Ex-members of national water service commission urge protection of Kuala Langat forest for water security

Trees and plants in the Kuala Langat North forest reserve at Kampung Orang Asli Busut in Banting April 22, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Trees and plants in the Kuala Langat North forest reserve at Kampung Orang Asli Busut in Banting April 22, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

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KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 1 — Former members of the National Water Service Commission (SPAN) joined a growing chorus calling on the Selangor government to reverse its degazettement of the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR).

Its former chairman Charles Santiago said Selangor is already facing many challenges with regard to its water resources with very limited water supply reserve margin, frequent disruptions due to pollution incidents and degradation of water sources. 

“The KLNFR stores more than 15 billion litres of water in its peat soil and supplements groundwater and surface water flow in adjacent areas.

“This important function will be totally disrupted by the proposed project,” he said in an online news conference this afternoon with other former members of SPAN.

The former commissioners condemned the degazettement that was publicly announced only yesterday in the Selangor State Assembly and said there were several criteria that had not been met beforehand.

“There have been many failings in the degazettement process.

“For example, no development plan or feasibility study has been presented to justify the project or forest conversion; no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report has been prepared or approved; and no public hearing has been held to consider proposals to modify the gazetted District Local Plan which currently specifies the site to be a strict conservation zone,” said Charles.

He also pointed out that the Selangor state government has ignored 45,000 written objections submitted to the Public Inquiry on the development, while there is also a need for a Human Rights Impact assessment as to date there are Orang Asli living in the area that is approved for degazettement.

Five Orang Asli villages

Responding to reporters’ questions regarding Orang Asli settlements in the KLNFR during the virtual press conference, former commissioner Faizal Parish said it was wrong for the Selangor state government to say that there were no Orang Asli living in the area approved for degazettement.

“He (Hee Loy Sian) is not correct, as there are five Orang Ali villages living adjacent to the forest reserve.

“Some of the villagers have orchards and small shelters within the forest reserve and many go to the forest on a daily basis to gather fruits, herbs, medicinal plants and other forest products, while also getting water from the forest reserve,” he said.

He added that although the state government has resettled some Orang Asli to what is now considered the periphery of the forest, the area is still considered as a “kawasan rayau” or roaming area, an area that is accepted as rightful territory.

Further explaining, Faizal said previously the Orang Asli were all in the forest when other portions were degazetted for other developments, so the Orang Asli village is now on the outside.

“Of course, the government will be saying now that previously they wanted to take 97 per cent of the forest and now they will leave a portion of the forest, but they have not revealed to the Orang Asli which portion of the forest reserve they are going to leave (behind) and which they will degazette.

“Even Orang Asli have asked, as they found the survey recently put next to their place implying that the area right next to their village will be degazetted, where they live and enter the forest.

“That is an area of concern where there was no consultation with the Orang Asli , no explanation given, and no information shared — even the state assemblyman (of the constituency) were not able to get copies of the maps, they were told to go to the survey department to ask for them,” he said.

During the Selangor State Assembly yesterday, Hee who is a state executive councillor, said the decision was made after taking into consideration the livelihood of the Orang Asli and objections submitted to the state government. 

Not equal compensation

When asked about the value of the “replacement sites”, Faizal also disagreed that the respective areas carried the same biodiversity values.

He said in terms of the areas, the state government proposed the gazettement to compensate only one area, Sg Panjang, which is a peat swamp forest, while the others are not peat swamp forests.

“So, basically, some are totally different forest types. Broga Hill is totally different. It’s not comparable.

“You can’t say this is a replacement anyway from the point of view of wildlife. Once you clear the forest, degazette and develop, the wildlife from Kuala Langat North are not going to jump on the bus and go 100km to Sg Panjang and Sabak Bernam, get off the bus and enter their new home. No, they are going to die,” he said.

He however said that this is not a way of going against the state government gazetting a few new areas.

“In fact, the state government has committed earlier to increasing beyond 30 per cent forest to 35 per cent forest cover, so they have to do that anyway.

“But that is not an excuse. The fact they are gazetting some other areas they can destroy this area, it doesn’t solve it.

“And for the Orang Asli community, they can’t go 100km away to collect their medicinal plant from the forest,” he added.

No more forest fires

On claims made by the state government that the degazettement was made since the area was prone to forest fires, Faizal said this was something which happened back in 2014.

“I have been working with the Selangor state government SSG for 20 years on the issue of forest fires and particularly on peat and fire control.

“So we are aware that prior to 2015, there were fires occurring in the area and these were particularly linked to the Elite Highway heading towards the airport which was developed right along the edge of the forest.

“But from 2015 onwards, the state’s former mentri besar asked the Global Environmental Centre to work with the Forest Department and the Orang Asli community to prevent fire and restore the forest.

“That was incredibly successful, and there was hardly any fire since we started in 2015, and those areas which were earlier damaged by fires have all recovered,” he said.

Faizal stressed that the forest reserve is today home to diverse wildlife, with the rare and endangered species returned to the forest reserve.

“So I don’t know. The government seems to be living in a time warp, when they’re talking about something that happened in 2014.

“I mean if your house was damaged in 2014, but afterwards repaired and you’re living there fine, should you go and bulldoze the house to prevent the fire because it was damaged that long time ago?” he asked.

He said instead the effort made to recover the forest should be recognised and not continually used as an excuse to develop the land.

“So unfortunately, Hee was totally wrong and he’s well aware of that because we have many times informed them about this,” said Faizal.

Yesterday, 536.7 hectares of the KLNFR were approved for degazettement by the Selangor state government.

State executive councillor Hee told the Selangor legislative assembly in Shah Alam that the decision for the degazettement was made under Section 12 of the National Forestry Act (Adoption) Enactment 1985 in the state executive council meeting last May 5 and validated in another meeting on May 19.

Hee reportedly said the total area that was approved for degazettement is 54 per cent of the initial proposed 931.17 hectares as the state government had taken into consideration the objections raised, importance of biodiversity and Orang Asli.

He said the land will be given to a private company, Gabungan Indah Sdn Bhd, for a mixed-commercial development.

KLNFR — made up of reportedly 8,000-year-old forests — was gazetted as a permanent forest reserve (HSK) covering 7,246.96 hectares back in 1927.

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