By Raman Letchumanan

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia-If we were to drive up north from Kuala Lumpur, about 2 hours later, we would be greeted by an awful sight of limestone hills being defaced and scarred with quarrying activities. One would get a nightmarish feeling of having literally driven into a limestone hill and buried deep in rocks and debris.

Welcome to Ipoh, the capital city of Perak!

If we were to drive on further, about half an hour later, we could be greeted by another awful sight of a once beautiful green undulating lush forest stripped bare and the hills mowed down. This will become a reality within this year, if a supposedly innovative “deforest-reforest” scheme for the Kledang Saiong Forest Reserve is implemented.

Welcome to the famous royal town of Kuala Kangsar!

The Department of Environment (DOE) released last Dec 28 for public feedback, a draft Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA) for the proposed forest plantation on 4,280 hectares (about 6,000 football fields) within the Kledang Saiong Forest Reserve (KSFR). 
The primary purpose of this project is “to ensure adequate and continuous supply of timber for the local and overseas wood-based industry”. Yet, the EIA claims there will be substantive environmental enhancement and socio-economic benefits compared to the KSFR being left unexploited!

In all my 35 years of working on environmental issues, as a senior official in Malaysia and in ASEAN, this is one scheme we would not advocate, at least not on a hilly forested area. 
It is foolhardy to think that humans could replace centuries’ old naturally formed forest, landscape, and ecosystem with a better man-made forest ecosystem in about 10-50 years, while continuously harvesting it for timber.

But to be fair, let’s look at the key facts of the proposal first, based on publicly released information.

Bare ground truth

This KSFR Project was offered to four private companies (proponents), all having the same registered/business address. The SSM records of these companies are available at the EIA Report website.

Records show that upon application by the proponents, the Perak Government approved in April 2022 the change of an earlier approval from “Projek Pemuliharaan Hutan” to “Projek Pembangunan Ladang Hutan”. 
Essentially the change is from existing forest rehabilitation efforts to development of forest plantation. The Perak Forestry Department conveyed the approval to the proponents in May 2022, with a set of conditions including an approved EIA, before the project can commence.  

The Project involves clear-felling of existing forest and full clearing of all vegetation for the development and operation of forest plantation for 50 years. 
Three fast growing forest species will be planted and harvested for timber every 5 to 12 year cycle (life span of the trees). The proponents are required to hand over the land fully forested at the end of the concession period.

That means the hilly land will be continuously cleared, turned over, planted and harvested throughout the 50-year concession period.  This will involve extensive earthworks and terracing of slopes up to 35 degrees, which apparently the Forestry Department approved despite other competent agencies setting it at below 25 degrees.

Yet, the EIA report concludes there will be no significant impact on all key parameters, such as soil loss and sedimentation, water quality, air quality, ecology, and environmental integrity if its proposed environmental management plan is fully implemented. The EIA recommends that the project be approved for implementation.

As a responsible concerned citizen, I will be submitting my feedback to this EIA Report. However, my intention here is not to focus on the EIA technicality, but look from a broader perspective and explore some basic questions. The EIA process, though legally mandated, seems to be a red herring goading us to miss the forest for the timber.

Fatal blow to the heart

For this purpose, I have overlaid the project boundary over the latest google earth satellite map of the area (see main picture above). A picture is worth a thousand words.

Like the Klang Valley in Selangor, the Kinta Valley is the most urbanized and fastest developing region in Perak. The KSFR lies smack at its core supporting human and economic development around its periphery and beyond. 
This is an ideal example of mutual co-existence where the KSFR provides essential environmental services to sustain human activities. But this project may destroy that very life sustaining natural ecosystem, despite assurance given by the EIA report.

The Gunung Inas deadly mud/debris floods last July, and the Batang Kali landslide tragedy last December are very recent testimony of the folly of developing KSFR. 
In the Gunung Inas case, an EIA was approved for a forest/rubber/durian plantation initiative with all the safeguards promised, yet devastating floods caused extensive life and property damage. 
Now the chief ministers and government agencies are blaming each other for the fiasco. A recent Malaysiakini visual/data report showed the area is seemingly abandoned, primed for even more disasters.  

There are many eco-parks, recreational facilities, and settlements at the foothills of KSFR which may suffer the same fate as the Batang Kali tragedy. Cutting into natural contours, terracing and loosening the earth on slopes up to 35 degrees is the perfect disaster waiting to happen.

Another recent Malaysiakini report reported that farmers in the Kinta Valley faced severe water shortage during the dry period from Jan-Mar 2020. KSFR acts as a huge natural reservoir for the Kinta Valley, soaking up water during wet season and releasing it during the dry season. This project will only make it worse, and the whole region will be deprived of clean air, clean water and clean land.

Well, I don’t have to conduct a primary school education on the importance of nature and environment here. But I just hope the authorities, proponents and qualified EIA experts don’t assume they can debase and conquer nature through their EIA environmental management plan.

“Halt and review hillside projects”

In the aftermath of the Batang Kali tragedy, our Yang di-Pertuan Agong has decreed that hillside projects should be carefully studied and monitored since excessive development can invite natural disasters. 
His Majesty cautioned “Enough is enough. I have said it before and I am saying it now. Although there is approval, such projects must be reviewed. If not, this area will become barren ground and there won’t be any green areas, jungles or hills anymore”. He further called for a review of all such projects even though it is approved.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim owes his prime minister post to the voters in this region. During campaigning, he would have witnessed many issues regarding farming, settlements, and other land issues. 
He has to act immediately to address this major issue which will only compound existing issues. Corruption and abuse of power is not only about money which can be earned, but also safeguarding our irreplaceable natural treasure.

What due diligence have the state authorities conducted before they approved the request by the proponents to change from rehabilitation activities to forest plantation?  
They shouldn’t put the cart before the horse by approving it first, and then conducting an EIA to justify their decision. In fact KSFR needs rehabilitation and recovery, not an artificial transplant which nature itself will reject with fury.

KSFR, our natural heritage, should not be put in the hands of a private limited company. The few shareholders will reap monetary benefit from our public good, but escape personal liability. 
What happens if after clearing the forests, the company goes bust? And the state government even trusts them for 50 years to hand back the concession fully forested.

If these companies have the know-how and capability, why don’t they venture into many other abandoned lands, or even offer to establish forest plantations at Gunung Inas.  

As His Majesty has decreed, I hope the new unity government will review this project approved by the previous regime. They should avoid secret deals involving projects of public interest affecting the people. 
If not for the EIA legal requirement, the public would not have known of this project, until one drives to Kuala Kangsar and is greeted by a vast barren hill.

My former minister for the environment, the late Datuk Law Hieng Ding used to say, “when westerners see a wild animal they will think of saving and protecting it, but when Malaysians see it they will think of cooking it”. 
Now even lush green forests cannot escape their plundering gaze.

Welcome to Malaysia’s tragedy of the commons!

Note. It is worth recalling my articles in an attempt to save the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve in Selangor where similar concerns were raised:

1.Forest reserve flip-flop opens up can of worms

2.Kuala Langat Forest: Seek court injunction now

3.Designate Kuala Langat forest as national park

*Raman Letchumanan is a former senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, a former director at the Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, and a former head of environment/disaster management at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta.*