Environmental impact of deforestation and land use in Janda Baik

By Bhavani Prakash

2011 is the International Year of Forests, and I thought it fitting to conclude the year with a final piece on some of the environmental effects of deforestation and subsequent land use that I observed and learnt about during my field trip a few months ago, to the area of Janda Baik, a small village in the state of Pahang. Janda Baik nestles among pristine rainforest hills about 30km from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.  The visit was part of a workshop organised by Wild Asia.

The ethereal mist wafting over the vast, dense rainforest hills of Janda Baik, the smell of fresh drizzle and the silhouette of a lone bird flying against the cloud covered sun made me close my eyes and capture this frame in my mind’s camera.  A moment like this is the memory that one wants to etch forever from a trip to a land that is far removed from one’s own.

In all fairness, Janda Baik isn’t all that far from Singapore, though in the hustle and bustle of manicured city living, it is easy to forget that Kuala Lumpur (KL) is all but 5 bus-ride hours away from here.  Janda Baik is only another hour away from KL.  But as an idyllic village that is quite different from this city state – in landscape, in population mix, in politics and culture, in its pressing issues; it is easy to forget proximity, and that perhaps the demands of the country of my residence and those of a greedily growing world may have some part to play at least, in Janda Baik’s and Malaysia’s complex problems.

Illegal vs Organic Farming

Illegal farm on the slopes of Janda Baik

My reverie and savouring of the beautiful distant hills came to an abrupt end as our local guide Zaini pointed to our immediate left. A steep slope had been razed off completely to make way for what he pronounced as an illegal farm.  He directed our eyes to the hilltop where bamboo poles had been haphazardly erected. The bamboo came from the forest too, and was fast disappearing in Zaini’s estimates.  From the top to the bottom of the hill which disappeared into the valley, there were vegetables growing amidst various structures and poles to support straggling vines.

There are many such illegal farms in Janda Baik, according to Zaini, a fact I haven’t been able to verify yet with official statistics, but if what he says is true, the consequences could be quite alarming. For one, it is quite obvious even to a casual observer how exposed the hills become to landslides without the strong, supportive roots of the trees. There can be little control over the amount and quality of fertilisers and pesticides used on illegal farms. The runoffs from these could flow quite easily and without much interruption down the hills into the streams and rivers.

Zaini as our guide

Zaini said he once asked to buy veggies from an illegal farmer who replied, “Oh, These vegetables are not for ‘eating’, they are for ‘sale.’   This is the implied level of synthetic chemicals used in such farms.  It’s hard to tell whether veggies like these come into Singapore, which depends on external countries including Malaysia for 98% of its food imports.  One also needs to explore and understand what kind of pesticide residue checks the official food agency in Singapore, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) follows, how supplier screening is done, and whether this can at all be exhaustive.

According to the March 2006 report of International POPs Elimination Project :

Even though Persistent Organic Pollutants POPs-listed organochlorine instecticides is prohibited, a number of studies on rivers and sediments throughtout Malaysia have demonstrated that most of these compounds are present in the aquatic environment (Lee et al 2003). In most of these studies, the sources of contamination were not known. In a separate study to study the source of contamination, it was found that agricultural areas such as paddy and vegetable cultivation are the main sources of environmental contamination by most organochlorine insecticides in Malaysia. “

If fertiliser and pesticide use in Malaysia is rampant, it could have a serious effect on topsoil and water in the short and long term, apart from effects on workers and consumers.

Yousof's organic farm

In contrast, it was encouraging to see an organic farm in Janda Baik run by the young, 25 year old Yahya Bin Yusof, as a means of sustaining the adjoining orphanage for which he shoulders responsibility.  He took us to a shed with various types of enzymes being brewed out of the waste in the farm, and behind it was another one for organic compost.  Goat manure was also used to enrich the soil.  I never cease to marvel at farmers like Yusof who use organic and ecologically friendly methods to work and condition rainforests soils – which are notoriously clayey and deceptively poor in nutrition. The lush greenery of a rainforest depends on the efficiency of various parts of the ecosystem to recycle the biomass containing nutrients, with very little coming from the soil itself.  This is an oft forgotten reason for the soils of conventional agriculture in rainforest areas requiring a heavy dosage of chemicals.

Yusof’s farm sells about 60kg of produce every week, many of whom are regular customers in KL who are willing to pay the higher 10RM (RM = Ringitt, the Malaysian currency) per kilo for his organic produce as opposed to RM4 for conventional ones.  He admits that viability of the farm would have been difficult without corporate sponsorship for capital costs. This has been handy for putting up the sheds that cover the vegetables from the intensive and ruthless tropical sun and rain.  Only 3 farms unfortunately, of the several hundred legal ones (and not counting the illegal ones), have been labelled as organic by the certifying state government body.

The vanishing hills

The previous day Zaini’s French wife, Fred had shared her observations on local environmental issues with us, a pot-pourri of journalists attending the Responsible Journalism Workshop. Organised by Wild Asia, a Malaysian NGO, the workshop had reporters from Malaysia’s national newspaper The Star, a regional one The Selangor Times, a specialist magazine the Malaysian Tatler, citizen journalists from the group “komunitikini”, other freelance writers and myself, the odd one out from Singapore as a citizen journalist.

Going around Janda Baik had been our field trip to make sense of what we observed, in the overall context of how we as journalists could extend the scope, regularity and depth of environmental reporting in the region, while maintaining high standards of professionalism.

Fred sharing her concerns

Fred, who with Zaini runs a lodge spoke with noticeable anguish as someone who has lived in and breathed the air of Janda Baik for the last 9 years – in particular about the vanishing trees.  “The hill behind my guest house used to be a jungle, but with burning bit by bit, in 4 years it’s all gone” she lamented. “The wild animals like pangolin, otter and slow loris are rarely seen. Instead there are monkeys and wild boars which usually live in the interiors and don’t come near humans. They are emerging because their habitat and food are gone.  So too have the morning cheeps of various species of birds who have disappeared over time. “

As we went around Janda Baik we saw how the river had gone down in depth, from what used to be knee high a few years ago as Fred had mentioned, to merely ankle deep in the last few years.

Deforestation in Malaysia

Malaysia faces massive pressures of deforestation, a heavy and often irreversible price to pay for development. The Huffington Post reported that Malaysian rates of deforestation is three times larger than Asia combined.  Mongabay adds, “Analysis of figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) shows that Malaysia’s annual deforestation rate jumped almost 86 percent between the 1990-2000 period and 2000-2005.

The foremost reason behind the massive rates of deforestation in Malaysia is due to palm oil plantation, visibly seen as one criss-crosses Malaysia by road, train or flight. It is estimated that 10% of goods in supermarkets all over the world have palm oil in some form or the other, with Indonesia and Malaysia being the biggest exporters of palm oil in the world.

A lesser reason, but significant nevertheless is the way rainforests like the one surrounding Janda Baik are being nibbled here and there, systematically due to encroachment, urban development and illegal agriculture.  There is a web of complexity underneath this, that one begins to get wind of when talking to people on the ground like Zaini and Fred – possible political influences, lack of governance, economic forces, unplanned development, apathy, lack of education and awareness.

Responsible Journalism

I look forward to learning from and sharing the works of my Malaysian journalist friends, who may be in a better position to unearth the statistics, and have the conversations needed with those in administration, industry and communities to press forth with many of the pointers from the trip that need to be investigated further.

Whether as professional or as citizen journalists, we all need to take to heart what Henry Anatole Grunwald, the late editor of TIME magazine once said, “Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.”

Jacqueline Ann Surin of The Nut Graph

Jacqueline Ann Surin, the experienced former editor with The Star and founder of a political website called The Nut Graph  guided us through much of the workshop. She passed around an inspiring book called Journalism.as.if.earth.mattered.” by Kunda Dixit.  It contained a beautiful poem by Joey Ayala, a Filipino ethnomusician and environmentalist who sings about the majestic and near extinct Philippine Eagle, which caught my attention.  I share it here as 2011, the International Year of Forests, draws to an end.

I wish to fly like the Eagle

And live in the heart of the forest.

But the trees are gone.

There is no place for a nest.

A nestless eagle has no reason to fly.

If you want to the see the Eagle,

Don’t look up at the sky.

He has shed his feathers and folded

Up his wing

Oh Eagle, my true King,

I wish to help you so thy Kingdom

May live again.


About the Writer:

Bhavani Prakash is the Founder of Eco WALK the Talk.  She writes and conducts talks and workshops on sustainability and can be contacted at bhavani[at]ecowalkthetalk.com. Do follow Eco WALK the Talk on Facebook, TwitterLinked IN and YouTube




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Posted by on Dec 30 2011. Filed under Biodiversity, Chemicals, Sustainable Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Environmental impact of deforestation and land use in Janda Baik”

  1. Maybe you are too quick to judge the palm oil industry. Tell me have you really spend time in a palm oil estate? Maybe you should contact the Brotherhood. I am sure they will give you a guided tour of a palm oil estate and show you how Orang Utans and Elephants have been very happy since they moved in. This is just an idea. I hope you take this proposition seriously. Not every firm that is in the palm oil industry is out to destroy this planet. Just my two cents

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