For decades, the presence of communist insurgents kept Malaysia’s northern frontier free from exploitation. Too dangerous to open up for tourism or development, the Belum-Temenggor forest stood in pristine splendour as the nation built superhighways and superstructures, and extracted timber from other forests.
Sprawling over 3,000 sqkm, the mostly intact primary rainforest is now a treasure trove of biodiversity. The main intrusion into this wilderness was the construction of the East-West Highway in 1975, a 124 km strip of tarmac stretching from Gerik to Jeli to reach Kelantan and the east coast.
Not until 1989 did insurgents cease activities, thus enabling logging to commence a few years later when the curfew was lifted. But the habitats remained healthy enough to sustain megafauna such as the Malayan tiger and Asian elephant, the entire menagerie of 10 Malaysian hornbills, special plants such as the large Rafflesia flower and ancient cycads, a range of monkeys and gibbons, as well as a number of orang asli communities.
The East-West Highway divides this enormous, but single, ecosystem into its two main parts: Belum Forest Reserve to the north and Temenggor Forest Reserve to the south.
A threat looms over the Belum and Temenggor forests – the Perak Government intends to cultivate a 4 km-wide swathe of acacia trees along the East-West Highway. If planted, this ecological commotion has by far the greatest potential to turn Belum-Temenggor into a fragmented landscape with dire consequences. Big animals require large spaces, so forest size is critical for wild mammals to retain breeding populations with sufficient pools of genetic diversity.
Statements from officials say that “new establishment of forest plantations [sic] must be outside permanent reserved forest” and that they “must also take into consideration the current concern for environment and biodiversity conservation.” Belum Forest Reserve is already slated for protection as part of the Royal Belum Park; whereas, some areas in the Temenggor Forest Reserve are under a cease logging directive from Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamad Tajol Rosli Ghazali that begins this year.
So far, Perak has revealed little about its acacia plantation plan. But there is little merit in considering plantations along the East-West Highway.
Acacia plantations are sterile monocultures: one tree type, unpalatable leaves, limited wildlife cover, and unsuitable habitat for most species. It is devoid of the type of biological life that exudes from rainforests. Let’s review two examples from Sumatra and Sarawak, where large-scale acacia plantations are mixed within protected area landscapes.
Paper mills in Sumatra demand wood supplies from both natural forests and plantations. Problems arise when acacia trees from plantations cannot provide enough logs to sustain mill requirements, putting pressure on natural forests. Acacia plantations and oil palm estates surround the Tesso Nilo National Park, part of the largest remaining area of lowland forest critical for tigers and elephants. Shrinking habitats cause elephants, which are not fond of acacia, to seek fruits and fresh leaves in other areas, such as village gardens and oil palm plantations.
In Sarawak, the government started developing 150,000 ha of acacia plantations in a Planted Forest Zone (PFZ) in 2003, in order to meet the raw material demands of pulp mills. The PFZ is a mosaic of planted trees, natural forests, riverine buffers and wildlife corridors, the latter two as conservation set-asides. Ecologically, researchers have found that the only animals foraging in acacia plantations are bearded pigs, a hardy species known to adapt to secondary growth in fragmented forests. Converting a complex tropical forest into a monoculture crop does not make sense.
Currently, the East-West Highway is just a scar dissecting a fairly intact ecosystem. But a 4 km-wide acacia plantation is essentially a clear-cut creating two distinct habitat halves unable to ecologically function as before due to its fragmented state.
Here are some of the possible consequences for Belum-Temenggor if the East-West Highway becomes a corridor for pulpwood:
• Loss of ecotourism potential: Today the chance still exists to see elephants and other wildlife while travelling the East-West Highway. Tomorrow, pulpwood lorries may cruise down the road like army ants on the march.
• Fragmentation folly: The acacia plantation will act as a barrier that prevents easy access across the highway, reduces cover that exposes animals to danger for too long and disturbs migratory patterns and territorial needs essential for finding scattered food resources and potential breeding partners.
• A plethora of pigs: Being the only animal found to forage in acacia plantations, pigs may dominate the highway zone landscape and become a nuisance for travellers who have to avoid their mass migrations and midnight crossings.
• Widening the conflict zone: Elephants and other animals are known to forage on agricultural crops and destroy cultivated fields. So far, it seems elephants stay out of acacia plantations but opening the East-West Highway to human presence will only increase the frequency of conflicts, especially in areas near to established animal trails.
If bearded pigs prefer acacia plantings, then will tigers move in to feast on one of their prey species? Then, will poachers move in to take advantage of the chance to bag an endangered species for big money on the black market?
• Expanding the paper trail: Despite huge acacia plantations, large paper mills in Indonesia continue to source wood from natural forests to keep up with production and debt payment demands. What if 40,000ha along the highway is not enough? Pressure to expand and illegal encroachment may constantly plague and over-ride conservation concerns to satisfy the pulp and paper industry.
The East-West highway is integral to the economic growth of Malaysia’s north zone. The Belum-Temenggor forest is integral to the biological diversity and environmental integrity of Malaysia’s natural resource base.
Malaysians must decide on whether the East-West Highway maintains its surroundings as a haven for nature or becomes a road that pushes the boundaries of capitalistic indulgence.
Excerpted from: “Choking our forest reserves”, Rick Gregory, http://thestar.com.my/lifestyle/story.asp?file=/2007/1/23/lifefocus/16591171&sec=lifefocus