A dire need for stronger protection of the Greater Ulu Muda Forests
The Ulu Muda Forest Reserve and surrounding forest reserves (referred to as the Greater Ulu Muda forests hereinafter), with a total area of more than 163,000 hectares is the water catchment area for three man-made dams namely Muda, Pedu and Ahning and forms the headwaters for the Muda and Kedah rivers. It supplies 96.5% of Kedah’s and 80% of Penang’s treated water. The water resources from these forests not only engines the growth of the electronics, heavy industry and tourism sectors in Kedah and Penang – attracting nearly RM32 billion in total investments for the Kulim Hi-Tech Park and creating more than 30,000 high-income jobs – but also enables the rice fields of the Kedah and southern Perlis coastal plains to practice double cropping, contributing to about one third of the nation’s rice production and a source of livelihood for 55,000 families. It is thus a water catchment forest which is of national significance.
Apart from being extremely important for its vital role in provisioning water and other ecosystem services, the Greater Ulu Muda forest harbours important wildlife and biodiversity. This has been recognized as early as 1968, where the area was proposed as a protected area in the 1968 Wildlife Commission of Malaya report. Currently, it is home to many rare and endemic flora and fauna, endangered species including the Asian elephant, Malayan tapir, Malayan sun bear, Serow and over 300 species of birds. It is one of the only two areas in Malaysia where all 10 species of hornbills in Malaysia are found including the rare and endangered Plain-pouched hornbill.
However, the recent discovery of poaching activities by Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) casts a doubt on whether these forests will remain as a wildlife refuge. It is clear that poaching and encroachment activities are present in the area. Based on studies elsewhere (Laurance et al., 2006 & Rayan 2012), poaching can be facilitated by easy access into the forests via roads, including logging roads, and this needs to be curbed by immediate attention and intensifying enforcement effort. Failure in doing so can lead to the localized extinction of many rare and endemic species in the future, loss of wildlife based eco-tourism and ultimately may result in disrupting the whole balance of the ecosystem services these forests provide in the long run.
By virtue of being the catchment for the three dams, the Greater Ulu Muda forests are an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA). A large portion of these forests are classified as ESA Rank 1 in the National Physical Plan-3, where no logging or agriculture is allowed. Recognizing the ecotourism potential of the Ulu Muda forests, the National Ecotourism Plan 2016 has identified Ulu Muda as a priority ecotourism cluster.
Allowing activities such as logging or other extractive activities can have a detrimental effect on the water resources from the Greater Ulu Muda forests and the ecotourism potential. The need to conserve Ulu Muda forests and protect it from logging was recognized as early as 2003, when the Federal government banned the proposal to extract logs from Ulu Muda forests. However, it is sad to note that until today a large proportion of the Greater Ulu Muda forests are not totally protected, meaning logging is allowed.
We fully understand that logging and other extractive activities generate revenue for the state, however the importance of these forests warrant full protection. In shifting towards green growth, the 11th Malaysia Plan identifies forests as the nation’s natural capital due to the ecosystem services they provide. Sustainable financing mechanisms including Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) has been identified as the way forward in order to earn revenue from ecosystem services that the forests provide, while safeguarding natural forests.
We cannot deny that many parties have a responsibility to ensure the protection of the Greater Ulu Muda forests and we call on these parties to work together and play an active role. We call on the state government as the custodian of the forests to:-
- Immediately cease giving out new licenses or renewing existing licenses for logging or any other activity that can negatively affect the ecosystem functions of the forests.
- Gazette the entire 163,000 ha of the Greater Ulu Muda forests as a State Park. While we welcome Kedah state government’s intention to gazette some parts of the Ulu Muda forests as a State Park, we call on the state government to gazette the entire 163,000 ha of the Greater Ulu Muda forests due to its importance. A roadmap for the gazettement with timelines should be formulated without delay. This move would not only afford better protection to the Greater Ulu Muda forests but Kedah will also be contributing towards the nation’s commitment to conserving 17% of terrestrial area as protected area under the Aichi Targets 2020.
- Shift the focus to sustainable financing mechanisms such as PES and ecotourism to generate income for the state from these forests.
- Assist Kedah in finding the right mechanism to protect the Greater Ulu Muda forests while allowing the state to generate income from the ecosystem services these forests provide.
- Establish an Ulu Muda Trust Fund to manage the funds for the conservation and management of Greater Ulu Muda. Members of the trust fund should comprise of Federal and State agencies, as well as representatives from the private sector, research institutions and civil society to ensure that the trust fund is effectively used for the protection of the Greater Ulu Muda forests.
The Greater Ulu Muda forests are not just home to an amazing variety of plants and wildlife, it is a source of life for many people who may not even be aware of their dependence on it. These forests are important carbon sinks that not only trap carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and control global warming, but also give us oxygen (O2). Thousands of people in all three states of Kedah, Penang and Perlis depend on these forests for their livelihood. Production of our staple diet - rice - depends on these forests. Water that is piped to hundreds of thousands of households and businesses originates from these forests. If Malaysia aims to become a green economy and achieve green growth, it needs to stop destruction of our green lungs and action needs to start now. Delaying the protection of the Greater Ulu Muda forests can not only impact the economy and livelihoods but also threaten our water and food security in the long term – the very things we are striving to strengthen as a nation.
- Ends -
Note: This letter is signed by the following organizations (in alphabetical order)
- Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP)
- Earth Lodge
- Malaysian Nature Society Kedah Branch
- Malaysian Nature Society Langkawi Branch
- Malaysian Nature Society Penang Branch
- Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (PEKA)
- Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM)
- Treat Every Environment Special (TrEES)
Peninsular Malaysia Terrestrial Conservation (PMTC) Programme
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