The devastating effects of rapid and uncontrolled deforestation can be reversed, but only if we start now.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, tropical rainforests are home to the greatest diversity of living organisms on earth. Rainforests thrive in every continent except for Antarctica, and the Southeast Asian rainforests are believed to be the oldest and most biologically diverse in the world.
The rich biodiversity of rainforests is crucial for regulating the climate, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, maintaining the overall ecosystem, and is a vital source of food, shelter and medicine for the wildlife and communities that rely on it. Unfortunately, these forests are fast depleting.
Malaysia recorded the world’s highest rate of forest loss between 2000 and 2012, amounting to 14.4% of its rainforests or 42,278 square kilometers – an area larger than Denmark! The loss was largely due to activities such as illegal logging, removal of forest products and encroachment of forest areas to make room for agriculture and urbanisation.
The depletion of forests do not only affect the local communities and ecosystem, but have more far-reaching and long-term effects such as global warming, climate change and the extinction of animal species.
In December 2021, Malaysians were harshly reminded of the impact of climate change and global warming, when Selangor – the country’s most densely populated and wealthiest state – was hit by its worst flood on record, which resulted in the loss of 54 lives, and the displacement of 70,000 people.
The decline of the Kinabatangan region
According to the Centre of International Forestry Research (CIFOR), in East Malaysia alone, about 2.29 million hectares of forests were cleared between 2000 to 2017, of which 1.85 million hectares were converted to plantations.
One of the last remaining forest-covered floodplains in Southeast Asia, the Kinabatangan in Sabah acts as a wildlife corridor, enabling animals to move from the upland forest, where the primary forests are located, down to the coastal mangroves.
This region is a biodiversity hotspot, and home to a variety of native wildlife species such as the Borneo pygmy elephant, orangutan, sun bear, and clouded leopard. The forests and trees along the Kinabatangan River play a key role in filtering silt and sediment so its water is safe for local communities to consume. Water treatment plants also channel water from the river to homes across Eastern Sabah.
Sadly, the river has deteriorated over the years as a result of uncontrolled human activity, which has a devastating impact on its surrounding marine life, wildlife, and communities who depend on the river for sustenance.
One of the most heart-breaking losses has been in the local orangutan population, which has diminished drastically in the last few decades; from more than 4,000 in the 1960s, to 1,124 in 2001, to less than 800 today.
“The Kinabatangan River was once a clearwater river, but over the years it has turned a ‘teh-tarik’ brown colour, due to the silt and sedimentation from decades of commercial conventional logging. The quality of the water has deteriorated over time, making it unsuitable for human consumption, and for the wildlife and marine life which rely on the river for food and shelter,” says Mark Louis Benedict, Project Manager for Restore Our Amazing Rainforest (ROAR), a forest conservation effort by Animal Projects & Environmental Education (APE Malaysia).
“We can no longer ignore the impact of climate change. Before, we could predict the monsoon and dry seasons, but in the past few years the dry spells have become much longer and hotter, and the rainy seasons persist for weeks. These changing weather patterns cause massive disruptions to the livelihoods of fishermen, farmers, and even tourist operators,” explains Mark, who has been involved in conservation projects in this region for over 20 years.
Restoring the rainforest
Planting trees is more than just a feel-good corporate social responsibility (CSR) exercise; it presents real and tangible benefits to the ecosystem.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1000 mature trees can sequester as much as 22,600 kg of carbon per year, or offset over 1,100km of carbon footprint produced by a medium petrol car.
This was one of the many reasons APE Malaysia spearheaded the ROAR initiative in 2020. APE Malaysia has been involved in supporting wildlife conservation and animal welfare since 2006, and since 2009 the social enterprise has been leading reforestation efforts on several sites along the Kinabatangan River. A majority of the reforestation sites are former logging and stumping points, abandoned and alienated lands, or former agricultural land.
“When we started, we were focused on reconnecting the fragmented forests in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary through volunteer programmes. In 2020, ROAR took this a step further by enabling the general public to sponsor tree saplings online in support of the reforestation at Kinabatangan,” says Mark.
And it's not only the flora and fauna that are benefiting from reforestation; human beings are benefiting too. Mark elaborates, “We create income opportunities for the local Orang Sungai communities in ways that don't damage the environment. We purchase tree saplings for the initiative from local family tree nurseries, and rely on their expertise when planting and maintaining the saplings. We also engage local boatmen to ferry us and the saplings to reforestation sites.”
Don't despair, act
Medical and healthcare communications agency Bridges M&C recently launched the Bridges Plants Trees campaign in support of APE Malaysia's ROAR initiative. As well as sponsoring 50 trees, Bridges M&C has pledged to sponsor an additional tree for every 10 trees sponsored throughout the campaign. Every tree sponsored through the campaign will be maintained for three years to increase its chances of survival.
The agency's Founder and Regional Account Director Nanny Eliana has been gradually adopting eco-friendly practices over the last eight years, although she has never considered herself an environmentalist.
She explains,“I'm not a slave to online shopping, and I've never wanted to own a car, so it has never felt like I'm making huge sacrifices; I just have to remember to do my bit. It started with recycling plastics and paper. Then I switched to recyclable bags for my weekly grocery shopping."
"My husband and I consume plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and I was tired of seeing them go to waste when we were too busy or tired to cook or prepare them, so this year I began composting. After a while, I thought about the possibility of spearheading a conservation project involving my team at Bridges M&C," she adds.
Nanny was surprised at how excited her colleagues were with the idea of reforestation as the central theme for Bridges M&C's CSR campaign this year. “Many of them sponsored their own trees and rallied their friends and family to contribute to the campaign on their own accord. If my own team could feel strongly about the campaign and contribute to it, I'm confident we could mobilise more everyday people to contribute to cause.”
“I’m a realist in that I think individuals and non-government and non-profit organisations (NGOs and NPOs) can only do so much, and governments and large corporations must play their part in instituting the infrastructure and policies to conserve natural resources and reduce pollution in tangible ways."
"But I think the reason I do what I do, is that I refuse give in to despair. It's depressing watching the news of animals being torched alive in wildfires and industrial waste being pumped into what used to be life-giving rivers. And for me, sitting around and waiting for others to do something feeds into despair. I'd much rather get boots and shovels on the ground, and keep hope alive."
In less than two months since its launch on 14 July 2022, the Bridges Plants Trees campaign has raised sponsorship for the planting and maintenance of more than 300 trees.
Begin the healing
And there is much to be hopeful for. According to research done in tropical forests in North and South America and West Africa, it takes less than 10 years to recover soil fertility, less than 25 years to restore plant functioning and 60 years for species diversity.
Encouraging biodiversity through reforestation can increase our chances of discovering new medicines, and preserve the lifeblood of medicinal botany. Some 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide today are derived directly from plants found in rainforests, while more than two-thirds of all medicines that have been found to have cancer-fighting properties came from rainforest plants, according to the National Cancer Institute in the United States.
Unfortunately, with a climate that is changing more rapidly than many forests can adapt to, human beings must intervene to kick-start the recovery and regeneration process.
Mark explains, “Once development takes place in a forest, it's very difficult for it to regenerate on its own. For example, mechanised timber harvesting requires heavy machinery and human beings to traverse in and out of the forest. Over time, the topmost layer of soil becomes more and more compacted and stripped off its nutrients, which drastically reduces the likelihood of seeds germinating successfully on their own.”
“The only viable solution is for human beings to intervene. In encouraging the return of wildlife to an area through reforestation, we are restoring the natural ecosystem and encouraging nature to become self-sufficient again.”
Since the start of APE’s reforestation efforts in 2009, over 50,000 trees with a 75% to 85% survival rate have been planted across 16 hectares of rainforest. In some of its earlier restored sites, the trees have grown to a height of seven meters, and orangutans, pygmy elephants, deer, hornbills, reptiles, and birds, have been spotted in these areas.
“In 2016, we spotted a female orangutan and her infant nesting on a tree we had planted six or seven years before. This was a clear sign for me in all these years of doing this work, that we are doing the right thing, and we should continue to do it,” shares Mark.
To play a part in restoring the rainforests, visit www.bridgesplantstrees.com