Fighting for our forests

Abd. Rahman Abd. Rahim - Photo by AZHAR MAHFOF

Abd. Rahman Abd. Rahim - Photo by AZHAR MAHFOF

Forestry Department director-general Datuk Prof Dr Abd Rahman Abd Rahim speaks about the importance of protecting our forests and catchment areas to prevent our dams from drying up.

THERE can never be enough trees or forests for Datuk Prof Dr Abd Rahman Abd Rahim. The Forestry Department director-general, who likens the forests to his office, feels fortunate to be doing what he loves – planting and caring for trees.

Work visits to lush tropical forests and parks invigorate him and on his days off, the father-of-three returns with his wife for brisk walks.

Insisting that forestry is as much a science as it is an art, the 57-year-old Perak-born explains how nurturing a tree is an enriching experience that requires both skill and talent.

For Prof Dr Abd Rahman and his forestry team, managing 4.8million hectares of forest reserves comes with huge challenges.

Worried for his rangers who face black magic spells, blowpipe attacks and deadly threats from illegal logging syndicates, he is lobbying hard for them to be given guns.

He has also spoken out against the encroachment of water catchment areas and the degazetting of forest reserves for development projects and highways such as the controversial EKVE project.

> The proposal to de-gazette parts of the Ulu Langat, Gombak, Ampang and Bukit Sungai Puteh forest reserves totalling 106.65ha for the construction of the East Klang Valley Expressway (EKVE) has become a controversy. Why is your department allowing our forests to be de-gazetted for development?

Public perception is that we are just letting this happen but as a technical department, we don’t have the power to say no even if we fight till the last breath because of the National Land Code. We can only advise the federal or state governments (whoever owns the land). Like the public, we discourage de-gazetting forest reserves because the loss is too great. Don’t de-gazette just to avoid paying compensation to property owners or because building an alleviated highway is too costly. Cutting down forests should be the last and only resort.

And, if there is no other choice but to de-gazette, mitigation measures must be taken. Before building a highway, we have to ask ourselves if we really need it. Does it solve traffic congestion? No. We should be improving public transportation instead.

But highways aren’t the only threat to forests. Look at Iskandar Malaysia (in Johor) – roads and power pylons are needed but we say the same thing: let’s explore the alternatives to cutting trees.

> Why are our forests catching fire so easily?

We have three kinds of forests – dry inland, peat swamp and mangrove. Some 90% are dry inland forests which catch fire because of smokers and farmers. The El Nino dry season makes it worse. Although peat swamps only comprise 3% of our forests, it is the most dangerous.

Peat fires are the hardest to control because the fire burns underground. Farmers drain water from peat swamps to irrigate their crop and when a careless driver throws his cigarette stub, the dry peat swamp catches fire. That’s why all along the route to KLIA in Sepang, you see peat fires.

> What is the situation on illegal logging in the country?

My department only controls permanent forest reserves. Non-permanent forest reserves are either owned by the state or private individuals – we do not have a say in what they want to do with it as our role is only advisory. This is what the public does not understand. The peninsula has 5.8 million hectares of forests, of which 4.8 million hectares are permanent forest reserves. Less than one per cent of our permanent forest reserves were encroached by the orang asli and those living in the peripherals of the forests. Irresponsible development, greed and fires are what threaten our forests. We only remove mature trees from permanent forest reserves to prevent them from dying and even then, we make sure replanting is done immediately.

All logging activities in the permanent forest reserves are monitored closely – especially when timber pricing is good, to make sure that only what is allowed on the permit is cut.

By 2016, my target is to achieve 0% illegal logging but we need more funds to increase our enforcement personnel, vehicles and equipment.

> You want your men armed. Is there really a need?

Yes. Even Road Transport Depart­ment and Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission officers have pistols but my guys only have their parang. We are requesting for pump guns for all our enforcement officers. They have faced blowpipe attacks and even black magic. They are the target of organised crime syndicates.

Being armed will give them confidence. At least my men can scare off the illegal loggers by firing warning shots into the air. Don’t worry, they are not going to be trigger happy and shoot at people.

> The Klang Valley has become the hub for illegal agarwood trading in peninsular Malaysia. Forests in Penang, Perak, Pahang and Johor were among the worst-hit states by agarwood thieves. Selangor was also not spared. Where is the enforcement?

On July 9, we raided a house in Padang Lalang, Seberang Prai, and arrested 13 Vietnamese for illegal possession of 5.2kg of agarwood. We also confiscated various equipment used to fell the trees. We received a tip-off that they were processing the agarwood there. We believe the arrest has crippled the syndicate behind the agarwood thefts in the country because the mastermind is likely based in Penang.

Syndicates from Vietnam and Cambodia have been travelling north to south to steal our agarwood. This also happens on state-owned land, not just in the permanent forest reserves. The Penang Botanic Gardens where there’s been a number of agarwood thefts, for instance, is state land.

> You have been in the forestry department for some three decades. What are you most proud of?

When I completed my master’s degree in forestry science in 1987, the future of forestry here became crystal clear. I had learnt how a computer could integrate volumes of data, maps and information, to assist in planning for our forests.

Analysis and simulation can be done in quick time to ensure that the best decisions are made when faced with questions like what is the most suitable tree to plant in our forests. I am proud that together with my (former) boss, we pioneered the use of personal computers in the field of forestry and set up computer divisions here.

When I did my doctorate in Scotland, Malaysia was still using programmes like Wordstar but I was already working on Excel and Word Pro over there. What computers could do was well beyond my expectations. When I returned, I insisted that my officers make full use of technology because it is an indispensable tool for foresters. Whoever goes out on field work must bring a laptop along. I am proud that my officers are tech-savvy.

> What is the biggest challenge in managing the country’s forests?

There has to be better co-operation between the federal and state governments. I am willing to work with both. For example, the federal government commits to an international environmental charter but the state does not implement it. If a state stops logging, what will it get? You want to conserve yet you need money. There must be a balance between policy and economic need. There is no one simple solution. Sincerity is important. I always invite the public and non-governmental organisations to work with us too.

> Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri G. Palanivel recently called on all agencies to work together to combat illegal land clearing and occupation in Cameron Highlands, which had become increasingly widespread.

This is an issue of deforestation on Pahang state land, which is not under our control.

> What are your hopes for our forests?

Forests do not only mean timber. The tropical forest is so diverse and complex. It enriches me. I know we still need more land to build roads if we are to achieve developed nation status by year 2020 but before I retire in three years, I hope to see five million hectares of permanent forest reserves in the peninsula. This would require the states to give up their land bank. This is my mission.

forestry department