By TAPAN KUMAR NATH and ANDREW SIA
For some villagers in northern Selangor, the nearby swamps are a great friend.
They collect palas leaves from there to wrap ketupat and nasi lemak; use the tender shoots of the tenggek burung plant (Euodia redlevi) in a salad and catch freshwater fish from canals.
The wetlands are not only a source of food, but water, which the villagers use to irrigate their padi fields.
The swamps also act as a giant sponge, a natural reservoir that absorbs excess water during torrential rains, protecting the villagers from flash floods.
Now, who could have thought that a wet morass of a swamp could be so useful?
To be more specific, we are talking about peatland swamp forests (PSF). These are waterlogged forests growing on a thick layer (up to 20m) of partially decomposed leaves, twigs and tree trunks, which have been deposited for centuries.
A survey of previous research in Malaysia shows that about 25,000sq km (7% of the country’s land area) were originally covered with swamps, but some 80% of this have been drained and dried, leaving only about 20% in their natural forested condition.
Peatlands give important but often unappreciated and undervalued ecosystem services. In their pristine state, PSF are habitats for various species, thus protecting biodiversity. Apart from flood control and water supply, those swamps are also places where carbon is stored (thus helping thwart global warming).
In a recent study funded by the Toyota Foundation based in Tokyo, researchers of the University of Nottingham Malaysia talked to local people about the various benefits of peat swamps. The study focused on the Raja Musa forest reserve (RMFR), located inland from Kuala Selangor and Tanjung Karang in Selangor.
The RMFR is one of four reserves that make up the North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest (NSPSF), covering an area of about 35,600ha.
It had been subjected to intensive logging (there are actually many tall trees in such swamps) since the 1950s, before it was gazetted in 1990 as a forest reserve.
The intensive logging was followed by the draining of the swamp’s water through abandoned canals. Then the dried, logged-over land was encroached upon for agricultural practices. Both of these actions caused further serious forest degradation.
In 2008, the Selangor State Forestry Department (SSFD), along with other state agencies, recovered thousands of hectares of degraded PSF, evicted illegal squatters, and initiated a rehabilitation programme. The latter was done in partnership with the Global Environment Centre (GEC) and the local community. The degraded sites were replanted with trees.
Free monthly bonus
In the study, it was found that each villager caught about 46kg of various types of fish every month (mostly for their own consumption) from the swamps. If they had sold the fish at the market, their catch would have been worth an estimated RM550 – that’s quite a monthly bonus for villagers!
Then there is the value of irrigation. The villagers reported that the waters from the swamp allow them to do year-round irrigation, working out to a very productive five harvesting seasons every two years.
The areas around Raja Musa produce about 40% of Selangor’s rice, yielding approximately 10-11 tons per season, which is about double the average Malaysian rice yield of 5-6 tons per year.
Best of all, the water is provided free by nature! The farmers said they do not pay for irrigation when cultivating about 18,000ha of farm land in these areas. Considering the average irrigation cost of RM38 per hectare per year in Malaysia, the actual monetary value of irrigation water from the peat swamps works out to a whopping RM684,000 per year!
Apart from these direct benefits, villagers also reported on the indirect environmental values of PSF including flood prevention, biodiversity conservation and soil fertility.
The fresh air and pure environment of the swamp forests make them a good place for relaxation and agro-tourism.
Mental peace is priceless, but if we have to place a cash value to it, the researchers have some numbers.
The manager of the agro-tourism initiative in the area said that some 60 families are now involved with homestays at Sungai Sireh village. Every year, they receive more than 7,000 tourists (both domestic and foreign). The tourists stay with welcoming families in their homes where they can experience Malaysian culture and food. Activities include farm visits, kayaking, boating, fishing and local cultural events.
Each participating family received a monthly income of RM500-600 from their ventures – again, a nifty bonus for rural families. On top of that, some households made more money by selling homemade sweets and other snacks to the tourists.
The flip side
However, peat forests have been drastically reduced through logging and conversion to other uses, and fires.
In peninsular Malaysia, the PSF coverage was halved from 670,000ha to 340,000ha in just a decade (the 1980s) as more forested land was cleared for agriculture like oil palm and aquaculture, and industries and housing. It is estimated that about 14% of Malaysian oil palm plantations are grown on dried peat land.
The layer of dried peat (several metres thick) is very prone to catching fire and the blazes can continue deep underground, belching choking haze (areas around Banting, Klang, Sepang and KLIA often report such fires) and are notoriously difficult to extinguish.
Saving the swamps
Even though local villagers value the peat swamps for various reasons, they worry about whether they can be sustained. Peatland exploitation in the past has resulted in long-term, irreversible changes to local environments and water systems.
Fortunately, there has been a rehabilitation project in Raja Musa since 2008 to protect and restore the degraded forests in collaboration with villagers, the Selangor State Forestry Department (SSFD) and the GEC. Corporations, academic institutions, NGOs and other concerned parties have been part of this effort, too.
Hundreds of hectares of degraded forests have been replanted with trees. The locals have contributed to PSF conservation through community-based management: patrolling the area to prevent fires, planting trees, supplying seedlings, and joining in awareness programmes.
In one area called compartment 73, the SSFD and the GEC have jointly established a “Centre of Excellence” where they raised the water level in the swamps by blocking some canals. This then led to natural regeneration.
In 2011, the GEC and SSFD established a community-based organisation called “Friends of North Selangor Peat Swamp Forests (Friends of NSPSF)” to work on reforestation, fire control and daily patrols.
A Junior Peatland Forest Ranger Programme was set up at school level to create awareness among students about the importance of protecting peat forests. Initiated in 2014, this programme has so far been extended to 12 primary schools in North Selangor.
The Friends of NSPSF have also worked on community development: four farmers were trained to set up tree nurseries at their homesteads.
The general public may not have been aware of the many social and environmental benefits of peat swamps, but they are indeed natural treasures which should be conserved for future generations.
Tapan Kumar Nath (Tapan.Nath@nottingham.edu.my) is associate professor at the School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Andrew Sia oversees the Ecowatch section at Star2.