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KG BUKIT BELIMBING VILLAGERS TURN INTO ECO WARRIORS TO RESTORE PEAT SWAMP FOREST

29/09/2023 11:46 AM
From Soon Li Wei

There is nothing like getting the local communities involved to ensure the success of conservation programmes to protect the nation’s wetlands and forests as well as its flora and fauna species.   

A case in point is Kampung Bukit Belimbing here where some of the villagers plant and tend saplings of seven species of peat swamp forest trees in a 0.1-hectare nursery for the purpose of replanting them in Hutan Simpan Raja Musa (HSRM), a peat swamp forest located about 12 kilometres from the village.

(The 35,656-ha HSRM is part of the North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest [HPGSU] located in the northwest of Selangor. HPGSU comprises four forest reserves – HSRM, Hutan Simpan Sungai Karang [37,416 ha], Hutan Simpan Bukit Belata [Extension] [4,342 ha] and Hutan Simpan Sungai Dusun [5,091 ha]). 

The nursery now has 3,000 saplings growing there and has enough space to accommodate 11,000 to 12,000 plants.


The nursery now has 3,000 saplings growing there and has enough space to accommodate 11,000 to 12,000 plants.

Nursery coordinator Nordin Bardan, 65, a retired teacher and resident of Kampung Bukit Belimbing, said he has been taking care of it since 2012 when he was still teaching, adding that non-governmental organisation Global Environment Centre (GEC), corporations and nearby schools stepped in later to do their bit as well.

Nordin, who is a member of Friends of North Selangor Peat Forest, has been giving the nursery his undivided attention following his retirement five years ago.

“Among the species we have planted here are Tenggek BurungPulaiMahang and Alstonia. Most of the saplings are supplied by GEC,” he said, adding that once they attain a height of between 15 and 20 centimetres, about 10 percent of them are utilised for replanting activities at HPGSU while some are given to the nearby schools.

Nordin said fruit trees such as kerdas and jering as well as petai have also been planted in the nursery for the consumption of the villagers.  

On July 11, a group of journalists participated in a tree-planting programme at HSRM. About 100 saplings from the Kampung Bukit Belimbing nursery were transferred to the forest reserve for the one-day programme which was a part of the Community Peer Learning Forum and study tour of peat swamp forests in north Selangor organised by GEC and Yayasan Petronas, the social impact arm of national oil and gas company Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas).

 

UNIQUE ECOSYSTEM

At the event, the journalists had a first-hand look at how the local community joined forces to rehabilitate the degraded portions of HSRM.

As soon as they arrived at the peat forest – their first visit to such a forest – they were each given a pair of boots to wear as the soil is usually waterlogged in such areas. In fact, this writer felt she was stepping on a sponge soaked with water when she set foot in the forest.

Peat swamp forests occur in waterlogged areas where acidic clay soils create anaerobic conditions that prevent dead leaves and wood from decomposing fully.

Due to their unique ecosystem and hydrology, these forests provide a critical buffer against flooding during the wet season and insurance against drought in the dry season.

They also help to mitigate climate change as natural peatlands store enormous amounts of carbon.    


The participants of the Community Peer Learning Forum and study tour of peat swamp forests in north Selangor

According to GEC director Faizal Parish, peat swamp forests are being “sacrificed” to make way for development, agricultural or illegal farming activities, resulting in the discharge of water from what used to be natural flood-control zones.

"It is not possible for the government alone to conserve and protect the forest reserves and prevent untoward incidents like forest fires, encroachment and illegal logging. NGOs and the local communities must also be involved in conservation activities,” he said, adding that peat swamp forests must be protected all the more now due to the changes in the weather brought about by climate change. 

"We work at empowering local communities to become forest stewards who not only help patrol the area but also rehabilitate degraded areas as well.” 

Pointing to the former oil palm plantations that surrounded HSRM, he said the management of oil palm planted on peat soil can be problematic as their root systems are not able to anchor firmly in the soil, causing the trees to tumble over.  

“This is why it is important to study the soil structure of an area first before carrying out any agricultural activity,” added Parish, who is also a peat swamp forest expert.

 

PLANT TREES CONTINUOUSLY

Meanwhile, GEC forest and coastal programme manager Nagarajan Rengasamy said GEC and the Selangor Forestry Department have mobilised over 25,000 volunteers since 2008 to participate in tree-planting campaigns at HSRM. So far, more than 300,000 saplings have been planted on 350 ha of degraded forest area.

He said the objectives of the tree-planting initiatives include reducing the incidence of haze caused by peat forest fires, lowering the earth’s temperature and reforesting the degraded parts of the peat swamp forest.   

He said even though some people view planting a tree as a small gesture, when done continuously it can have a significant impact on life, especially in a world that is experiencing climate change due to human actions.

“We often overlook the conservation of peat swamp forests despite knowing their importance and functions. We hope through our (tree-planting) initiatives, more people will become aware of how crucial peat swamp forests are to us and take proactive steps to support the protection and restoration of these forests,” he added.

Elaborating on their unique wetland ecosystem, Parish said peat swamp forests are also the natural habitats of various types of fauna including some endangered species.

“Apart from being rich in biodiversity, peatlands constitute the most important carbon stores in this region. Despite covering only three percent of the earth’s total surface, peatlands are responsible for absorbing five times more carbon dioxide compared to other tropical forests.


Participants took part in a tree-planting programme organised by Yayasan Petronas and Global Environmental Centre at Hutan Simpan Raja Musa

“Besides playing a crucial role in climate regulation, they are also a source of livelihood for the local community,” he said, adding that peat soil can also be eaten.

“It’s safe to eat. It tastes sour due to its high acidity which keeps the soil free from bacteria. It is also rich in fibre and very beneficial for human health.”

Yayasan Petronas chief executive officer Shariah Nelly Francis, meanwhile, said the tree-planting programme at HSRM was part of its #Walk4Trees Challenge campaign, adding that such initiatives must include the local communities as they are more knowledgeable and experienced in the field of agriculture.

“Tree planting is not just about planting and generating carbon credits, it’s also about engaging with the local communities and NGOs to nurture and restore trees in the long term in order to achieve the goal of greening our planet and addressing the problems caused by climate change,” she said.

Pointing to Friends of North Selangor Peat Forest, Shariah said a lot can be learned from them and that she was personally amazed when they shared their experience of how they evolved to become champions of nature.

“Their dedication and willingness to take on the role of protecting the forest make them the true unsung heroes of nature,” she added.

 

Translated by Rema Nambiar

 


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