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Reversing the deterioration of resources
Published on: Sunday, March 21, 2021
By: David Thien
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The Stability of Altered Forest Environment (Safe) Project is one of the largest ecological experiments of its kind in the world. (Pic: SEARRP)
SIME Darby Foundation is helping Sabah to conserve its unique biodiversity, reversing trends that lead to the overall deterioration of the State’s natural resources.

The Stability of Altered Forest Environment (Safe) Project is one of the largest ecological experiments of its kind in the world, which studied the changes in biodiversity and ecosystem functions in human-modified landscapes in Sabah, first sponsored by Sime Darby Foundation for RM30 million since 2010 for the South East Asia Rainforest Research Programme (SEARRP) to undertake and manage the Project.  

Daily Express conducted an interview with Datuk Dr. Glen Reynolds, Project Manager at Safe recently who is also SEARRP Director. 

Dr Glen Reynolds explained, “The South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership was established by the Royal Society in 1985 to facilitate world-class scientific research that addresses the major environmental issues facing the tropics: deforestation, plantation development, habitat restoration, and climate change.”

“Over the last 30 years, SEARRP scientists have made a seminal contribution to our understanding of rainforests, their conservation, restoration, and sustainable management. Our mission is to train and mentor the next generation of scientists and conservation leaders, and inform policy and best practice at local, regional and global levels.”

“Changing the way, we manage forest, and non-forest land can significantly reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Hence, there is an urgent need for biodiversity conservation to be mainstreamed into forest management best practices in all forest types.”

“As humanity continues to grapple with the accelerating rate of biodiversity loss, sustainable agriculture is becoming very essential in reversing trends that lead to the overall deterioration of our natural resources.”

“Research shows that it is possible to halt and reverse terrestrial biodiversity loss from land-use change by making food production and its entire value chain as well as consumption patterns more sustainable.”

“It is aimed at making fundamental contributions to the protection of rainforest ecosystems and biodiversity conservation in the context of agricultural production.”

In the fight against climate change and viral diseases from deforestations: Sime Darby Foundation’s support crucial for sustainability research

DAILY EXPRESS (DE): Please share with our readers, your role and contribution to the key highlights of the Safe Project over the last 10 years. How long have you lived in Sabah working on the Safe Project?

A:
I’m Dr. Glen Reynolds, Project Manager at Safe – and Director of the Sabah-based South East Asia Rainforest Research Programme or SEARRP, of which Safe is part. I’ve lived in Sabah for over 20 years now – with the first 10-years at Danum Valley, where SEARRP is headquartered.

DE: Can you explain how Sime Darby Foundation’s support has helped the Safe Project achieve breakthroughs and contributed to major stakeholders such as conservation bodies and agriculture industry players?

A:
Safe would have been impossible without the support of the Sime Darby Foundation; ‘regular’ research grants simply don’t exist to fund the establishment and long-term running costs of a project of this sort. Support of the Foundation which has totalled more than RM60 million to date has allowed us to develop scientific infrastructure, recruit a team of research assistants and establish a core data collection programme – and, crucially, enabled us to leverage support from other grant awarding agencies.

DE: From your experience what are the technology and innovative tools used in the Safe Project that could help wildlife conservation and biodiversity conservation?

A:
The innovative work on bio-acoustic monitoring is especially exciting; project scientists, led by a team from Imperial College, are developing smart-phone enabled tools which would allow real time monitoring of biodiversity in forests and plantation landscapes – and, potentially, activity associated with hunting and illegal logging, for example.

DE: Can you elaborate on how biodiversity can persist in human-modified tropical landscapes and is it as conducive to survival as conditions in the pristine landscape?

A:
Pristine rainforests are exceptionally important at many levels – particularly in terms of the biodiversity they support – and it is crucial that any and all remaining primary forests are protected. That said, findings from the Safe Project have demonstrated the value of even highly disturbed and modified landscapes in maintaining biodiversity. In many respects, habitat ‘complexity’ is key; mosaics of forest patches, riparian reserves and sustainably managed plantations are able to support many of the species we associate with continuous forest – and, importantly, allow animals to move through the landscape between larger areas of forest.

DE: Tell us, how has the Project been able to promote collaborations between researchers from the UK and Malaysia which also facilitated capacity building amongst research assistants, local students, and early-career scientists in Malaysia?

A:
Firstly, support from the Sime Darby Foundation has enabled us to directly fund a series of PhD and Masters programmes for Malaysian students – several of which have been through internationally recognised centres of excellence in environmental science including Imperial College, UK and University of Zurich, Switzerland. All non-Malaysian scientists working on the project – of which there have been hundreds over the past 10 years – have collaborated with established academics at Malaysian universities and research institutes, particularly Universiti Malaysia Sabah and the Sabah Forestry Department’s Forest Research Centre at Sepilok. In addition, the project has employed and trained dozens of Sabahan Research Assistants – and the team at Safe is now among the most highly skilled group of field research staff in Malaysia.

DE: Can you show our readers, how Safe’s research work has impacted policy and best practice developments through its partnerships with SEARRP, particularly in High Conservation Value and riparian buffer design and management?

A:
We have been determined, since initiating the Safe Project in 2010, that the scientific outputs of the project contribute to the development of policy and best practice. Of course, this can be something of a ‘slow burn’ as it’s crucial that this type of input is based on published research findings, for example, papers in academic journals that have been rigorously peer reviewed, a process which often takes years from field research to publication. We hope and expect that Safe research will make an ongoing, long-term contribution to conservation and sustainability in Malaysia – and early work on the development of policies relating to riparian buffers has been especially exciting. Our scientists have collaborated closely with colleagues from both the Department of Irrigation and Drainage in Sabah and Environmental Protection Department – and through this cooperation Safe Project findings are directly informing the revision of riparian forest management in Sabah. This is exactly what we wanted from Safe – to be at the intersection between science, policy and best practice.

DE: Credible organisations like WWF reported large-scale agriculture, like palm oil plantations, is a major cause of deforestation besides river chemical fertilizer and oil palm mill effluent pollution runoff woes in Malaysia. Share with our readers your views on this development over the years.

A:
Regardless of the geographic location, if complex natural habitats, including forests, are cleared to develop mono-crop agricultural plantations, the impacts – particularly with respect to biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions – will be severe. In the Malaysian context, it’s crucial that agricultural development does not take place at the expense of natural forests – and proposed moratoria on the development of new oil palm plantations and commitments to retain overall forest cover at 50 per cent of land area in Malaysia are extremely welcome. It’s also of the utmost importance that existing plantations are sustainably managed and that the array of conservation values and ecosystem services supported by the mosaic of forest patches and riparian reserves embedded within these landscapes are maintained and, where possible, enhanced.

DE: Do you agree that clearing large tracts of forests affect their crucial role in stabilising climate change and sequestering carbon dioxide, besides potentially releasing zoonotic pestilent causing microbes from organism or fauna that can cross-infect humans causing epidemic or pandemic like the current Covid-19 scourge?

A:
In a word, yes. The consequences of forest loss with respect to greenhouse gas emissions is well established; roughly speaking, close to a fifth of global GHG emissions are associated with land-use change, primarily forest loss, and agricultural development – a proportion broadly equivalent to the emissions from the entire transportation sector. There is also growing evidence – including from the Safe Project – that land-use change, particularly forest loss and disturbance, is triggering and fuelling the transmission of zoonotic diseases among human populations. If yet another reason were needed to prevent further forest loss and manage agricultural plantations sustainably, this is it.

DE: Do you agree with Dr Henry Chan, the Conservation Director of WWF-Malaysia that stronger efforts to reduce forest loss and degradation must be part of the solution to the global climate change problem? WWF stresses that agriculture, forestry and land-use sectors account for about a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions, so by tackling forest loss, embracing solutions to managing forests sustainably and shifting to sustainable food systems, such emissions can be reduced.

A:
I definitely agree that rainforest conservation and sustainable forest and plantation management are absolutely crucial in tackling issues of biodiversity loss and climate change.

DE: Dr Chan stresses that the clearing of forests for agriculture and plantations as well as infrastructure developments with poor planning and lack of compliance with environmental policies seriously threaten the habitats of endangered species in Malaysia. Should there be a halt to further expansion or opening up of more lands for monocropping like for oil palm?

A:
The consequences of continued forest loss and poorly planned agricultural expansion are well known – as are solutions like habitat restoration, sustainable agriculture and so on. The choices for Malaysia are clear.

DE: Malaysia Borneo – Sabah and Sarawak – recorded a forest loss of 1.9 million hectares between the period of 2004 – 2017. This is 33 percent out of the 5.9 million hectares of forest loss identified for the whole of Borneo, including Kalimantan and Brunei, over the same period. Is it irreversible for Borneo’s biodiversity to recover from this loss of habitat?

A:
Tipping points at which biodiversity loss become irreversible – especially in such complex systems and landscapes – are hard to establish. However, it’s likely that critical junctures are being approached and it’s of the highest possible importance that further loss of natural forests are avoided and – where possible – that forests that have been fragmented and degraded are restored and re-connected.

DE: According to the report by Global Forest Watch, the primary forest loss in Malaysia in 2019 is 120,000 hectares. Of this, 70,000 hectares of primary forest loss occurred in Malaysia’s Borneo States while 50,000 hectares of primary forest loss occurred in Peninsular Malaysia. These clearings of forests impact endangered flora and fauna species, like orang-utans in Borneo and tigers in West Malaysia, as well as native communities who depend on forests to sustain their livelihood. What advice can you offer to the federal and state governments?

A:
Simply to keep new development – agricultural or infrastructure – out of any natural forest – particularly primary forest, which is disproportionately important in terms of biodiversity value and carbon storage.

DE: What approaches businesses and policymakers can take to mitigate such biodiversity loss?

A:
Businesses and policymakers should look at removing deforestation from supply chains and establishing zero-deforestation policies.

DE: To your understanding, what are the drivers and how best can decision makers and citizenry address the root causes?

A:
The primary driver of deforestation across the tropics is the expansion of agriculture. As individuals and decision makers, we can exercise ethical choices – in terms of purchasing and investment – by taking the time and effort to identify products and companies that do not support forest loss.

DE: Please share with us your impressions of Sabah and Malaysia. Are you optimistic of the future?

A:
Sabah is my home and is the most amazing place to live, on many levels. It’s a privilege for me to be here – and I’m very optimistic for its future and that of Malaysia. There are so many reasons to be positive, not least the growing number of young Malaysian scientists and environmentalists who will play such an important role in conservation and sustainability over the coming years. I really hope that Safe – and the wider SEARRP research programme – can contribute to both to the development of their careers, the evidence base for the better protection, restoration and management of Malaysia’s priceless rainforests and, as importantly, the livelihoods of its people.

 

SEARRP’s Director Dr Glen Reynolds (right) explaining research on rainforests and wildlife conservation to Prince William, the Duke (centre) and his wife Duchess of Cambridge during their visit to Danum Valley in 2012.  





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