat forests also act as natural reservoirs, storing water for the environment. For instance, RMFR plays a crucial role in local agriculture.
“RMFR is an important water supply for the North West Selangor Integrated Agriculture Development Area (IADA), which includes the most productive rice schemes in Malaysia in Kuala Selangor (Tanjung Karang) and Sabak Bernam (Sekinchan),” Faizal explained.
“This forest gives the padi fields enough water during the dry season which allows them to grow five harvests every two years. But the constant supply of water will not be possible if the forest is not maintained.”
Re-educate and collaborateGEC Forest and Coastal Programme manager R. Nagarajan said the forestry department and GEC worked together to re-educate and collaborate with the local community via the Friends of North Selangor Peatland Forest programme.
“The Friends work closely with the forestry department and GEC. They are the eyes and ears of the forestry department, monitoring and patrolling the area to see if there are people encroaching the place or starting fires,” he said.
“It is a softer approach we are taking – building a connection with our neighbours and transferring our knowledge to them – which has given us a good success rate.
“From 1,800ha of peat forest
in Selangor burnt in 2014, this
has been reduced to 7.7ha in 2018,” he added. SSFD Development deputy director Abdul Khalim Abu Samah said the forestry department would continue to work on maintaining water management functions and promote the natural regeneration in the forest.
“Fires will happen, but we have to reduce it. Based on our investigations, most cases are caused by people, which is why we have to continue to raise awareness about the importance of peat swamp forests and preventing forest fires.”
I left the RMFR with a sense of satisfaction, not because I had planted some trees, but because I left knowing that the NSPSF exists.
Even though it is always under threat in some way, there are people taking steps to ensure that such an important part of the environment is protected for everyone’s benefit.
GEC and SSFD hold their tree-planting event almost monthly free of charge, thanks to corporate sponsorship from HSBC Malaysia. Find out more about GEC’s initiatives at www.gec.org.my