Community residents protect Malaysia’s oldest forest reserve

by Lilei Chow

What enticed Jeffrey Phang to make Kota Damansara his home was its proximity to a green lung that could offer a place for recreation for his family.

Phang was bitterly disappointed when he learned that the forest was to be no more. In the ongoing drama, paved with pathos and politics that have characterised the history of the peninsula's oldest forest reserve, the land was earmarked under the Petaling Jaya Local Draft Plan 2 (RTPJ2) for further development.

Originally gazetted in 1898, just over 320ha of the 1,560ha of the Sungai Buloh Forest Reserve remains today. The rest has been degazetted and converted into commercial and residential development over the years.

Phang and other residents formed Friends of Kota Damansara (FOKD), a coalition of seven residents' associations in the area, to save the forest. Little did he know then that the exercise would eventually evolve into something greater than the cause: the building of a community.

After getting two grants from the Global Environmental Facility-Small Grants Programme (implemented by the United Nations Development Programme), FOKD approached the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) for technical expertise to establish the country's first urban community forest park. The first phase of the project involved an inventory survey, community mobilisation as well as public education activities such as bird watching and jungle trekking to draw nature lovers to the Kota Damansara Community Forest Park.


Home to prized and rare trees

MNS president Datuk Seri Dr Salleh Mohd Nor, who undertook the survey, says that despite being logged over, the forested area was still home to highly-prized trees such as the meranti-keruing as well as the rare Begonia aequelaterali, one of the most critically endangered of the 52 begonia species found in the peninsula and found only in Selangor.

Posted on YouTube by kdforest Jan. 19, 2008

Now that they know what's there, they are able to plan what to do with the resources. He says: "This forest is unique as it is really hard to find such rich biodiversity within a stone's throw away from our city." Most of the lowland forests have given way to rubber and oil palm plantations and the forest park is one of the few left in the peninsula.

Furthermore, the forest provides critical ecosystem services such as climate regulation and flood control. "Removing it as suggested by the RTPJ2 is irresponsible. There is only so much population that Petaling Jaya can sustain, beyond which its carrying capacity life will be degraded for all residents," Phang says.

But for FOKD, saving the forest has also been the catalyst that has allowed residents to look beyond narrow self-interest, to find common ground and to build capacity. "Most residents' associations are formed to tackle mostly security issues. Beyond that, getting residents to participate actively in community development is typically a challenge," he says.

But community development can grow from the belief that the community itself has or is able to develop solutions to the issues it faces. "Certainly, many of us who bought houses in Kota Damansara because of the forest, felt betrayed when it was later zoned for development. We not only want to be part of this fight, we want to lead it," says Phang.


The process is as important as the results

The "mamak shop sessions", which became the meeting point for the FOKD committee and interested residents, led to discussions, drawing up of plans, addressing teething problems and finding a balance between competing interests.

The community leaders have always tried to stress that the process is as important and meaningful as the results. "We recognise that our members cannot devote 100 per cent of their time to our activities, thus we practise a rotating leadership much like flying geese, where we are constantly encouraging others to take the lead," Phang explains.

"We have tried to be as inclusive as possible, to cater for the needs of different groups. People should be able to experience nature for themselves. Building broad-based support is vital to ensure the long-term success of our efforts. Our aim here is to build a critical mass of people that uses and cares for the forest."

Today, such groups include disabled persons, the Trails Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, the Hash House Harriers, students and the elderly, with facilities such as forest trails and camp sites accessible to all.

Phang believes that increased capacity can be judged in part by the focus of the residents today on what they can do for the community, rather than just complaining about what needs to be done. The residents are currently volunteering during the weekends to build a network of trails through the park using materials that they can marshal.

In the next phase of the project, funding will be used primarily to ensure that the park is re-gazetted and to kick off an extensive education and awareness programme with the four schools in the area. "We are also working with the present state government to push through the necessary legislation so that it is permanently maintained as a state park," Salleh says.


Residents need a voice in forest management

The project has developed a management plan for the forest which covers key conservation aspects and Phang believes this should now be augmented by a long-term framework for community decision-making and action. "The blueprint must be flexible enough to adapt to the evolving needs of the community. But what is equally important is that the residents should have a voice in the management of the park and that the forest is kept in its natural state," he stresses.

Phang points to a lack of transparency in land use planning, petty corruption and bureaucratic inertia as some of the main challenges they face, but feels that the community can play an important role in promoting representative institutions of governance and acting as citizen watchdogs. During the last general election, for example, FOKD initiated a green voters' drive as part of its awareness activities to help residents make informed choices about the policy positions of candidates on environmental issues.

FOKD wants to champion a tripartite partnership between the government, the private sector and the community. It hopes to be a first model for local resident expert groups to be involved in conservation of biodiversity in local parks and open spaces elsewhere in Malaysia, says Phang. Adds Salleh: "The community should have a say in what facilities are provided for in the park, the visitors' policy and what sort of activities should be carried out."

In a society that rewards short-term gains over long-term sustainability, the success of FOKD demonstrates the centrality of engaging capital on the side of conservation in our efforts to revitalise Local Agenda 21 (which provides a framework for implementing sustainable development at the local level) and improve the quality of life in our cities.

Harnessing community stewardship is never easy, but with the right leadership and with patience, it can ingrain in individuals the principles of shared responsibility and common purpose, two essential pillars of nation building.

Community-based accountability and inclusive governance are the way of the future. Ordinary citizens, if empowered, often know what is best for their lives and have the interest and ability to make it happen.

This story, originally entitled When a forest builds a community, appeared Feb. 15, 2009 in the New Straits Times. I thank Lilei Chow for sending it on to me. You can find more about the forest on its website, and on the website of the Malaysian Nature Society. For other stories, see Kota Damansara residents want to maintain the Sungai Buloh forest reserve as a green lung, by Tan Cheng Li, April 2003.


For other stories about forests, see:

Briquettes provide energy, let forests regenerate in Malawi

Click a day plants 16 million trees in Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forest

Abdul’s dream of restoring mangrove forest in Malaysia takes root in villages

Guerrilla tourism helps protect remote mountain forest in El Salvador

Madagascar plan to reduce deforestation achieves excellent results

Pioneering deal offers new hope for preserving tropical forests, global climate, local jobs

Re-establishing forest ecosystem in Uganda fights climate change

Reforesting desolate Colombian savannah shows sustainability can be created anywhere

Tanzanian blacksmiths pass on skills, creating jobs and saving forests

Tanzanian botanist honoured for reforestation efforts

Traditional Mexican coffee farms could help regenerate forest

World’s first solar cooker village helps cut deforestation in Somalia

Local forest mapping in Congo Basin may help villagers protect livelihoods


For more stories about individual and community action in environmental preservation, see:

Crocodile saves community: the Sepik management story

Grass handbags bring income to Vietnamese villagers while protecting crane habitat

Local materials, manpower cut riverbank erosion on Mekong river in Laos

How one man and a village created a world-recognized bird sanctuary in India

Poachers turn protectors in Cambodian grassroots tourism and conservation

Community-based management protects Mozambique coastal fishery today, tomorrow and forever

Mali's unique CultureBank finances local economy while preserving Dogon cultural heritage

Cooperation helps nomads fight desertification in Mauritania