Dubious Tactics to Destroy Shah Alam Community Forest?

Dubious Tactics to Destroy Shah Alam Community Forest?

Written by Andrew Sia

Things do not look good for the Shah Alam Community Forest (SACF) as we enter the second half of 2022. Hikers have reported that bulldozers began tearing through the hilly forest earlier in May, part of a hush-hush development project called Bandar Sierra Alam by PKNS.

PKNS, the Selangor State Development Corporation under the control of the Pakatan Harapan state government, is building a “mixed residential” project along the hilly green slopes of SACF.

Yet, there is no announcement of any new property development at SACF. When you look for “Bandar Sierra Alam” on Google maps, it’s nowhere to be found.

This place was only mentioned in news stories in late May, when PKNS signed a MOU with Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) to help it conserve 34.5 hectares of forest, to be renamed as PKNS Community Forest (PCF).

The MOU makes it all sound very eco-friendly, complete with a plan to gain regional recognition for PCF. To this end, PKNS will apply to the South-East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP) to classify PCF as a protected area under OECM or “Other Effective area-based Conservation Measure”.

But these fancy terms evade the fact that the 34.5ha will merely be 20 percent of the existing 172ha at SACF. 121.4ha is owned by PKNS while the balance is owned by the state government directly. In other words, PKNS will be chopping down some 88ha of forest for “development”. Yet they are whitewashing (or rather greenwashing) it as “conservation”. This is development by stealth.

The PKNS - UITM MOU is misleading the public that SACF will be “safeguarded” when most of it will actually be destroyed. -- screen capture of Business Today report

Natural Treasures

SACF is a treasure chest of signature species such as tapirs, leopard cats, dusky leaf monkeys, white-handed gibbons, slow loris, mousedeers and hornbills.

In fact, a biodiversity survey done by SACF Society with funding from the UNDP GEF-SGP (Global Environment Facility – Small Grants Programme) has recorded 106 species of birds, 455 of plants, 94 of butterflies, 32 of reptiles and 21 of amphibians. 26 species of freshwater fish have also been found in the lakes and waterways of the area, notes former WWF conservationist Dr Dionysius Sharma.

Experts have warned that this immensely rich biodiversity cannot be sustained if the forest is cut down to a tiny island because the limited genetic pool will lead to inbreeding and eventual extinction. In other words, PCF will be a pale shadow of the bio wealth of SACF.

Malaysians know of more famous hills such as Bukit Kiara and Bukit Gasing. But these are actually overgrown rubber plantations without tapirs, gibbons or slow loris in them.

In contrast, SACF still has its original forest intact (after logging decades ago) and this accounts for its immense biodiversity. Plus, there are seven scenic lakes here, features missing in Kiara and Gasing.

This is a very popular area for hikers, with over 1,000 visitors weekly. The terrain of steep hills is perfect for hiking, but unsuitable for development as it will mean massive soil erosion and river siltation. Will that be the by-product of Bandar Sierra Alam, which gets its name from the Spanish word “sierra” or “mountains”?

Steep terrain at SACF is great for hiking but terrible for property development as it will mean soil erosion and flash floods. – photo: Andrew Sia

Moreover, there are seven beautiful lakes here, which are natural flood retention ponds, but these will also be “developed”. As it is, construction has already scarred part of the iconic Mirror Lake.

Will soil erosion and lake development of “Sierra Alam” (ie “Mountain World”) cause flash floods?

As happened after forested slopes were logged near Janda Baik (May 2022) and western Pahang (Dec 2021)?

Semi-motorised Forest?

Dr Nor Hanisah Mohd Hashim, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture, Planning and Survey, UiTM, is giving PKNS technical advice on conserving PCF. Her team of students did a three-day survey of some 200 visitors to the area – they were mostly unhappy with the project.

“Visitors to the forest claimed that the forest was under SACF and there was no sign that it belonged to PKNS. They felt rather upset that PKNS was developing it,” she explains.

Hanisah says the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) has been done, but she is unsure if it has been approved.

“PKNS did not share the whole report with me as it is rather confidential,” she notes.

What is astonishing is that development has been justified because SACF has been classified as a “semi motorised” area.

Hanisah explains there are six levels of park planning in a spectrum from “primitive” to “fully urbanised”. Level 1 (primitive) refers to virgin areas such as the Royal Belum rainforest while Level 4 refers to villages (kampung). In SACF, since there are some motocross activities (dirt or scrambler bikes), it has been classified as Level 3 or “semi motorised”.

This is rather ridiculous as regular motorbikes are normally used by Orang Asli to gather forest products, using old logging trails in many of Malaysia’s forests. Furthermore, dirt bikes have been recorded at Endau-Rompin State Park. Does that mean that all those forests should be classified as “semi motorised” and therefore open for “development” too?

Do motorbikes at Endau-Rompin State Park mean that this pristine area is “semi-motorised” and therefore open to development too? - photo: Eyoi Rimba Facebook

Affordable housing?

As a consolation, SACF’s iconic Peak Garden will be part of the 34ha to be conserved. A metal trig marker has been proposed here under UiTM’s management plan. As the trails are not too steep, there are no intentions to build concrete steps, notes Hanisah.

Can more forest be saved? The UiTM lecturer replies, “If you ask me, I would love to preserve all of the 120ha (of forest that PKNS owns). But we are only given 34ha as our area (of PCF to advise on). The remainder is outside our jurisdiction.”

In other words, it’s up to PKNS, which is controlled by the Pakatan Harapan Selangor state government, to decide if more of SACF can be conserved.

Alternatively, if PKNS can be compensated with other development lands by the government. Why destroy this pristine area of hill forest?

Hanisah has heard that PKNS intends to build “affordable housing” here. But most budget housing lies on more humble flat ground. It’s strange to build budget apartments on steep hills, where the costs of development will be much higher, especially for roads and landslide prevention.

Or is “affordable housing” a red herring to make the project more politically “acceptable”? While some may be built, perhaps the real goal is to build lucrative high-end residences. After all, most elite housing in Malaysia is branded as “heights” (eg: Damansara Heights), and probably suits the lofty setting of the highland “sierra”.

In fact the Shah Alam City Council’s (MBSA) Local Landscape Plan also shows posh “eco villas” for an area of SACF allocated as “elite housing based on eco development”. Is this what has been truly planned by PKNS?

Are these posh “elite eco villas” (as stated in the MBSA Local Landscape Plan for SACF) the real agenda of PKNS rather than “affordable housing”? – photo: SACF Facebook

State Government Not Helpful

Sadly, the Pakatan Harapan state government has not been supportive of conservation. The SACF Society (SACF-S) and other nature lovers have been trying for eight long years to save this forest, including building hiking trails with cangkuls. But they have met resistance from the authorities, not encouragement.

SACF-S has gone through all the “proper channels”, writing numerous letters to the authorities. In return, MBSA (which oversees the area) has been proposing “amazing” projects such as a graveyard for the area! Why do they want to chop down abundant forest life to make way for the dead? Is there no other place in the great state of Selangor for this?

In Dec 2019, the authorities basically told the society – sorry, this is the Local Plan (for a graveyard and PKNS development) and nothing can be done, recalls SACF founder, Alicia Teoh.

When the society appealed to the Shah Alam mayor, he replied, “Oh, if you want to change the Local Plan, you have to refer back to the State Exco.” In other words, it was a classic runaround strategy.

In mid 2020, SACF-S mobilised hundreds of people to lodge official “bantahan” (objections) to a proposed road that would cut through the forest. MBSA’s response was to go all out to discourage people from visiting the forest, including putting up big red signs warning: “TANAH KERAJAAN, PENCEROBOH AKAN DIDENDA” (government land, trespassers will be fined), threatening penalties of up to RM500,000!

The authorities have argued, that the forest was degazetted by the (bad) old Barisan Nasional state government, then headed by Umno Menteri Besar Khir Toyo in 2006.

However, SACF-S found out that this was not true, as they did a detailed study and found that the alleged 2006 degazettement was not done properly, and hence invalid.

Thus, the area is still legally a Permanent Forest Reserve, a finding that the Malaysian Bar Council agrees with. In that case, any development, including by PKNS, would be illegal.

These findings were submitted to the relevant authorities, but there was a deafening silence from them.

In April 2021, a public hearing was held by MBSA to hear objections to the Local Plan. There were a total of 718 objections against the proposed road and 195 against the graveyard. Yet journalists were barred from sitting in during the “public” hearing, which raised questions about what there was to hide. Read here.

Human Chain campaign to save SACF in Mar 2019 – photo: SACF Facebook

During the hearing, Hee Loy Sian, the State Exco for Environment, said it was “probable” that the SACF degazettement was “not carried out properly” between 2002 and 2007 as he has encountered a similar case at Bukit Lagong, Selangor. He promised to “follow up closely” on the matter.

However, there was no word from Hee after that, nor was any explanation given regarding the public objections. This was despite a letter handed over right at Hee’s Shah Alam office, requesting an urgent meeting to resolve forest encroachment.

“MBSA didn’t bother justifying anything to anyone. Our follow-up letters to MBSA were not replied to. The public hearing was a farce.” recalls Teoh.

Instead, in Feb 2022, MBSA suddenly published its Local Landscape Plan, which proposed a “perkuburan majmuk” or multicultural graveyard for supposed “racial integration”. This meant that the state government was ignoring public objections and going ahead to develop the hills of SACF. How will a graveyard be built on hilly terrain?

“I don’t see how a graveyard promotes racial integration. On the other hand, a community forest definitely promotes better racial relations where people of all races, rich or poor, can come and enjoy nature freely.” comments Teoh.
MBSA’s proposed “multiracial graveyard” Local Landscape Plan for SACF. – photo: SACF Facebook

Even if the authorities are right, that SACF had been properly degazetted back in 2006 by the Khir Toyo BN government, why don’t the “good guys” – Pakatan Harapan – reverse that decision and regazette it as a forest reserve? There is so much other land in Selangor, for example oil palm plantations on flat ground, that can be easily allocated to PKNS to build “affordable housing”.

After all, some 75,000 people have already signed a petition to “Save SACF”. How many more people (and voters) need to speak up?

Instead of giving “harapan” or “hope” to people of a greener future, the Selangor State Exco was instead caught secretly degazetting the Kuala Langat North forest reserve, first to a company linked to royalty and then to a dubious RM1 company linked to a former Johor Umno Youth chief! (Read here) Only a huge public outcry – including from Harapan backbenchers – managed to stop that travesty. 

What Will It Take To Save SACF?

Ultimately, it will require political will from the State Exco and the Pakatan Harapan state government that controls PKNS to stop the latest “development”. And it will probably require another mass outcry for the politicians to rediscover their “willpower” to do the right thing.

Sign the Petition to Stop Destruction


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