Speech by YB Elizabeth Wong during Transparency International’s “Malaysia Forest Governance Integrity (FGI) Programme”

Image by The NutGraph

Protecting Forests in Selangor: Challenges and Opportunities

Through new gazettes made since 2008, the percentage of total area of forest cover in the state has increased from 30.5% to 31.5%, which translates to about 6,500 hectares. Part of this was done by taking back concessions that were previously given out.

One percent doesn’t sound like much, but given that Selangor is the most industrialised and developed state in Malaysia, and the trend was previously going in the opposite direction, it is quite an achievement. I would even say it is historic.

Good afternoon.

I’d like to start off with a brief story.

Before I became an elected representative, I was an activist from an NGO background. As a young,
passionate and idealistic youth, I championed many causes, including environmental ones.

Around 2006, 2007, there was news circulating that the Kota Damansara Forest Reserve would be destroyed to make way for rapid development of condos, bungalows and commercial property.

The forest reserve, which was part of the Sungai Buloh Forest Reserve gazetted in 1898 (the oldest in Peninsular Malaysia), had already seen most of it taken away to make way for what is Kota Damansara today. From 1,578 hectares of protected primary forest, it was degazetted so many times that a mere 321.7 hectares remained.

Yet, this little bit of forest left was still under threat. Along with community leaders, environmental NGOs and other activists, I campaigned for the gazzettement of the area as a forest reserve.

After I was elected in 2008 and subsequently appointed as the EXCO in charge of environment, I was basically given the opportunity to do something about the Kota Damansara Forest Reserve. Unfortunately, I realised that even as a member of the government, protecting the forest isn’t easy.

There are hurdles to overcome, resistance to defeat and a long and difficult process to endure. I had to justify to the Menteri Besar and fellow EXCOs the social and economic value of the forest, and why ceding it would only mean profits for property developers at the expense of the people.

Finally, in early 2010, the gazette was complete and final. It goes to show that while it is indeed possible to successfully protect a treasured forest, it doesn’t come quick nor easy.

But no doubt, we have made some progress in Selangor.

Through new gazettes made since 2008, the percentage of total area of forest cover in the state has increased from 30.5% to 31.5%, which translates to about 6,500 hectares. Part of this was done by taking back concessions that were previously given out.

One percent doesn’t sound like much, but given that Selangor is the most industrialised and developed state in Malaysia, and the trend was previously going in the opposite direction, it is quite an achievement. I would even say it is historic.

I say that not to pat ourselves on our back, but to give some sort of perspective on the preservation of forests. In the face of development, encroachment and so on, maintaining the area of forests we have is already tough enough. Increasing it, on the other hand, can almost be impossible sometimes.

Nevertheless, the Selangor State Government will continue to work towards increasing the area of forest cover in the the state, up to about 35% to 40%. We feel that is an achievable and reasonable target for the longer term.

We will do this by protecting as much as possible existing forest reserves, rehabilitating depleted forests or those damaged by illegal encroachment. We will also do this by improving and toughening existing laws. Better enforcement will also play a very important role, along with swift and heavy penalties for all offenders.

OPPORTUNITIES

Because the bar was already so low, we have opportunity to make a lot of improvements. Let me share with you some of what Selangor has already done and areas of opportunities we are looking into.

In addition to the gazettement of the Kota Damansara forest reserve, we have also, since 2008:

  • Saved Ayer Hitam Forest Reserve
  • MOU with Global Environment Centre (GEC) to rehabilitate 1500 hectares of saved peat Raja Musa Forest Reserve
  • Recovered another 300 hectares of former forest reserve in Ulu Langat which we will turn into a recreational, educational forest
  • Gazetted Kg Kuantan into Special Protection Zone for Fireflies
  • Stopped further destruction of key forest reserves given to PKPS for ‘plantation forest’ projects

Last year, we passed in the Selangor State Assembly an amendment to Section 11 of the Forestry Act, 1985. Our aim was simple: to make public enquiries or open hearings mandatory before any forest reserve is taken out of gazette. This is to prevent forest reserves from being quietly degazetted without public knowledge.

The Selangor State Government also passed an amendment to the Wood-Based Industry Enactment 1985, which increases the penalties on factories found guilty of violating the act to a maximum of RM50,000 and/or 5 years in prison.

Of course, stiffer punishment is meaningless without better enforcement.

One of the success stories in Selangor is how well the state Forestry Department has done in its enforcement efforts despite the difficulties. It boasts the highest number of charges brought against offenders in the entire country. In 2010, eight illegal loggers were jailed in five separate cases, along with many others receiving maximum fines.

In fact, just last night, the officers from the state’s Forestry Department apprehended 34 men who were stealing mangrove trees from our forest reserve in Klang.They are currently being held in the police station in Shah Alam.

We are also looking into the viability of mechanisms such as REDD+ (Reduced Emission from Deforestration and Forest Degradation) which will help directly translate the economic value of forests into income for the state in the form of carbon trading.

A trust fund is set up, and developed nations and private institutions can contribute to it as part of efforts to combat climate change. This could help in funding the cost of protecting and rehabilitating our forests in Selangor which can go up to RM3 million a year.

The global trend of increasing environment awareness is also a great opportunity to be leveraged. The younger generation are much more aware and conscious of the need to protect the environment and preserve the remaining forests, and I think governments and civil society alike must tap into their enthusiasm and energy.

So yes, there are plenty of opportunities in the protection of forests in Selangor. It’s not too hard to improve on the situation from before. But unfortunately, challenges abound and they are getting increasingly difficult.

CHALLENGES

Too often, in our planning and calculations, the value of forests are not taken into consideration. Despite their obvious social and economic value, forests are frequently seen by governments, property developers , agricultural companies and even ordinary people, as not benefitting the people. Protecting forests is deemed as going against the people’s interest and anti-development.

The result is pressure from various quarters for governments to relax enforcement or regulation of gazetted forest reserves.

I’ll give an example. Major highway projects are usually not included in the Selangor state structure plan. What this means is any planning done by JPBD, the planning department, with local councils, are tossed out the window when a major highway project is given the go ahead. A current example is the Kuala Lumpur Outer Ring Road (KLORR), which will have devastating effects on some key ecological sites.

It goes without saying that the preservation of forests requires the cooperation of all parties.

The federal government, for instance, should:

  • Make long term plans that will sustain well into the future. A new highway every few years is clearly a sign of failure to do so
  • Implement existing laws to protect forest reserves. Every metre square of forest reserve degazetted must be replaced by a metre square in another suitable location. This is stipulated in the Forestry Act.
  • One reason why highways and TNB cables frequently align their infrastructure in forests is because of costs. We must valuate forest land the same as land in urban areas.
  • Give economic incentive for states to move away from unsustainable industries like logging. We are fortunate in Selangor because logging is not a source of economic revenue for the state. However, it is difficult for states like Pahang, Kelantan and others to just cease logging without some alternative form of revenue planned.
  • We must allocate a more significant portion of our federal budget towards the protection of forests. We need better and more thorough enforcement and monitoring to protect our existing forest reserves. There are people out there who will resort to all sorts of measures to gain access to profitable logs. Last year, one of the Forestry Department’s officers was even briefly held hostage by illegal loggers off the coast of Port Klang.
  • And finally, along with better enforcement, I reiterate my support for the setting up of an environment court to speed up the process which can currently take up to years before any verdict is delivered.

Academic and research institutions as well as NGOs, on the other hand need to come up with more studies that help those who are fighting to protect forests to justify our arguments. For instance, the Selangor State Government funded an expedition into the Kota Damansara forest reserve. Conducted in cooperation between state agencies and NGOs, the expedition showed that there was abundant biodiversity, strengthening the case to protect Kota Damansara forest reserve for generations to come.

So when applications from highway concessionaires like DASH highway come in, we have a stronger argument as to why they should not be allowed to cut through the already small forest reserve. Likewise the SKIP highway which threatens the Air Hitam forest reserve. And of course, the massive KLORR, which wants to cut across the Ampang and Gombak forest reserves. According to the DEIA, almost 200 hectares of forest reserve will be lost to this project.

So these are just some of the challenges we face.

Above all, however, we need the public to take a more active role in ensuring forests are preserved. As with any other issue, a strong public voice is needed. People cannot sit back and expect politicians to take the lead and do the right thing all the time.

I’ll be frank, even within the Selangor EXCO, it can sometimes be a battle to protect the forests. Not every EXCO will agree on every single environmental initiative, especially if it comes at the expense of projects that are could be beneficial to the state or its people.

But if there is strong public outcry or resistance, strong protests and a lot of pressure on the government, be it us in Selangor or the Federal government, then politicians will have to react as they see the political cost.

On the flipside, if environmental initiatives such as those I highlighted earlier are carried out, we need the public to show its support loud and clear. This will push political parties on both sides to rethink their policies and attitude towards the environment and sustainable development. This is what the political process is all about.

There is hope for the future, as there are signs that environmental issues are becoming more important to Malaysians, especially in urban areas. Unfortunately it is still far from reaching the critical mass needed to stop a project as big as KLORR.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The importance of preserving our forests should already be clear and inarguable to most of us here today. I’m proud to say we have made great strides in the last four years. It wasn’t always easy, but few things worth fighting for are. There are still much to improve upon, and I’m an optimistic because as I previously highlighted, opportunities abound. Environmental awareness is on the rise, not the other way around. Opportunities for economic revenue from the preservation of forest reserves are now available. Selangor, I believe, is headed in the right direction.

At the same time, we need to be have a clear perspective of the reality that faces us. A majority of Malaysians, even in Selangor, still do not place as high a priority on the environment as we should. The value of forests remains something intangible, and mind sets will be hard to change.

I’m confident, however, that if all parties pull their weight, the federal government, the state governments, the local councils, the environmental NGOs, the resident associations and ordinary citizens, the opportunities far outweigh the challenges.

Thank you.

YB Elizabeth Wong
EXCO Tourism, Consumer Affairs & Environment
Selangor State Government
ADUN Bukit Lanjan

OFFICIAL LAUNCH OF FOREST WATCH PROJECT AND PUBLIC AWARENESS CAMPAIGN ON FOREST CONSERVATION IN MALAYSIA

Date: 1 February, 2012 (Wednesday)
Time: 10.00 am – 10.00 pm
Venue: Orange Concourse, Sunway Pyramid Shopping Center, Selangor

INTRODUCTION
The Public Awareness Campaign on Forest Conservation in Malaysia is organized in conjunction with the launch of Forest Watch Project, developed by Forest Governance Integrity (FGI) Project of Transparency International-Malaysia.

The Forest Watch Project is developed to involve the public to become eyes and ears of the forest by monitoring using Google Earth Geospatial Technology (satellite imagery, aeri al photography and GIS 3D globe) to assess forest cover and report irregularities through its new website www.timalaysia-forestwatch.org.my.

The Forest Governance Integrity (FGI) Project of Transparency International-Malaysia has been organizing capacity building programmes on Forest Monitoring Using Google Earth Geospatial Technology to enhance public participation in forest management and to promote environmental stewardship. This one-of-a-kind project is envisaged to enhance public awareness on forest conservation to promote exemplary forest governance. The project provides a platform for the general public and stakeholders to be involved in forest governance by monitoring and assessing forest cover.

The event aims to provide an avenue for environmental NGOs in the country to gather to showcase their efforts in forest and forest related activities, in addition to fostering and strengthening stakeholder networking including enhancing public participation in sustainable management of forests and related eco-systems.

OBJECTIVE
Enhance awareness on forestry and related issues.
Promote forest stewardship by training target audiences on the usage of technology to monitor forest cover, assess possible threats and contribute on-line reporting.
Ensure the success of Expert Monitoring Team formed to act as advisory and support unit to verify information and irregular activities encountered.
Enhance forest governance in Malaysia.
Build close network with environmental NGOs and the media for sustainability.

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