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MANGROVE CONSERVATION FROM THE EYES OF COASTAL COMMUNITY LEADERS IN PERAK

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Wetlands around the world are disappearing 3 times faster than forests. According to the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), Malaysia’s total mangrove (coastal wetlands) area had decreased by over 20% from 800,000 hectares in the 1950s to 629,038 hectares in 2017. Besides their role in carbon storage and sequestration, coastal communities depend on mangroves as source for food and income, as well as protection against the occurrence of frequent natural calamities.

In most mangrove rehabilitation initiatives and efforts, local communities have been identified as the missing link despite them being a major stakeholder. Realising this, Global Environment Centre (GEC) has been helping coastal communities to set up community-based organisations dubbed Sahabat Hutan Bakau (SHB) or ‘Friends of Mangrove’ to conserve and rehabilitate mangrove areas on the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

From February 2020 until January 2023, Yayasan Sime Darby is supporting GEC for a community-based mangrove conservation and sustainable livelihood programme in Perak, specifically at Kuala Gula, Kerian and Sitiawan, Manjung. YSD’s RM1.2 million funding support is championing, among other activities, the participation of underprivileged communities in the rehabilitation and protection of degraded mangrove forest areas by planting mangrove saplings, establishing nurseries, monitoring and patrolling the nurseries as well as the planting sites. The programme will also empower the communities with means to generate income from alternative sources such as eco-tourism and non-timber forest products.

Following a recent project site visit to Kuala Gula and Sitiawan, YSD had the pleasure of interviewing two community leaders who are helming the 14-year-old Sahabat Hutan Bakau Kuala Gula (SHBKG) and the 7-month-old Sahabat Hutan Bakau Pasir Panjang Laut (SHBPPL). Pn. Puji Astuti Ismaun, 43, of SHBKG and En. Abdullah Radzi Ramli, 60, of SHBPPL shared their bittersweet experiences, obstacles and hopes in protecting and conserving the ocean frontline defenders that are shielding the land they call home.

Sime Darby Berhad Group executive leaders En. Mustamir and Dato’ Jeffri (3rd from the left, 3rd row), GEC Director En. Faizal Parish, YSD CEO Dr Hjh Yatela Zainal Abidin (3rd from the left, 2nd row) with SHBKG community, as well as representatives from GEC, YSD and Sime Darby Berhad during a recent project visit to Kuala Gula.



Could you share a bit about your life before and after joining the Sahabat Hutan Bakau programme and how you came to know about it?

Puji:

Born and raised in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, I was making a living as a seamstress before I moved to Kuala Gula in 1997 to follow my then-husband who is a local here. Since then, I continued my work as a seamstress and grew closer to local community members. In 2007, I was helping the SHBKG community as a bus driver during their tourist guide training course organised by GEC. A couple of SHBKG members decided at the last minute that they could not join the programme, so I replaced one of them and completed the course. I then began to volunteer as a tourist guide under the programme for about 2 years, before I was appointed as the secretary. After holding the position for 3 years, I was appointed to lead SHBKG as the chairperson. I am humbled and will always be grateful to GEC and YSD for this life-changing opportunity.

Radzi:  

Born and bred here at Kampung Pasir Panjang Laut (KPPL), I spent 13 years in Penang as a design engineer before returning to my hometown for good in 2000. I then worked for Tenaga Nasional Berhad and Sapura Energy here at Manjung before retiring and setting up my own business about 4 years ago. For the past 13 years, I have always been an active community leader both as a chairman of a parent-teacher association as well as the Kawasan Rukun Tetangga (neighbourhood association) here at KPPL. 

I first heard about GEC and the Sahabat Hutan Bakau programme when I was invited to a meeting organised by the JPKK (neighbourhood development and security committee). During the meeting, we discussed about forming the Sahabat Hutan Bakau Pasir Panjang Laut (SHBPPL) community. I was then appointed as the community’s chairman during the following JPKK meeting in September 2020. It has been about half a year and the experience has been very rewarding for all of us in the community.

How has the programme impacted your life and those around you?

Puji:
 
Our replanting efforts have helped increase income sources for the Kuala Gula mangrove fishing community here, where many sorts of shellfish species depend on the health of our mangrove forests. We also got to learn how to make handicraft products and were trained to better communicate with visitors such as students, researchers and other coastal communities. When I first joined SHBKG, I did not have much interest in mangroves, and I thought the forests were dirty and smelly, but my ex-husband showed me around the mangrove areas, and they grew on me.

I became more passionate about conserving mangroves as I worked with GEC and my fellow SHKBG members, now numbering 12. Together we learned more about the essential roles that mangroves play in our lives. Being able to see the trees we planted growing healthily and the crab traps hung on the trees fetching us sustenance, I feel as though we are at the service of both the land and the sea. Our planting site used to be neglected and at the risk of more erosions but now we are overjoyed to see it thriving with mangrove trees. What is more, our fishermen are happy they could make up to RM400 a day during high tides which occur every 3 months for about a week.

Radzi:

Fundamentally, the programme is an opportunity for us to gather as a team of 27 to instil a loving attitude towards nature within ourselves as well as among the rest of the local community at KPPL. Despite having to deal with the terrain challenges of our planting sites, we strive to provide the best environment for the saplings to survive and flourish. We have learned, through engagements with GEC the importance of mangroves as nature’s frontline defenders against the harsh effects of climate change and the extent to which our mangroves have been lost to erosion. GEC with YSD’s support also provided a structured programme whereby we must achieve certain milestones in stages and from there, the community understands that they are in this conservation work for the long haul.

What is the toughest or most challenging experience you have been through while being part of the community?

Puji:

The most challenging experience for me was having to deal with 20 international students from Qatar during a planting programme. Their teachers had arranged the programme but the students appeared to be interested in being mere tourists, not volunteers. All that we were told was: “We pay you, you plant”. Joined only by 4 teachers momentarily, we toiled and planted 1,800 saplings from 9 am to 4 pm that day. Our limits were pushed but we continue to assure ourselves that we were doing it for the sustainability of the mangroves and our community.

Radzi:

It is also not easy to convince local community members to participate but those who do and have become SHBPPL members are devoted to saving our mangroves because we have carefully selected them to join us. The challenge is in attracting and recruiting younger community members as the tasks are quite labour-intensive and the working conditions may not be favourable to them. They have a perception that working for corporations and the government is better than working in the kampung. Nevertheless, it is important to educate and inspire them without judging their capacities because this is a long-term initiative to solve environmental issues for our own community. Some who are already in their 60s would still come to volunteer as frequently as they could at the planting sites and their dedication amazes me.

What makes all the laborious work and challenges in leading the community all worth it? 

Puji:

I have been in this community for more than a decade and it has exposed me to be acquainted with people from all walks of life. It gives me joy when we get to build rapport and exchange opinions and outlook with outsiders who come from other coastal communities as well as corporate supporters who would travel all the way from bigger cities. I have learnt about different traditions and ways of life – a treasured experience that began when I moved to Kuala Gula from Kuala Lumpur. Even when I first moved here, the local community accepted me openly and never made me feel like an outsider. We talked about and bonded over many topics including politics and mangrove conservation. It is the invaluable knowledge and know-how that I treasure the most.

Radzi:

Being involved in this community to look after the mangroves and revive our coastlines have become our mission. Before this, the local community did not even bat an eye whenever they see developers or contractors cutting down mangrove trees to be turned into material supply for their projects. But today, we have the awareness to ‘heal’ our coastlines again by planting more trees. In Islam, this endeavour is also considered jihad (a holy struggle for a moral or spiritual goal) in which we battle against irresponsible actions that would harm mangrove forests which are also one of Allah’s creations. To me, this paradigm shift makes all our hard work and struggle even more meaningful and worthwhile.

In your opinion, why are community-based mangrove conservation programmes like this so important?

Puji:

Firstly, it is to tackle the serious issue of erosion. Our country’s coastlines are continuing to recede as more mangroves disappear. They act as wind and swell breakers to protect us against mighty winds and waves at the coastlines. But here at Kuala Gula, we see our shorelines shrinking in front of our very own eyes. For example, not too long ago, only 1 or 2 boats were able to pass by in front of a ‘floating’ restaurant here, but now we can see 7 to 8 boats crossing each other’s paths at any one time, which indicates the drastic effect of erosions of the coastline.

The fishing community here used to earn more than they do now due to the lack of shellfish. For example, we used to sell clams back in the day but now they are nowhere to be found. There used to be a coastal village here in Kuala Gula but the residents had to relocate due to erosions. I always tell my fellow SHBKG members that if we do not take care of the mangroves, we will not be able to call this place our home anymore, neither could we make a living as we do now. I sincerely thank Yayasan Sime Darby and GEC for keeping this programme alive and assisting us to shape a better future for ourselves and our younger generations.

Radzi:

Mangroves can lessen the damage during storms as wind and ocean waves are rapidly dissipated as they pass through the trees. Our shorelines are also susceptible to more erosion without mangroves. By conserving and protecting them, we are protecting ourselves too. More than 220 hectares of our mangrove area had been degraded and we can already see the effects. Those who live near the beach are facing the risk of losing their homes due to coastal flooding. If we do not address these issues, our community will be physically split up.

For some community members, looking after our mangrove areas give them hope and purpose as they have little means to turn their lives around. By being involved in this initiative, they will be empowered with alternative sources of income, and will no longer have to rely on handouts to survive. Thanks to YSD and GEC, we hope to revitalise our beaches and turn our lives around through these efforts.

SHBKG chairlady Pn. Puji Astuti is a well-respected leader who guides 12 other community members in carrying out community-based mangrove conservation work.

Pn. Puji explaining methods to plant mangrove saplings at a SHBKG nursery to Sime Darby Berhad Group CEO, Dato’ Jeffri Salim Davidson and Group CFO, En. Mustamir Mohamad.

SHBPPL chairman En. Abdullah Radzi, an active and instinctual community leader, guides a team of 26 in rehabilitating degraded mangrove areas at Kampung Pasir Panjang Laut, Sitiawan, Manjung.

(From left) En. Mustamir, Dato’ Jeffri, En. Radzi and Dr Hjh Yatela during a food aid distribution to SHBPPL community members.

En. Radzi helping out a Sime Darby Berhad representative to plant a shade tree at a SHBPPL mangrove nursery and planting site.

Sime Darby Berhad Group CEO Dato' Jeffri (R) and Global Environment Centre (GEC) Director Faizal Parish smiling for the camera after planting several mangrove saplings at Teluk Rubiah Forest Reserve in Kuala Gula.

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Last Updated:
22 Apr 2021
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