KUALA LUMPUR: Carolyn Lau and Lydia Lubon from the Free Tree Society (FTS) were getting a trio of first-time participants ready for a tree-planting session at Federal Hill, a hill behind the upscale Bangsar neighbourhood.
This is the first trail planting session for the non-governmental organisation (NGO) since the restriction on social activities in Kuala Lumpur was lifted on Mar 5.
Lau and Lubon placed some saplings in reusable bags, and the group set off. They were going to plant fruiting trees such as ficus and bachang, as well as Rangoon creeper which serves as a source of pollen and food source for animals.
Along the short trail created entirely by FTS members, Lau explained that trail planting is to help repopulate the area’s biodiversity.
"Previously, Bangsar and Federal Hill used to be hectares of rubber estate during colonial times, and even though the hill is now considered secondary forest, one can still find full-grown rubber trees and rubber saplings," she said on Mar 10.
The saplings were planted at different parts of the trail as Lau led the volunteers further in. The Rangoon creeper, the last to be planted, took some time as the group discovered household waste buried at the spot, presumably dumped by irresponsible parties in the past.
Vivitha Naidu, a volunteer who took part in the trail planting, found the experience rewarding and an educational one.
"It's not just about planting trees, but learning about our own country and the implications of clearing forests."
"You get to learn about biodiversity and our own tropical rainforests. It was an eye-opener for me. I only thought we only had one kind of palm - the oil palm, but I'm surprised to learn we had so many types of palm trees growing here," she said.
In the Klang Valley and across the country, organisations such as the FTS and private corporations are attempting to repopulate the land with native trees in an attempt to reforest and restore Malaysia’s biodiversity.
Usually, tree-planting events are done with public participation in an effort to get more saplings planted, as well as to spread the environmental message to the wider Malaysian public.
Although COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns since last year have put a damper on some of these public events, some efforts have managed to go on. With movement restrictions eased in most parts of the country, organisers are up and at it again with physical workshops and tree-planting sessions.
Despite last year’s lockdowns, FTS founder Baida Hercus said the NGO still managed to plant more than 400 native trees and other plants along the Pulai trail at Federal Hill.
While the land is government owned, FTS actively maintains the trail.
“One goal of the Pulai trail exercise is to help repopulate its biodiversity. The other is to make sure it becomes beloved by the community, as with another part of Kuala Lumpur where the community came together to protect their green space,” said Hercus.
“All (of the replanting) is aimed at supporting wildlife in the area, and eventually increasing biodiversity in what used to be a rubber estate and now a recovering jungle,” she said.
Not enough importance is given to secondary forests in urban areas, she continued, for potential rehabilitation and conservation.
“But they are important as carbon sinks and flood mitigators in cities like Kuala Lumpur, and as they are undervalued, they become very vulnerable to threats like unchecked development,” she said.
It was hoped, Hercus said, that by maintaining the trail and planting a diverse range of local plant species, more people would grow to appreciate such green spaces in the city.
“So far we've been seeing increased attention to the trail on neighbourhood Facebook pages with people from the surrounding community coming to walk the trail and participate in trail maintenance, which is very encouraging,” she added.
All in all, Hercus said, FTS has given away over 40,000 plants since they started in 2013.
For other corporations, the number of replanted trees are targeted in the millions.
For instance, Nestle Malaysia Berhad aims to replant 3 million trees in Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia by 2023 through its RELeaf Project which kicked off last September.
For Nestle Malaysia CEO Juan Aranols, this project has proceeded in sequence since October with field planting activities in Sabah’s Kinabatangan Wetlands and Merisuli in Lahad Datu.
The company’s replanting effort has also seen local Orang Asli communities living on the fringes of the Klang Valley being engaged for the reforestation project as well.
“By mid-2021, we aim to commence reforestation efforts along the peninsula’s Central Forest Spine, and the riparian (wetlands adjacent to rivers) and forest reserves around oil palm plantations,” said Aranols.
This RELeaf Project is an extension or an earlier, small-scale reforestation effort called “RiLeaf” which took place in the Kinabatangan River area.
These two efforts, Aranols said, would result in a total of 4 million trees being planted by the target year of 2023.
In Peninsular Malaysia, another environmental NGO, the Global Environment Centre also has tree-planting goals. Its spokesperson said that over the next two years, it was working with the various corporate social responsibility (CSR) arms of Malaysian and international corporations to plant over 100,000 trees.
At the same time, the effort would include fire prevention, rewetting (especially for degraded and dried-out peatland, which is a fire hazard), post-planting care and maintenance.
Although no specific trees were listed, GEC said the species selected for restoring the degraded forest and riverine areas are local ones which can tolerate hot and wet conditions and thrive in degraded areas.
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REPLANTING UNDER COVID-19
As Malaysia underwent its first and second lockdowns, traditional public outreach programmes such as tree planting and sapling or plant giveaways had to be reworked to comply with social distancing limits, or cancelled entirely.
In GEC’s case, tree-planting in 2021 was currently being done at a very small scale for select degraded mangrove and peatland sites.
“The tree planting is mainly conducted by trained local communities at the adjacent forest reserves, and not open for public participation due to COVID-19 and movement control rules,” GEC’s spokesperson said.
In addition, the NGO had prepped items such as personal protective equipment, comprising face mask, hand sanitiser, gloves and drinking water for the local community members taking part.
Planting time is limited to one hour, involving 10 to 20 people. In one session, 300 to 600 trees are planted.
For FTS, it pivoted online to continue its public outreach efforts, hosting online programmes and workshops on topics like composting, planting and gardening basics, and environment-themed talks.
“Our nurseries (at Bangsar and Taman Tugu) are actually rather full at the moment, but we can’t conduct mass giveaways because of the pandemic. Likewise, our usual hands-on environmental stewardship programmes have been impacted as well,” said Hercus.
Despite the lack of physical programmes, FTS’s employees and volunteers still tended to the new Pulai trail and the nurseries.
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And as of Mar 9, the NGO had restarted its physical workshops and trail plantings.
Meanwhile, Nestle's RELeaf project, which is still in its early phases, has been proceeding apace.
Nestle and its project partners are currently working with the local communities they have engaged to maximise seedling production, which will then feed into the reforestation effort.
“These activities are proceeding, and haven’t been much impacted by the movement restrictions,” Aranols, the CEO, said.
Although reforestation efforts are always encouraged, it is only one half of the equation for activists like Hercus.
“We need to emphasise that the best strategy for ensuring our forests’ survival is to stop logging and conserve the forest areas we have left,” she said.
While FTS was proud of its work in contributing towards replanting and rehabilitation, these were still actions taken after destruction had been wrought already. Hence, a lot of its programmes focus on knowledge sharing to prevent the loss of trees in the first place.
As with other NGOs last year, the economic downturn accompanying the pandemic meant funding was tight. In addition, Hercus had to manage donors’ expectations.
Sponsorship, she said, was often tied to donors’ wants.
“Having to navigate these kinds of issues is more commonplace as corporations are increasingly seeking to align themselves with environmental causes, while lacking the knowledge to create an effective environmental programme.”
“As such, we do our best to create the most impactful programme with receptive corporations or channel their funds into our existing programmes that are already effective in reaching the people and changing mindsets to build a greener Malaysian society,” Hercus explained.
Patience or instant gratification is also a factor NGOs have to navigate.
“There needs to be a better understanding of the time scale we’re working with when it comes to forests and trees. Forest replanting and rehabilitation are not quick work, as it takes decades for a forest to grow,” Hercus said.
Restoring a degraded forest can be challenging and complicated, the GEC said, as the effort involved a variety of ecological and social systems which were not always fully accounted for or understood.
Besides managing participation and knowledge transfer by and to the local community and stakeholders, replanting is also fraught with issues such as weather, fires, pests and regular maintenance.
However, more fundamental was the objective of reforestation itself.
“It’s not just a matter of tree species, but environmental ethics. Deciding what tree species to plant leads one back to the question of what is the reason for reforestation,” the GEC spokesperson said.
“More recently, we have seen large reforestation projects taking place under the Voluntary Carbon Market, where the purpose is to create large banks of carbon offsets.”
“The type of trees planted then become important in terms of which species absorb the most carbon and are the fastest growing species,” GEC added.