Win for Malaysian forest after government backs down on development plan

©Mongabay

Activists in Malaysia are celebrating an unprecedented U-turn by the Selangor state government after it cancelled plans last week to develop the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve.

The forest reserve is mostly peat swamp and a habitat for rare species such as the Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) and Selangor pygmy flying squirrel (Petaurillus kinlochii). Fifty-four percent of the forest was degazetted by the Selangor state government in May. The area, 536.7 hectares (1,326.2 acres) in total, was earmarked for a mixed development, with 494.7 hectares (1,222.4 acres) promised to private company Gabungan Indah Sdn. Bhd., which planned to develop much of the land into permanent housing.

The degazettement caused an outcry from citizens and lawmakers alike as Selangor’s ruling party, the national opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan, had campaigned on a reforestation and conservation manifesto.

The forest reserve, much of which the government had planned to develop into permanent housing area, is mostly peat swamp and a habitat for rare species such as the Malayan sun bear and Selangor pygmy flying squirrel. Image by Rosli Omar.

The controversy has caused widespread criticism from within Pakatan Harapan as the Selangor state legislature had voted unanimously against the proposal to degazette the forest reserve last year, issuing a statement that urged Selangor’s Executive Council to protect and preserve forest reserves. However, the Executive Council, made up of the state’s chief minister (the equivalent of a governor) and some members of the legislature, chose to move ahead with the development plans.

The public was informed on Aug. 30, but on Sept. 8, after a week of protests from citizens and lawmakers alike, the Selangor government cancelled the development and regazetted the forest reserve, saying, “The state government will stop its plan to develop the area and will cancel the move to give ownership of the land to the company involved.”

Some of the forests in Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve are up to 8,000 years old, but have suffered dramatically at the hands of deforestation. A total of 7,246.96 hectares (17,907.6 acres) was gazetted as a permanent forest reserve in 1927, but today only 957.6 hectares (2,366.3 acres), or just 13%, remain.

Some of the forests in Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve are up to 8,000 years old, but have suffered dramatically at the hands of deforestation. Image by Rosli Omar.

Unlike in the rest of Malaysia, Selangor mandates public hearings for any plan to degazette forest reserves, which has allowed this proposal to be publicly scrutinized and criticized. Following the successful fight to protect this forest reserve, Selangor lawmaker Elizabeth Wong has proposed this legal provision to hold public hearings be included in the National Forestry Act “in order to further protect forests in the country, which are increasingly vulnerable to development and economic activities,” she told Malaysiakini.

While the majority of the 536.7 hectares will be regazetted as permanent forest reserve, the Selangor government has said that 42.1 hectares (104 acres) will be given to the Indigenous village of Busut Baru as compensation for displacing the tribe in 1993. The ethnic Temuan community was forced to leave its ancestral home in Sepang to make way for the construction of Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The villagers were relocated to the Kuala Langat forest and promised 404.7 hectares (1,000 acres) of land as compensation, but almost 30 years on, the tribe is yet to receive the full amount pledged.

Banner image: Samsul Senin, a local Indigenous man and Chairperson of the Village Development Council of Kampung Busut Baru, in the forest. Image by Rosli Omar.

This article was originally published on Mongabay