Sabah wetlands face pollution effects from oil palm estates

SANDAKAN: Malaysia has internationally-recognised wetlands, and the largest one is the 78,000ha Ramsar Site in Sabah.

Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance, designated under the Ramsar Conven­tion, an international agreement signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. It provides for the conservation and good use of wetlands.

The Ramsar site in Sabah covers the Trusan Kinabatangan, Kuala Segama-Maruap Mangrove Forest Reserve and the Kulamba Wildlife Forest Reserve located at the lower Kinabatangan-Segama, accounting for nearly 60% of the remaining mangrove forests in Malaysia.

Malaysia has employed the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in protecting the site, which is part of the efforts under the Bornean Biodiversity and Ecosystems Conservation (BBEC) Programme in Sabah.

The programme is now in Phase II.

JICA helps by providing technical expertise and advice in implementing good conservation activities.

However, BBEC II chief advisor Motohiro Hasegawa told Bernama that a few challenges needed to be sorted out or the maintenance of Sabah’s biodiversity-rich Ramsar Site would be an uphill task.

Hasegawa said the major threat to the Sabah Ramsar Site was the pollution from oil palm plantations.

Other threats, he said, were limited.

The Ramsar site was mostly situated at the lower part of a large river basin, he said, so unless good conservation activities were imposed in the upper area of this river basin, the site would be threatened.

He said the upper areas of the Ramsar site was the Maliau Basin and Imbak Canyon which were pristine, untouched, forests. However, oil palm mills and plantations clutter the middle part.

“And where there are plantations and mills, there are industrial and agricultural wastes, two of the hardest effluents to treat. None of which bodes well for the protection of our largest wetland,” he said.

“There aren’t too many pristine forests in Sabah like those in the upper area of the site, so that part is well-protected.

“But the middle part is completely covered by oil palm plantations. Since our wetlands are internationally-recognised, we have to conduct awareness programmes so that oil palm plantations direct their operations toward conservation,” he said.

“We plan to hold the first oil palm plantation conservation workshop in July.

“We will introduce the latest technology to treat effluents from oil palm mills, techniques to reduce sediments and so on,” said Hasegawa.

He said control of effluents from mills was probably one of the most difficult challenges, but if not tackled would result in a bleak future for the Ramsar site.

“We have an idea to promote the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certification, which we plan to introduce to all plantation and mills within 10 years,” he said.

A typical problem in the governance of forests and conservation areas is multiple agencies being in charge without cooperation in governance.

Hasegawa said part of the problem was power imbalance, where some agencies were given more governing authority than others. “There are powerful institutions like the Forestry Department in Sabah, and then there is the Sabah Wildlife Department, which is rather weak.

“If you have strong and weak guys, it’s hard to have cooperative governance,” he said.

However, Hasegawa said it was a very common problem not only in Malaysia but in many other countries.

So, what do we need to do? Conservation governance, hesaid.

Currently, the Forestry Depart­ment is in charge of an aspect while the Wildlife Department controls another.

“These actions are fragmented. We have to develop a mechanism to link up many agencies and together work on a consolidated conservation effort or else efforts might be wasted and we don’t want that.

“We need to link up these efforts and work towards integrated conservation,” he said.

A closed sector approach is also very important, he says.

“In doing this, third party intervention is very efficient and useful.

“JICA, being outside of the Sabah and Malaysian bureaucracy, has been using this approach since Phase I of BBEC in 2002. It really helps in linking up the agencies towards a common purpose,” said Hasegawa.

The Sabah Biodiversity Enact­ment 2000 has helped towards the purpose by providing a legal path to establish a sole body to oversee and coordinate state-wide biodiversity conservation.

The body in question is the Biodiversity Council and its secretariat, the Sabah Biodiversity Centre (SBC), in which JICA has deployed its volunteers to help with as well.

The conservation system employed by JICA in BBEC I and II under the Convention of Biodiversity, is the ecosystem approach. This means they look at the environment holistically and use adaptive management to operate it.

Hasegawa said: “What it does is a systematic and cyclic process that identifies environmental problems based on data. Based on the problems we create counter measures, we implement them and then monitor how they work. “If that doesn’t work, we come up with different counter measures.”

JICA’s presence in Malaysia is through official request by the Malaysian government, and its role in BBEC is to provide technical assistance to Malaysia by sending Japanese professionals to work full-time with local counterparts.

Hasegawa reminded that JICA’s role in BBEC II was to support the Sabah Biodiversity Enactment and to facilitate integrated conservation, so much credit goes to the effort of the relevant agencies in the state.

“We are merely supporting SBC to link up the seemingly fragmented conservation efforts of various agencies, in addition to providing as much technical assistance as we can towards conservation efforts,” he said.

JICA is an independent administrative institute, which implements Official Development Assistance projects of Japan. It acts as a bridging agent between the people of Japan and developing countries, advancing international cooperation through sharing of knowledge and experience.

JICA also contributes to international interests and goals such as eradication of poverty and hunger, education, gender equality, reduction of child mortality and ensuring environmental sustainability.

The Ramsar Convention is the informal name of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Water­fowl Habitat. The Convention is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilization of wetlands. Malaysia ratified the Convention on March 10, 1995 and its national focal point agency is the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The other five Ramsar sites in Malaysia are the Kuching Wetlands National Park (Sarawak), Pulau Kukup (Johor), Sungai Pulai (Johor), Tanjung Piai (Johor), and Tasek Bera (Pahang). — Bernama

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