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Story Publication logo March 15, 2022

Citizen Conservationists: These People Are Helping To Regrow Rainforests


An aerial overview of a lush green tropical forest and a lake.

A project about how the indigenous people and land owners of Peninsular Malaysia are restoring...

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Multiple Authors

An assortment of rainforest tree seeds collected during a recent masting (ie, mass flowering). The collection was organised by natural farming and sustainable living centre SEEDS Malaysia. Image by Leong Hon Yuen. Malaysia, 2022.

Creative designers and goat farmers Abdul Razak Abdul Aziz, 60, and his wife Intan Zarinah, 59, established the Social Eco Enterprise Development for Sustainability (SEEDS Malaysia), a natural farming and sustainable living centre in Klang, Selangor, in 2017.

“We’ve always felt connected with trees and nature,” recalls Abdul Razak.

He remembers fondly how they memorialised their eldest son’s birth: “We printed an announcement with a packet of forest palm seeds to give to everyone so they could plant a tree."

“With climate change, people say one of the best things to do is to plant trees. So let’s do whatever it takes,” he adds.

Sitting on the steps of their office upcycled from shipping containers, Razak and Intan tell how they became avid seed collectors.

It was Malaysia’s 100 Million Tree-Planting Campaign 2021-2025 that kickstarted the Voluntary Dipterocarp Seed Project, a collaboration between SEEDS Malaysia and the Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre.

“We aim to close the gap between conservation practitioners and the public interested in conservation action,” explains Afzaa Aziz, a project manager at the centre who ran a series of online workshops covering seed surveys, collection protocols, processing, care and replanting techniques. (See story on how the centre works with the Orang Asli to reforest degraded areas in the ecologically crucial Central Forest Spine of Peninsular Malaysia.)

It was a time-sensitive mission complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic that began in March 2020 and triggered a lockdown. Travel wasn’t allowed beyond 10km and interstate travel wasn’t possible without a letter from the International Trade and Industry Ministry. Entering a forest reserve also requires a permit, and none of them were open to the public at the time.

“When the mission is big enough you just have to find the means,” recalls Abdul Razak. He and his friends mobilised seed collectors to pick up seeds in various states from roadside, community and private forests following the centre’s collection protocols.

“You help nature by taking half of it (the seeds),” Abdul Razak explains. “You must tag the tree’s geographical location, take a picture of the bark, collect some leaves along with the seeds and pass it all to the authorities.”

Afzaa adds that the centre also provides technical support and knowledge transfer to individuals who want to restore degraded land.

“The beauty of ecosystem restoration is that everybody has a part to play,” says Afzaa.

Abdul Razak agrees, adding that they were able to germinate at least 50% of the seeds collected, in some cases 80%, with the help of the centre’s training.

At SEEDS, Abdul Razak glances over rows of kapur (Dryobalanops aromatica) seedlings in their polybags, successfully grown from seeds collected at Rimbun Dahan, a private arts centre in Kampung Chempedak, Selangor. He believes that planting on private land will help ensure its survival.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now,” Abdul Razak says.

“Just do it. Any tree — a rose, a fruit tree, a dipterocarp tree, but not those artificial trees with neon lights!”

Crown shyness, a unique phenomenon formed by 'Dryobalanops aromatica' trees. Image by FRIM. Malaysia, 2022.

FRIM DG Dr. Ismail Parlan in the oldest part of FRIM's planted forest. Walking its grounds today, you would never guess that it used to be land damaged by agriculture and mining a century ago. Image by Chung Lu Lim/FRIM. Malaysia, 2022.

FRIM's Nashatul Zaimah observing a germinated seed of the endangered keruing cogan ('Dipterocarpus rigidus'). Image by Chung Lu Lim/FRIM. Malaysia, 2022.

Capturing carbon

When Angela Hijjas, 72, started planting rainforest trees in her 5.6ha former orchard at Rimbun Dahan three decades ago, little did she realise the challenges of growing dipterocarp trees that today tower over the home she shares with renowned architect Hijjas Kasturi.

Angela’s regional collection of over 800 species of tropical rainforest trees and plants is largely 90% Peninsular Malaysia species.

The collection rewards her with a sense of place — but it also deprives her of sound sleep.

“I have learned from bitter experience that you can’t plant trees close to buildings,” she admits, explaining that she only became aware of the problem nine years into planting.

Tropical rainforest trees self-prune: When they grow to a certain height, the canopy shades the lower branches; when these no longer receive enough sunlight, their leaves fall off and the dead branch drops off.

“That’s how you get very tall, straight trees that are much prized by loggers because for 60m, it’s just plain trunk with a little bubble of leaf at the top,” Angela explains.

“It’s hardwood and it comes down like a spear. The branches can drop even when it’s not windy. We've had several broken roofs and several windscreens lost,” she winces.

Angela recommends a barrier of at least 10m between the edge of a building and a rainforest tree. However, her neighbours build right up to the edge of her property.

“If it’s my durians dropping, they don't complain about that,” she laughs, but her neighbours complain when branches fall. “I have a responsibility to make sure that my neighbours are safe.”

“Forest trees need little attention; once planted and regularly mulched with dead leaves, they look after themselves,” says Angela, adding that her decision to grow big trees was reinforced by the desire to capture carbon.

It’s the height of the trunk that captures the greatest amount of carbon, but when trees find a gap in the forest canopy, they grow branches.

“So I’m densely planting, forcing them to grow as tall as possible before they branch,” explains Angela.

She has opened her grounds to interested seed collectors: “We act like a clearing house for seeds, but they have a very limited viability. So you’ve got to get them out pretty quickly,” she says.

“I’ve been propagating; that's been one of my projects during lockdown, planting the seeds in sand beds, watering them twice a day, then transplanting them later on,” says Angela, “So I've been gainfully employed with that in the lockdown. The timing was very coincidental, but it worked.”

Angela Hijjas holding a Horsfieldia superba, a species endemic to Peninsular Malaysia, that fruited last year. Image by Leong Hon Yuen. Malaysia, 2022.

Angela with her first tree, a meranti tembaga ('Shorea leprosula'), now 20m in height and more than 2m in circumference. Image by Leong Hon Yuen. Malaysia, 2022.

The Genting Tea Estate Bungalow is set within 38ha of planted rainforests and 100-year-old secondary forests in the middle of Titiwangsa Mountain Range. Image by Leong Hon Yuen. Malaysia, 2022.

Oldest man-made forest

The Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) has more experience than most in the area of afforestation: Its grounds were formerly agriculture land, damaged by mining as well as animal farming over a century ago, but you would think you're in a natural rainforest when you walk on them today.

Now, based on its importance as the biggest and oldest man-made forest, it’s tentatively on the list of Unesco’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Sites, says FRIM director-general Dr Ismail Parlan, 52.

He explains that besides supplying seeds and seedlings for reforestation and afforestation, FRIM’s main role is to carry out research and development activities to help the country conserve its natural resources and environment through sustainable forest management and sustainable use of forest resources.

In efforts to prevent the extinction of known threatened species and to improve their conservation status by 2025, FRIM updated the Malaysia Red List: Plants of Peninsular Malaysia, as identified under Malaysia’s National Policy on Biological Diversity 2016-2025 so that priorities can be allocated for further conservation action.

“The key to species conservation is to know which species is at risk and threatened and thus require conservation,” says Ismail.

However, what may be endangered globally may not be locally, and vice versa.

Giving an example, Ismail says that keruing belimbing (Dipterocarpus grandiflorus) is listed as endangered in the global IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species but because it is widespread and commonly found in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, it is listed as “Least Concern” in the Malaysia Red List.

Once a species is identified as threatened, in particular critically endangered or endangered, conservation measures are prescribed, tackling the main threats faced by the species concerned.

Ex situ conservation (ie conservation and maintenance of plant samples outside their natural habitat) undertaken by botanic gardens and arboreta are essential complements to in situ conservation measures. There are living collections of endangered Malaysian tree species locally and abroad, acting as insurance in case the original sources are lost.

Abdul Razak and Intan have always felt connected with trees and nature. Image by Leong Hon Yuen. Malaysia, 2022.

Biodiversity of a planted rainforest

Seated in his airy 18m-long sitting room with French windows letting in light and breeze from the hills of Pahang, retiree Henry Barlow, 77, gingerly extends the wings of a moth that is barely an inch wide. He moves the second pair of wings upwards, flips over a strip of tracing paper, and secures the wing to the board with a pin.

Barlow has been collecting and preserving moths and butterflies for the past five decades at the 38ha Genting Tea Estate.

“Insects form one of the basic building blocks of all natural ecosystems,” says Barlow, who started chasing cabbage white butterflies as a child in Britain.

The estate is located in the middle of the Titiwangsa Mountain Range.

“It’s right on the spine of the Titiwangsa range,” Barlow says. “We look out onto a valley, which was cleared of primary forest by loggers about eight or 10 years ago. This is actually the watershed between the East and West Coast.

“If you look at the list of trees that we’ve got planted and compare it with the classification in the new edition of Symington’s Foresters’ Manual of Dipterocarps, you can see that, in many cases, these species are regarded as extinct or near extinct in the wild or severely endangered almost invariably, because of the loss of their natural habitat,” he says.

Today, the estate is effectively an island of planted rainforest in a sea of vegetable production.

Barlow is a chartered accountant by training but in three decades he grew a rainforest — an arboretum specialising in rare and endangered Peninsular Malaysia trees, especially dipterocarps. He hopes that when they flower and fruit, they will be a source of seeds for those wishing or needing to reafforest land with indigenous tree species.

There’s no guarantee trees will produce seeds in one’s lifetime. Trees have their own timelines, he observes.

One or two species of dipterocarps have produced fertile seeds as young as eight years old, while others planted 30 years ago have not produced any at all. Inexplicably, some flower very profusely, then all the flowers fall off and they don’t set seeds, Barlow says.

Of the 160 species of dipterocarp planted, only about 50 species have so far set fertile seed.

“This is a tremendous feat given the relatively short time since the reforestation work started,” says Elango Velautham, a friend of Barlow and Angela’s who was formerly with the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia and is now a Singapore-based conservationist — he provides them with the knowledge to manage tree rarities.

Barlow says that afforestation alone will not bring back the original biodiversity of a primary forest unless seeds get brought in from other patches of forest. Only then may biodiversity be sustained.

Barlow says that he has been surveying the moth and butterfly diversity, monitoring the changes over 40 years in the area. He conducted year-long Rothamsted light trap surveys in 1979 and 2000, and a bait trap survey in 2010. In 2021, Universiti Malaya graduate Sofwan Badruddin, 27, continued Barlow’s work with a further Rothamsted trap survey.

So far Sofwan and Barlow have discovered that since 1971, based on trapping results, the overall numbers and species of butterflies and moths have dramatically decreased — a worldwide and alarming phenomenon.

“However, even after 50 years’ collecting, we are still occasionally turning up previously unrecorded species. There is still a lot more to be discovered,” observes Sofwan.

One rare moth is the Bombyx incomposita found in Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. “It is the closest wild relation to the cultivated Bombyx mori, which produces natural silk,” says Sofwan. Barlow has only seen two; the last recorded in the 1980s.

One day, Barlow hopes that the estate will become a training and education hub for the Danum Valley-based South-East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership.

Nurturing rainforests is a lifetime passion. Knowing how difficult it is to get trees to produce viable seeds, it is important to safeguard primary forests, replant deforested areas, and manage them sustainably to ensure a future for trees and diverse flora and fauna.

Barlow has planted endemic Malaysian species as a source of seeds for those wishing or needing to reafforest land with indigenous tree species. Image by Leong Hon Yuen. Malaysia, 2022.

Part of the grounds at Rimbun Dahan. If you plan on growing rainforest trees, keep at least 10m between the trees and your house, says Angela Hijjas, speaking with the hard-won experience of broken roofs and windscreens before she realised this. Image by Leong Hon Yuen. Malaysia, 2022.

Starting the seeds off in river sand for better drainage, Angela Hijjas patiently waits for seeds to germinate. Image by Leong Hon Yuen. Malaysia, 2022.

These feature articles were produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.