Despite widespread protests, the Selangor government has excised parts of the Kuala Langat North forest reserve on 12 August 2021. This is a wake-up call to give the Dewan Undangan Negeri the power to stop excision, argues forestry consultant Teckwyn Lim.
The recent degazettement of Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve is a black mark on our democracy. The Selangor state executive council (Exco) headed by Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari gave the middle-finger to the Dewan and to the Rakyat.
It appears that the weak hands of the Exco can be twisted by powerful commercial and political interests. It is thus now time that the Dewan amends the forestry laws to limit the Exco’s power to excise forest reserves.
(Photo: A screenshot of the gazette published on 12 August 2021 announcing the Selangor Exco’s decision to excise parts of the Kuala Langat North forest reserve | Pic by YH Law)
Accountability is provided when decisions on forest reserves are made public. The National Forestry Act 1984 mandates that a reserve is deemed “gazetted” or “degazetted” only once an official notification has been published in the state government Gazette.
Originally a type of newspaper for official announcements, the federal Gazette can now be accessed online. However, the Gazette for most states is behind a paywall. Nobody noticed the 12 August announcement regarding Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve.
Unfortunately, Kuala Langat North is not an isolated case. There are several forest reserves in the Klang Valley that are still threatened with excision.
Carving up Bukit Cherakah
One prominent case is that of the Bukit Cherakah forest reserve in Shah Alam. Here, the state is developing on forest reserve land which has not yet even been degazetted. The state Exco unlawfully excised this forest reserve without publishing a Gazette notification.
The Bukit Cherakah case dates to the days of the Barisan Nasional state government. On 9 January 2002, former Selangor Menteri Besar, Dr Khir Toyo, and the state Exco approved the excision of 406.22 hectares from the Bukit Cherakah forest reserve (see map below).
This decision was made in secret: neither the public nor the Dewan were notified. And 20 years since, the excision still has not been announced in the Gazette.
Despite being part of the forest reserve, this land, in Shah Alam Section U10, was carved up for development by private and state-linked companies.
The press highlighted Bukit Cherakah in early 2005, when developers bulldozed the forest. The logging opened a huge swathe of forest right next to the Malaysia Agricultural Park (now the Shah Alam Botanical Gardens). The press highlighted concerns that the logging was isolating the park.
National scandal continues
Dr Khir claimed that the development was approved before he became MB in 2000.  But the public was not convinced. The forest destruction became a national scandal.
Eventually, three companies were fined for clearing the forest without valid permits. After that, the forest clearing stopped.
However, the logging in Bukit Cherakah forest reserve has recently resumed. In 2020, the Petaling District Land Office issued land titles to the developer Restu Mantap Sdn Bhd, which proceeded to clear the forest in the same U10 portion of the reserve.
Restu Mantap was one of the three companies fined for logging without a permit in 2005. The company claimed that this time its operations were legal because the forest reserve had been “degazetted”.
But the Bukit Cherakah forest reserve has not been officially degazetted. An investigation was made by the NGO Shah Alam Community Forest Society which is protesting the ongoing development there. It found that there were no degazettements covering the land in question.
Despite this, it found that the Selangor government has recently been alienating the land inside the forest reserve, against the provisions of the National Land Code 1965.
But the state Excos have sole authority over forest reserves, leaving the public and civil society powerless over these matters. The people must now rely on their elected representatives in the Dewan to conserve the remaining forest.
Currently, the members of the Dewan (ADUNs) generally have no say in matters of forest reserves.
One exception is Sabah, where any change in forest status requires the approval of the Dewan. As a result, Sabah still has more than 50% of its land under forest cover.
Just listen, not heed
In all other states, the Exco alone decides on the addition or excision of forest reserves. A caveat is that in Selangor, a 2011 legislation amendment requires the Exco to conduct public enquiries before reserve excision. However, even in Selangor, the Exco is not obliged to act according to the findings of the enquiry.
In November 2020, the Selangor Dewan was unanimous in its resolution to protect and preserve forest reserves in the state. This resolution was moved by YB Mohd Najwan Halimi who is the member for Kota Anggerik, which includes the Bukit Cherakah Forest Reserve. However, the Exco seems to have paid no attention to this decision of the Dewan.
Power to the Dewan and people
Therefore, it is now time to amend the state forestry enactment to empower the Dewan to have the final say regarding the fate of forest reserves.
This can be achieved by inserting a requirement that any decision to excise a forest reserve “shall be laid before the Dewan Undangan Negeri for approval”. Then an excision would not come into force unless and until it had been approved by the Dewan. This would enable the Dewan to over-rule the Exco when necessary.
We need a system in place to better safeguard the irreplaceable natural assets of the state. Putting the fate of our forest reserves into the hands of the Dewan would be one such system. This would upgrade our democracy and give us first-class levels of transparency and accountability.
Ultimately it will ensure that our natural heritage is preserved for the benefit of future generations of Malaysians and for the good of the entire planet.
[Edited by YH Law]
Teckwyn Lim has a degree in forestry and a PhD in ecology. He has been working on forest management in Malaysia since 1999 and he is the Hon. Treasurer of the Shah Alam Community Forest Society.
The above is the opinion of the author and it does not necessarily reflect that of Macaranga.
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