by Angela Hijjas
for The Malaysian Naturalist vol. 52 no. 3
For gardeners (and this is the MNS gardening column), the tropical rain forest presents an ideal of wild perfection whose luxuriant growth we try to emulate on our small plots. It provides the inspiration for the landscapes of our imagination, but without having seen a forest, how could we understand the potential of the material we work with? The height of towering trees, their natural spacing and the effect of irregular features like rocks and rivers feed the well spring of illumination for artists and poets trying to recreate something of this natural wonder in their own idiom. Where do we go for inspiration when the forests cease to exist? To the saw mill, it seems.
The erection of this appalling monument (ab0ve) commemorating the destruction of forests is cause for as much anguish as the actual cutting. As a nation, we seem yet to see reason for reflection or shame at the desolation we have wrought in the name of economic growth. The survival and prospering of our own species has become sacrosanct and the rights of non humans, either plant or animal, have obviously never been considered.
The location of the monument, at the very heart of our capital city, where we revere national traditions and history with great formality, fills me with despair. I have learned to overlook the periodic concrete stump that welcomes me to small towns on the edges of recently leveled forests, but I was naïve enough to think that city people were a bit different and never imagined that such alarming ethnocentric chauvinism would mushroom on the Padang. Just as KL was reaching city greatness with the hosting of world events, the concert hall and philharmonic orchestra, a growing network of public transport and walkable foot paths, we tripped ourselves up again. How can we possibly believe that a destroyed tree is something to celebrate?
Economic development must be financed by using resources, and forests are an important source of materials and revenue, but we must acknowledge that this is a necessary compromise, an unfortunate step that has to be taken because we have no other alternative. This monolith illustrates that we have forgotten that inherent compromise. The forest is something we should use and re-use over time, but instead its best fate in the minds of Malaysians is the sawmill. This enormous concrete tree commemorates conquest over a destroyed enemy, rather than a monument to a beloved friend who died, quite unnecessarily, in action.
The belief that we have the right to destroy and then commemorate harks back to a colonial mentality where conquest was all and the rights of the native amounted to nothing. The innate sense of superiority of the Englishman over the native was not questioned until writers like George Orwell in his book “Burmese Days” placed these constructs of colonialism in a different light. What right did a white man have to determine the lives of other races? Dickens broke the same ground in the previous century by questioning the class system that denied all rights to much of English society. Surely by now we should be questioning the rights that humanity has assumed with regard to its power over other species.
We will not diminish ourselves by realizing that we are a smaller part in the scheme of things than we previously imagined. In fact our human potential would be enhanced by adopting broader goals to allow society to sustain itself within its natural environment. Dickens and Orwell foresaw as untenable a society dependent on the conquest of the minority over the majority, so must we acknowledge that our human role must integrate the natural world and ensure its survival as intrinsic to our own.
Thus the news that Belum, one of our last great forests, was to be logged stirred great discomfort. Belum, in northern Perak, was isolated by the communist Emergency for decades and was first explored by the Malaysian Nature Society expeditions only in 1993. A beautiful book published by MNS records the research, but photographs can never convey the powerful presence of old forest growth. Hopefully the book may not be all that remains in a few years time. Signs have been posted in Sungei Halong, where the first MNS expedition surveyed the forest and found many new plant and insect species. It seemed that an area of possibly 2,000 hectares was to be logged, but now the State government of Perak has responded that it was only for a stock survey and that there is a chance that Belum will be turned into a State park. This will indeed be cause for commemoration.
Obviously every government has to make use of its forest resources, and it is hoped that they become more sensitive in their policies and enforcement. We are unsure how much of Belum will be reserved, and I am concerned that logging, if it has to take place in some other area, should aim to sustain the forest for future use. Timber could be extracted by helicopter, as has already been done in Sarawak in areas that even the earth movers could not access. It can be done and it is financially feasible. Do we merely hope that the state governments will ensure that forests will be allowed to regenerate without the damaging incursion of miles of erosion prone roads with impenetrably compacted soils? Or should we express our fears and hopes to the authorities?
We do not know whether it was the timely notification of the Kedah MNS branch who first found the logging notices in Sungai Halong and the subsequent letter campaign that erupted in just a week, that changed the course of events. Perhaps the government was already acting in the interests of conservation, and I salute the change in approach.
We must acknowledge the forest as a creation of the greatest power, and recognize that it is defenseless in the face of economic development, just as our currency was defenceless in the face of speculators. Rather than pose for photographs in front of fountains, write a letter to the Mentri Besar of Perak to thank him for the promise he made in the preface to the book on Belum for sustainable forest development and for his acting on that initiative. If we applaud his efforts maybe there will be less support for garden gnomes and more appreciation for the real thing.
Tan Sri Dato Seri Ramli bin Ngah Talib,
Jabatan Mentri Besar,