Photo credits: Malaysian Nature Society Miri
SINCE A WRITE-UP on the wetlands of Sarawak would call for writing a book, I have decided to delve into an important component; the Peat Swamp Forest (PSF).
PSFs are said to cover 1.54 million hectares in Malaysia and according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) approximately 70% of it lies in Sarawak. A prime peatland is Loagan Bunut National Park, located 130kms from Miri on the periphery of Bunut Lake. Bunut Lake is the largest natural lake in Sarawak refueled by the Bunut, Baram and Tinjar rivers.
Living in Miri, we sometimes encounter birds and reptiles typical of wetlands while taking a stroll, peering through the window or even while waiting at a traffic light. They have adapted to perching on telephone wires, drinking out of open water drains, nesting in ceiling corners and slithering along tame lawns. It goes without saying that trekking through a protected wetland outside the city offers many more visual treats in terms of biodiversity. Along with Loagan Bunut National Park, Maludam and Kuching Wetland National Park are other gazetted areas rich in peat soil.
PSFs in Sarawak were traditionally unattractive to the local communities due to inaccessibility and unfavourable physical conditions. Evidence suggests that these forests have been used only for the last 200 years. However, those who gained access practiced more sustainable and conservative methods in tapping its resources. For example, the Tapang tree found in Loagan Bunut is traditionally popular amongst the indigenous people for making quality blowpipes. But in honoring the tree’s cultural importance, they used the trees that had fallen from natural causes instead of logging them.
Also, the tree is of more value to them standing as it attracts the Asian Giant Honeybee and is therefore a reliable source of wild honey. Yet another example of sustainable and traditional practice is Berawan fishing. The Berawan people of Loagan Bunut place their nets strategically to collect the migrating fish as the water level drops during the dry season. This technique is known as Selambau and continues till date.
With improved access to the wetlands, today, the locals are more interested in the agricultural use of peatlands as it generates revenue and provides direct value to them. Oil palm, coconut, pineapple, sago palm and rubber are the main smallholder crops.
Between 2005 and 2010, Sarawak lost 33% of its peatlands and 10% of its total forest cover due to logging and land conversion. Land conversion is an umbrella threat as it involves draining, burning, polluting, land reclamation, introducing non-native species and so on. The long and short-term detrimental effect of these actions on the wetlands and its surrounding environment is understood when realising the ecosystem services they provide.
For instance, a regulating ecosystem service wetlands provide is carbon sequestration. Wetlands sequester significant amounts of carbon through natural processes in plants and in sediments. Upon burning this ecosystem, the carbon that has accumulated over centuries is released as CO2 into the atmosphere in the matter of a few decades. Emissions from peatland drainage and peat fires account for nearly 6 per cent of global anthropogenic carbon emissions and about 25 per cent of carbon emissions from the land use sector.
Peat fires contribute to the haze that pervades the air around us during dry months. Slash and burn practices continue because the local stakeholders such as smallholders and estate managers view it as a tamable component of peatland use. The international conservation community, however, views the fires to be a threat due to its periodic and uncontrollable nature.
Ideally, these ideological differences can be reduced by increasing awareness, which in turn will improve the synergy amongst the different stakeholders. “…campaigns are needed that educate the global community about the situation faced by peatland users on the ground, and the local stakeholders about the wider and less tangible values of peatlands” (Cole et al, 2012).
Malaysia is involved in international efforts to promote the sustainable use of wetlands and has set up in-house management bodies to ensure the same. Such efforts include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which is an international agreement aiming to advocate sustainable development by promoting all aspects of biological diversity including genetic resources, species, and ecosystems. The Malaysian government was one of the 150 that signed the agreement at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. In response to CBD, Malaysia set up a National Biodiversity Committee in 1994 to protect and manage the country’s biological resources and to ensure its fair and equitable use.
Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (1971) is another international effort which focuses on wetland ecosystems. The Ramsar mission defines itself as “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.”
The Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance (including Kuching Wetlands National Park among 5 other Malaysian sites) identifies wetlands from different geographical locations on account of their significance in terms of ecology, botany, zoology or hydrology. Once they are on the list they are considered significant not only to the countries in which they are located, but for humanity as a whole.
These international conventions create opportunities for discussions and increasing awareness amongst the various stakeholders including government, management bodies and NGOs and can cumulate support (monitoring, funding and research) for the conservation and restoration of the ecosystem in question.
UNDP in 2002 in trying to meet the objectives of CBD and the Ramsar Convention funded projects in Malaysia including one in Loagan Bunut which focused on promoting integrated PSF management. The project faced challenges such as staff shortage, administrative delays and wavering commitment from stakeholders. Nevertheless, the 5 year effort was successful in raising awareness and providing training required for stakeholders to carry out the project activities.
The shortage of research on ecosystem service processes of Sarawakian wetlands currently limits the scope of converting international conservation interest into action. Challenges of monitoring and funding also come in the way of realising the scope for effective conservation. On paper, the solution is a multi-sectoral integrated management approach but on the ground, it struggles to become a reality. These truths reveal the state of wetlands in the region and also reveal the trends that challenge conservation efforts country wide.
Appreciating the wetlands of Sarawak and acknowledging that its health affects our well-being is important in garnering support to protect it.