ON June 5, we will be observing World Environment Day, the United Nations day for encouraging global awareness of and action to protect the environment. The theme for this year is “Ecosystem Restoration” and the day will see the launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
There are many ways we can all contribute to ecosystem recovery whether it involves planting trees, changing diets, cleaning water bodies, reducing waste, supporting wildlife conservation, and so on. However, there may be some challenges to these efforts as Malaysia faces yet another strict movement control order, on until June 14. Still, there is always space to adopt more sustainable habits in our lives, say conservationists and environmentalists.
Here’s how we can play our part during lockdown.
The various Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns that have taken place globally over more than a year have reshaped the way environmental groups are restoring ecosystems, says Evelyn Teh from environmental NGO Jaringan Ekologi dan Iklim (Jedi).
“The lockdown has indeed proved to be a real challenge. When conservation groups abided by the necessary need to stay in, illegal logging, poaching, hill clearing, dumping of pollution and waste continued unabated. Hence, environmental groups must redefine the way they mobilise as, increasingly, battles are fought on the ground as well as in virtual space, ” says Teh, whose area of specialisation is natural resource management.
The public can use virtual space to show solidarity, lend their voices to call out illegal practices, and pressure the authorities to take stricter measures to clamp down on these activities. Teh explains that this could be in the form of a petition or sharing posts from environmental groups on social media platforms to amplify the message.
“Although these have a variable degree of success, and most of these battles are ongoing, it helps increase public awareness and education on environmental issues, ” says Teh.
Overall, Malaysia needs to truly focus on sustainable restoration projects and not merely adopt greenwashing activities, says Teh. She points out that the ecosystem is a complex and interdependent system of soil, water and air, which is home to a rich array of biodiversity. As such, its restoration must be carried out in its entirety – that is, we need to consider all interlinked habitats and not work on a piecemeal basis.
“Restoration does not mean degazetting forests for development and then replanting a monoculture of trees elsewhere to make up for the loss. Restoration isn’t reclaiming a coastal area and then planting mangrove seedlings somewhere else to offset the destruction, ” she says.
To really address ecological restoration, Malaysia needs better laws that protect the environment, and better regulation, monitoring and enforcement of these laws.
“We need more transparency and more accountability in every aspect of environmental regulation. We need all hands on deck to protect whatever we have left, stop degradation and restore our ecosystems without delay.”
Another thing the public can do to help restore ecosystems is buying locally grown produce as far as possible. By buying local, we shorten the supply chain, which reduces emissions of greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change.
“It might not sound like it directly relates to restoring ecosystems, but it is part and parcel of the bigger picture. When we buy locally grown produce, we shorten the supply chain of growing, processing, packaging and transporting food. All these make a difference in reducing carbon emissions in the long run, ” says Teh.
Lockdown measures have helped to create a positive impact on the environment, not just in Malaysia but also across the world. Nature has taken this opportunity to recover as people drive less and take fewer flights, and businesses and factories downscale production.
While this has been good for the ecosystem, the improvement may not necessarily last. In fact, water quality expert Dr Zaki Zainudin is concerned that the situation may become worse post-pandemic as some businesses attempt to compensate for their losses during lockdown.
“There may be instances where certain industries ramp up production or try to cut corners in terms of meeting environmental regulations. So when the pandemic blows over, the authorities have to be vigilant to ensure that these kinds of things are kept to a minimum, ” he says.
“As members of the public, we can keep posting on social media about environmental awareness, ” he says, echoing Teh’s suggestion.
“The Environment Department (DOE) will be making posts about new developments on their social media pages. The public can play their part by giving input and feedback on new developments and the environmental impacts they will have, ” he says.
Speak up for sustainability
Prof Gopalasamy Reuben Clements from Sunway University’s School of Medical and Life Sciences says that governments and NGOs need to engage scientists, local communities and the private sector more to ensure effective and appropriate ecosystem restoration takes place.
“But more importantly, the priority should be to develop conservation finance mechanisms to help state governments protect existing ecosystems first before helping to restore degraded ones, ” says Prof Clements, who is a Senior Research Fellow at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development.
Prof Clements explains that governments and the private sector are best placed to help restore ecosystems. With this in mind, members of the public can take proactive steps by writing to their state assembly representative or the state executive council member in charge of the environment to voice the need for ecosystem restoration.
“If you work for a company, probably the best thing you can do is to try and convince your senior management to financially support projects that are trying to restore ecosystems.
“These projects are often run by NGOs, so directly donating to and supporting such NGOs that are actively involved in implementing these projects is also a good way that members of the public can contribute to ecosystem restoration, ” says Prof Clements, adding that supporting such projects is also good for the ESG (environment, social and governance) ratings of a company, especially one that is publicly listed.
Members of the public play important roles in supporting conservation efforts, says Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) president Prof Dr Ahmad Ismail, whose expertise is in wildlife ecology and ecotoxicology.
One crucial step that we need to address soon is preserving our jungles, as this also means preserving declining biodiversity, he says.
“We need to identify where there are deteriorating forest reserves, including mangroves that protect coastal areas and habitat for marine life.
“Deteriorated forest reserves must not be degazetted but need to be restored and brought back to their natural conditions, ” he says.
The MCO poses challenges in terms of large-scale physical ecological restoration work, but once it is lifted, those who are interested in taking action could work on ecological restoration by organising activities at the community level.
“The best way is by following established NGOs that are carrying out regular ecosystem restoration projects. MNS, for example, organises regular restoration projects on mangroves, degraded forests and the linking of fragmented forests, among other activities, ” says Ahmad, adding that that MNS welcomes members of the public to join the organisation and participate in tree-planting.