3rd March is World Wildlife Day! For 2021, World Wildlife Day is being celebrated under the theme ‘Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet’, as a way to highlight the central role of forests in sustaining the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people globally, and particularly of Indigenous and local communities with historic ties to forested and forest-adjacent areas.
We hear from Alia Azmi, whose research focuses on forests, environmental justice and sustainable development, about the importance of forests in Malaysia and the central role they play in sustaining livelihoods.
There’s nothing more sad than driving through a rainforest expecting luscious vegetation, but finding you are actually faced with miles and miles of plantations. That is the sight that awaits those venturing to the different pockets of rainforest that are dotted throughout peninsular Malaysia. One in particular is the Endau Rompin National Park, a beautiful protected park where the Jakun indigenous tribe still lives to this day. Today, getting there means going through miles of palm oil plantations. Another is the Belum-Temenggor National Park, a hotspot of ecotourism that is also home to various indigenous tribes. Unfortunately, only part of the forest has been gazetted as a State Park, with the other half still open to the highest bidder. These rainforests are prime examples of the juxtaposition of forest governance in Malaysia. On one hand, we are supremely proud of our forests; frequently boasting of our exotic species. On the other hand, gazettement of more forests for conservation is slow and development is going full swing. This doesn’t just mean palm oil and forest plantations, but also tourism, where more and more indigenous tribes are involved, but only in lower-level positions, such as guides.
COVID-19, however, has been like a slap to the face, highlighting the instability of forestry governance. Tourism has all but died, and with it the stable income of the indigenous people. While forest plantation and palm oil is still profitable, it is not sustainable. What happens when our forests are all gone, taking along with them the various critical ecosystems services they provide? What happens when forests become smaller and smaller, until only a small section of protected area remains? Would the tourists still come?
COVID-19 highlights two main problems that Malaysia could very well face in the next decade. 1] We need more and larger protected areas, and 2] Indigenous tribes need a more sustainable means of livelihood. The first is simple. Protect more primary, virgin forests! Larger areas keep forests micro-climate stable, ensuring biodiversity and ecosystem services. The second, is more tricky. Over the years, the indigenous people in Malaysia have slowly shifted their way of life. While most still rely on forest-based livelihoods, modernization is not something we can deny them. As of now, they are experiencing a cultural shift where they practice a mix of traditional customs that are handed down from generation to generation, and modern operations that allows them to be part of the global community. However, the pandemic has made it clear that ecotourism may not be the answer we all thought it could be, especially since development of forests still continues. But how do we come up with the solution that can allow the survival of both the indigenous groups and the forests?
It is clear that indigenous groups are critical to the protection of the forests. Not only are they more knowledgeable in this area, they are also more protective of it, as a large part of their culture and sense of self is still tied to the forest, no matter how modernized they have become. Unfortunately, they have been largely marginalized in the decision making processes, not to mention the fact that public participation in Malaysian forestry governance is merely tokenistic. Understanding this issue is important, as it then paves the way for the first step, inclusion and equal distribution of power in decision making. COVID-19 showcases perfectly what could happen if we fail to understand how important forest conservation is as well as the protection of the indigenous people as part of that. If things were to continue as they are, we could lose large parts of the forests, along with the ecotourism industry. By then, the indigenous groups might be all but extinct, slowly merging with the urban communities, leaving us to mourn the loss of not only culture, but also an ecosystem. To ensure this does not happen, it is time, I believe, that we let THEM decide. The forests are, after all, their home.
Alia Azmi Universiti Teknologi MARA, Malaysia