A Shared Vision

Surrounded as it is on all sides by highways and housing, eyed by speculative interests for its real estate value, the Kota Damansara forest exists today as an island of green amidst the urban sprawl because of its many friends and allies. This remnant lowland mixed dipterocarp rainforest of just over 320 hectares is today, a mere fraction of the once extensive Sungai Buloh Forest Reserve (6,590 ha). Yet it has been saved from the unrelenting replacement of natural areas into landscapes of asphalt and concrete thanks to the intervention of concerned individuals, organisations and communities, particularly from 2003 onwards. Champions from the Malaysian Nature Society played a significant role in rallying together a coalition of residents’ groups to vocally defend the forest. The campaign was sustained for many years by regular folk who volunteered their time, energy and money to ensure that the forest would not be removed.

Fig. 1 The Kota Damansara Community Forest Reserve is one of the few remaining green areas for the Klang Valley which enhances its importance for conservation

The people that came together in defense of the Kota Damansara forest area diverse group with different interests and affiliations – they comprise residents that had poured their savings into their dream homes, parents determined to defend a liveable environment, nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts from throughout the Klang Valley, artists and activists, scientists and conservationists, public figures and politicians. Active public participation is unusual in Malaysia where apathy is the norm and voluntarism is typically rare. In the defence of the Kota Damansara forest, the call for conservation was taken up by unlikely ordinary citizens from all walks of life who found themselves taking a stand for what they believed was important, right and good – a core vision of meaningful development where natural areas are given due priority as much for the preservation of biodiversity as to sustain human wellbeing which is inextricably linked to the living environment.

With the the Kota Damansara Community Forest Reserve officially gazetted as of 18 February 2010 (Sel GN 398/2010), the focus can now move from defence of the forest to more constructive activities including planning for the balanced use of this forest for conservation, education and research, as well as amenity and recreational use. In recognition of the unique history of the KDCFR, the Selangor Forestry Department has stated its intention to partner local community organisations in the management of the forest. This openness towards collaborative management is consistent with contemporary global approaches on facilitating public participation in the management of biodiversity areas . Nevertheless, this is new territory for many parties concerned, yet a challenge of national significance. Successfully planning and operationalising a joint forest management system together with resident organisations and other partners could be central to the establishment of a dynamic conservation model which could potentially be replicable throughout the country.

The recent scientific expedition which has culminated in this important seminar is also proof of the relevance of engaging the research and academic sector which has many valuable contributions to make. It also highlights that this historic swathe of forest is important not merely to those living adjacent to it, but as a precious resource to researchers and students of natural history, ecology and biology as well as forest rehabilitation and even observers of climate change impacts. As we become better acquainted with the wonders of the KDCFR, it is essential that all the information gathered should become centrally organised so that this knowledge becomes cumulative. At this juncture, it is important to acknowledge some of the important information contributed by civil society initiatives – there has already been specialised scientific research into forest ecosystems, plant and animal diversity (Sebastian 2003, Salleh 2005, Salleh 2006). More recently, camera trapping and a further biodiversity assessment were carried out to fill gaps in the previous research (Lim 2010). There has also been timely documentation of traditional ecological knowledge in partnership with knowledgeable elders from the Temuan community (Quek 2010, Vaz 2010).

Finding a way to make the forest more accessible to user groups was an important part of the earlier campaign to build popular support for the KDCFR. Today, as a legacy of this strategic intervention, the KDCFR now boasts an excellent network of high-quality low impact forest trails thoughtfully designed and carefully constructed to suit the natural contours of the landscape. Approximately 5 km has been established and improved with the help of scores of volunteers and Temuan work groups under the leadership of the Trails Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor (TRAKS). There are plans for these trails to be extended in conjunction with the forthcoming forest management plan.

Many of these activities were led by local organisations with the support of the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme which funded efforts to engage the wider public and key stakeholders and to contribute to the sustainable management of the KDCFR. All of these studies have been made available to the Forestry Department so that they may be factored into the development of the management plan for the KDCFR. The small grants have also been used to improve signage for visitors, establish an in-situ ethnobotanical garden and extend the old MNS environmental education trail. In addition, an excellent town planning study was conducted by PAG Consult Sdn Bhd with the Forestry Department in order to plan adequate access points and facilities in anticipation of the increase in forest use by residents and visitors in years to come (see details of Concept Proposal in BOX 1).

BOX 1 Proposed Conceptual Plan developed for the KDCFR

The proposed User Access Plan has four main Gateways:-
1 The Eco-Discovery Gateway – This is the environmental education and recreational hub comprising the facilities and areas within the Unit Latihan Perhutanan Sungai Buloh which will reinvigorated as a forest activity centre for this region.

2 The Western Eco-Gateway – This comprises the current Section 9 Rimba Riang Park which is already equipped with public toilets, security and visitor parking bays. In consideration of the residential housing areas of Section 8 and Section 9, only foot trail access to the KDCFR is proposed.

3 The Southern Eco-Gateway – This is the Section 10 access point opposite the secondary school. Presently, the education trail and the other recreational forest trails are accessed from this spot. However there are noticeable shortcomings in terms of sufficient visitor parking bays, rubbish bins, and toilets. This section would benefit the most from the addition of a Forest Ranger station and visitor information centre which would have a dual role of enforcement of forest protection and an information centre to provide guidance on the trails and forest activities. In the PJ Local Plan, sections of state land in this area are designated for a sports complex and children’s play area. It is proposed that these developments proceed to harmonise with the need for supplementary facilities for the KDCFR.

4 Eastern Eco-Gateway – The Temuan community of Desa Temuan were cut off from accessing the KDCFR with the construction of the North South Expressway. It is proposed that some sort of overhead access is considered to restore some sort of direct access to this community.

5 Northern Eco-Gateway – There is an opportunity for a northern access via the Sungai Buloh Rest Stop and overhead restaurant. This might primarily be for travellers to relax while enjoying the view of the Forest Reserve. The Forestry Department may want to consider the opportunity to have a trail and a cafe in this spot to capitalise on its location.

 

Input from Stakeholder Workshops

The most recent of the UNDP GEF Grants was coordinated by the Damansara Residency RA and the results of the findings were presented in a Stakeholder Workshop which was jointly organised with the Selangor Forestry Department in Dec 2010. As the meeting brought together a wide range of interested groups, residents and forestry department officers it is worth highlighting some of the significant discussion points which emerged from the various Focus Group Discussions so that these inform the forthcoming approaches to sustainably developing the Forest Reserve.

1 Forest Management Planning
In the period following the gazettement, a considerable focus of the Forestry Department’s efforts was the identification and demarcation of the boundaries of the Forest Reserve in order to mitigate future conflict and encroachment. In moving forward, the focus group emphasised that preparing a revised Forest Management Plan (FMP) should be given priority, and the local community organisations should have the opportunity to review and provide input as members of the KDCFR Management Committee.
The KDCFR will certainly need to be carefully zoned to fulfil its multiple roles. Care must be taken to ensure that there is a good balance between areas of moderately active use and those that are retained in a relatively undisturbed state such as active wildlife use areas, plant conservation sites, and potential research sites which have restricted access. In addition, careful monitoring is needed to ensure that the carrying capacity of the forest is not exceeded and that any threats that deteriorate the forest are addressed. A rehabilitation framework should also be developed to support natural forest regeneration which is something that various groups are enthusiastic to assist with.

In terms of visitor use, some participants emphasised the need to plan for equal access by mobility challenged groups such as the disabled and the elderly. Physical access for the disabled should include wooden ramps which could extend into the forest while blending with the natural forest setting). Greater integration with the Kampung Cubitt Forestry Training Centre north of the KDCFR was considered a key element of the Forest Management Plan (FMP) and future development would do well to promote the use of the Centre as an Ecodiscovery Gateway.

One of the advantages of promoting the use of the Forestry Training Centre as an access point to the KDCFR is that it has tremendous potential to serve as an activity centre for environmental education, youth activities and forest rehabilitation initiatives. Among the facilities which are readily available here are a hall, a training centre, a tree nursery and medicinal plant gardens, a hostel and cafeteria and ample parking space. The town planning study suggested that an alternative entrance and more prominent entry statement could be added to make the area more relevant to meet the recreational needs of local residents and visitors alike.

A highlight of the facility is the 2 km bitumen-covered trail which goes through a good sample of lowland forest with medicinal plant areas. It is on mainly flat even ground and was built with the elderly and disabled in mind. However, the area has not yet been actively promoted and the current layout of the facility does not give the impression that it is open to the public. This would change as part of the re-development to receive visitors.

It was also recommended that the FMP should consider the connectivity of the forest with other neighbouring forests. This should include the potential development of wildlife corridors to fruit orchards across the highway, the Bukit Lanjan FR and ecological ‘stepping stones’ in the larger Kota Damansara area. There is a need for further research to be carried out in the forest, in particular with regard to the aquatic ecosystems and the role of fruit trees and nest trees. Permanent sample plots for long-term monitoring and research and areas of the forest for research, recreation and education should be identified and maintained. The recreational zone should centre on the area to the southwest of the forest which has already been used for the establishment of trails in addition to a future trail to the Forestry Training Centre in the north and one towards the proposed lookout point in the eastern part of the KDCFR. Improvements and visitor facilities added on should be well-blended into the natural environment. The FMP would also need to consider the carrying capacity of the forest in terms of the number of visitors per year for each of the trails and this issue should be considered together with the arrangements for enforcement.

Finally, it was also agreed that there was an urgent need to ensure that the KDCFR was properly marked with road signage and entry statements so that there would not be any doubt as to its protected status. The need to ensure that other planning documents such as the PJ Development Plan correctly acknowledged that the KDCFR was not gazetted and under the jurisdiction of the Forestry Department.

 

2 Enforcement

The group that discussed enforcement decided that in general, the responsibility for enforcing forestry regulations to protect the Forest Reserve belongs to the Selangor State Forestry Department. However, the resident community can plan an essential part in assisting the Forestry Department to effectively play this role. The community has the interest and the potential to provide some sort of voluntary monitoring and patrol – this may be demonstrated with t-shirts or badges. A strong continuous presence would discourage individuals from vandalising facilities in the forest, stealing plants or hunting. In addition, there needs to be a more regular human presence so that those seeking to find cover for illicit activities such as indulging in liquor and drugs would no longer seek to do so in the KDCFR. The council authorities (Majlis Bandaraya Petaling Jaya) should also plan a complementary role in the areas adjacent to the Forest Reserve. MBPJ should play a role in ensuring that the public recreational space is well kept and that rubbish bins are provided and emptied regularly. It should also dissuade people from using parts of this area as a dumping ground by enforcing fines.

It was felt that the Forestry Department should establish a presence (Patrol base) at the southwestern part of the KDCFR in order to dissuade people from disobeying forest regulations and damaging public property. The Forestry Patrol Base would also play the role of an Information Centre providing the public information on the trail network and other facilities. Forestry Rangers should carry out regular patrols to ensure that the area is monitored regularly and that consistent enforcement is practiced at all times.

 

3 Public Participation
This Group discussed issues of public participation in forest management and planning, education and awareness and community representation on the proposed forest management committee. It highlighted the value of getting a wide range of groups involved, including those outside Kota Damansara. Some of the examples included senior citizens, young people, residents, Orang Asli and corporate partners (such as through as CSR related initiatives). Efforts should be taken to involve school children to make them more environmentally conscious. Nurturing seedlings and participating in tree planting could be a feature of Forest Programmes in nearby schools. YAWA (Yayasan Anak Warisan Alam) representatives suggested that they would consider initiating a pilot education programme with the Section 10 secondary school as most of the teachers in the school had never been into the forest.

In conjunction with the Forestry Training Centre in Sungai Buloh, there is good potential for an open forest school, and a learning platform for the schools. Here children and adults alike can learn about the conservation of plant species and pursue related activities such as organic farming, composting, recycling and awareness of biodegradability. It is worth noting that since the workshop, YAWA has been as good as its word and together with the Forestry Department has successfully held many activities with school groups and companies interesting in contributing time to trail maintenance and tree planting.

4 Orang Asli Participation
This group discussed the maintenance of the ethnobotanical garden in the KDCFR (Taman Tahak Sipew or Aunty Sipew’s Garden). Tahak Sipew, together with Paul Quek of Bioversity, who is also assisting in the development of the nursery and fruit tree nursery in Sungai Buloh, will organise to monitor the garden to ensure that the plants being showcased are replenished if removed.

The Orang Asli participants said that specific activities which they would like to see continue, and require support as part of a concerted management strategy for the KDCFR are the promotion of the nursery and the ethnobotanical garden, the gathering of wild seedlings for propagation from within the forest reserves, partnership with the Forestry Training Centre for plant conservation activities and training, training for Temuan youth to become forest guides for the garden and the education trail and study tours and additional exposure for the Temuan that are interested in being involved. In addition, cross cultural activities should be promoted for Temuan children and children from other schools.

The group stated that the Temuan would like to continue its involvement in the development of the TRAKS-designed trail network, the ongoing maintenance of trails, and any other activities to enhance visitor facilities.

 

Finding synergy in roles
In summing up the workshop discussion Tan Sri Salleh Mohd Noor stated that the key element of operationalising a good forest management plan for the Kota Damansara Community Forest Reserve is the ability to secure the necessary financial support for enforcement, management as well as infrastructure and activities. This is an area where a good partnership between community organisations and the Forestry Department will be most beneficial. He urged the Forestry Department to be open to the dynamism and commitment of community organisations which has already been abundantly demonstrated over the past ten years and not overly constrain forest management through excessive bureaucracy. Although this would require openness and willingness to innovate from the statutory body, he was confident that the necessary synergies could be achieved.

In identifying the Forestry Training Centre as a base for forestry activities, there is much scope for making use of existing infrastructure at the facility and enhancing its relevance and appeal as a recreational venue and a base for environmental education and forest appreciation activities. A number of constructive suggestions had also been raised and he was optimistic that subsequent meetings would help to establish a mutually supportive framework for all interested parties to work together.

Fig. 2 Different access routes to the forest will provide the opportunity to provide better visitor facilities while controlling impact on the main access point in Sec. 10 as well as disruption to the lives adjacent resident communities.

Achieving our shared vision – next steps

Although, we have collectively come a great distance over the past decade, there is much work still to be done and challenges aplenty as we seek to fulfil our shared vision for the use and management of the KDCFR. Furthermore, as indicated by recent highway proposals, there is a need for continued vigilance to ensure the area’s protected status and to scrutinise development proposals. Recognising the importance of a unified community organisation to more effectively partner and support the state Forestry Department in managing the KDCFR, members of the Kota Damansara residential community and other partner organisations have recently taken the step of officially registering a Society that would provide the framework to engage in the constructive discussion of key issues pertaining to the Kota Damansara forest, build consensus through a proper consultative process, and collectively and legitimately represent shared interests.

The Kota Damansara Community Forest Society, Selangor (Persatuan Hutan Komuniti Kota Damansara, Selangor) now welcomes the membership and participation of individuals, institutions and associations that wish to support the objectives of the Society. The objects of the Society as stated in its Constitution are:
(1) To ensure permanent legal protection for the forest in the vicinity of Kota Damansara, Selangor;
(2) To provide an avenue for local communities to participate with the relevant government agencies and civil society to manage the forest as a Community Forest Park;
(3) To help protect the natural functions, ecology and biological diversity found in the forest;
(4) To promote the enjoyment and appreciation of the forest among the public through appropriate educational and recreational activities in the forest; and,
(5) To raise and manage funds and other resources to achieve the Society’s objectives

Now that we have ‘put our house on order’ we are more confident we can play a more effective role in jointly implementing the forest management plan for the KDCFR. In the process of setting up our Society, we have been struck by the abundant experience, talent and willingness to serve found among residents and friends and supporters of Kota Damansara. By a process of self-selection, people living in our neighbourhood include many who have a great love of nature and have chosen to live close to the forest. This includes many who have made this the focus of their professional lives as well as their civil society involvements, and who would certainly have much to offer to securing and enhancing the sustainable use of the KDCFR. It is also the case that the majority of community members are highly cognizant of the need to achieve a balance in the various uses of the forest, and there is no question that the integrity of the forest and its ability to conserve biodiversity should be prioritized above all else. We are excited about what we can achieve together and look forward to participating actively on the management committee of the KDCFR.

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By Justine Vaz and Lim Teck Wyn, Kota Damansara Community Forest Society