In Fight for Malaysian Forest, Can Activists Replicate a Win?
TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Community conservationists in Selangor are working to save the Shah Alam forest from planned development by showcasing its threatened biodiversity, disproving government claims and building support. Can they repeat an earlier victory by other forest defenders?
Early one Saturday morning in November, a team of six conservationists set out from a restaurant in Shah Alam, the capital city of Malaysia’s Selangor State, and headed for the forest. The team included a reptiles researcher, a topographer and two consultants assisting with setting up camera traps, which photograph wild animals that trigger a motion sensor. There were also two members of the Shah Alam Community Forest Society, which had brought the team together to map and survey the terrain and biodiversity of the rainforest.
The Shah Alam Community Forest is a rare green space in highly developed Selangor. The forest is home to flowering and semi-evergreen trees, and endangered animals. It forms a crucial potential wildlife corridor between the Bukit Cherakah Forest Reserve to the north and the Shah Alam National Botanical Garden to the south. While visitors regularly hike its trails, the Shah Alam forest ecosystem is largely undisturbed by human activity.
However, this may soon change. Surveys by the SACF Society show the biodiverse forest is threatened by the surrounding urban landscape. It lies in the centre of Shah Alam, a short walk from several busy streets and dense rows of restaurants and retail outlets. Beside the forest’s entrance, rows of identical white houses that make up a development called Setia Eco-Park are under construction.
As the conservation team enter the forest, the drone of construction follows them. The noise is still present 10 minutes later when they spot a dusky leaf monkey carrying its baby high in the treetops. They stop to take photos, but the endangered primate is skittish and moves deeper into the forest. Farther down in the canopy, a group of long-tailed macaques, a vulnerable species, sit on a tree beside the trail. They are nonplussed as they watch their human cousins take photos and videos of them.
An adult and baby long-tailed macaque perched in the trees of Shah Alam Community Forest in Malaysia’s Selangor State in November 2021. Deborah Germaine Augustin
Deeper into the forest, the sounds of construction and the humid heat of the city fade away completely. This is one of the things Alicia Teoh, the society’s secretary, loves about visiting: “You can actually hear the forest come alive.” By day, Teoh works at a church, but her work with the SACF Society, which she calls a group of “ordinary folks”, has given her a fount of knowledge about the forest.
Later, she stops to point out the warble of gibbons. According to Teoh, this forest lies not far from where scientists first observed white-handed gibbons, which are now endangered. These gibbons are among nearly 300 animal species living in the 174-hectare urban forest, of which the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists more than 30 as threatened, vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.
Teoh considers herself privileged to have joined several of the conservation group’s forest surveys. “We got to learn about the different species. We learn how to spot wildlife,” she says. “That’s really enriching.”
During this particular outing, the team set up two new camera traps, adding to the four they had set up previously. Within the first six days of “camera soaking”, the original four cameras captured a large Indian civet, a slow loris, a mouse deer, a Malayan porcupine and a wild pig.
Steven Wong, a reptiles researcher and nature guide who joined the group, hopes the new cameras will also catch a serow—an antelope-like mammal—as well as tapirs, pangolins and wild barking deer. The presence of these animals in the forest “would be a delight,” he says. More importantly, they are protected species under Malaysia’s Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, “which would also mean that the forest has to be protected as these threatened animals live in there”, Wong adds.
Documenting the forest’s biodiversity is part of the SACF Society’s strategy to save the forest from a planned development by the Selangor State government, which would see a road, cemetery and mixed development cut through the Shah Alam forest. The state government claims it is not a forest reserve and that the land was degazetted in 2006 under the previous state administration.
In a press statement on 24 September, Hee Loy Sian, Selangor’s executive councillor for tourism, environment, green technology and indigenous affairs, cited document PW1443, which refers to a map of an area to be degazetted, as evidence that the land was excised from protected forest reserve.
The following day, the SACF Society released a statement refuting Hee’s claim. Teoh and other society members had looked through years of the Selangor gazette—a public record of state government notices—and found no evidence of the alleged degazettement.
“The famous PW1443,” Teoh says. “We already know about this document—we actually have it in hand, because we did our research.”
The document is “just a map” of a proposed plan to degazette, but under the National Forestry Act 1984, Teoh explains, it’s “just a draft document”. “It is not a degazettement notice until it is published in the Selangor gazette,” Teoh says.
Rows of identical white houses in a development called Setia Eco-Park are under construction near the entrance to Shah Alam Community Forest in November 2021. Deborah Germaine Augustin
A month later, Hee told a local newspaper: “The NGOs should ask the previous state government about the move to degazette the land and why a notice was not published; those processes were not done by the present government. …It is also not feasible for the state to take back the land, as it involves a huge sum of compensation. Developers can also take legal action against us.”
As of early December, Hee has not responded directly to the SACF Society’s press statement, nor to requests for an interview by New Naratif. According to Teoh, a meeting scheduled for 22 November between the SACF Society and Hee was cancelled on 10 November without explanation or a rescheduled date from Hee’s staff.
Whether the planned road and cemetery end up being built, urban development is already threatening the forest and its inhabitants.
While the future of the Shah Alam Community Forest is uncertain, development is already encroaching on this thin stretch of primary rainforest.
“I feel so heartsick seeing this,” Irene Poh, a 59-year-old retiree and SACF Society committee member, laments at the sight of aluminum fence posts snaking through parts of the forest. These posts and their messy concrete foundations are the beginnings of a security fence built by Setia Eco-Park, which advertises itself as an “eco-haven surrounded by natural beauty”.
Teoh also worries about the fencing. If it extends too close to the forest floor, it will block the paths of small mammals who could use the forest as a natural corridor. Whether the planned road and cemetery end up being built, urban development is already threatening the forest and its inhabitants.
Fortunately, another recent battle to preserve Selangor’s forests ended in a partial victory. Some members of the SACF Society are looking to that movement for lessons.