An examination of how environmental NGOs banded together and drove public discourse to save the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve from development.
THE MALAYSIAN public almost always has no say over one thing that covers one-third of their country – forest reserves. Going against that norm is the fate of the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR) in Selangor.
Last August, the Selangor state government degazetted 536.7 hectares of the KLNFR. But unrelenting public outcry and political pressure pushed the government to announce it would gazette the reserve again. Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari has since said that the gazettement will be completed within the first three months of 2022.
(Photo: Shaq Koyok (left) and other members of the PHSKLU coalition protesting the degazettement of the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve | Pic by Shaq Koyok)
For now, about half of the former KLNFR lacks the safeguard of reserve status and is open to development. But it enjoys a different kind of protection – intense public scrutiny, which could sway political decisions in the forest’s favour.
This was the result of the gargantuan efforts by a unique coalition of environmental NGOs and activists, called Pertahankan Hutan Simpan Kuala Langat Utara (PHSKLU).
While they did not stop the August degazettement of KLNFR, they spurred politicians and the public to speak up, held the government accountable, and kept alive hopes of an intact KLNFR. Crucially, they got a state government to announce it would reverse its degazettement decision.
Far larger forest reserves had been degazetted, even with public resistance. What then, did PHSKLU do differently?
I. “You’re Being Watched”: Debunking Misinformation
PHSKLU focused on countering the Selangor government’s narrative. The government had justified the degazettement with claims that the forest was degraded and not used by Orang Asli.
PHSKLU rejected these claims. They prepared drone shots, photographs, and direct testimonies from Orang Asli leaders that refuted the government’s arguments. They strategically sent this evidence to policy-makers at the state and national levels, and to leaders of Pakatan Harapan – the political coalition that governs Selangor.
Bukit Lanjan state legislative assembly person (ADUN) Elizabeth Wong credits the evidence compiled by PHSKLU as one of the factors in defending the forest.
“The voices of Orang Asli and the facts of the case were particularly critical in countering many false assumptions about the realities on the ground,” says Wong. These “irrefutable facts” compelled the Selangor State Legislative Assembly to vote across party lines for forest conservation.
Drive the narrative
Wong also noted that it was the first time almost all media outlets were consistently reporting the degazettement, as journalists felt that they couldn’t remain silent while this was happening in their backyard.
“We were defending the narrative, not just the forest,” says June Tan of Five Arts Centre, one of the members of the coalition.
“That’s the role of advocacy,” says Tan. “We gave a clear message: the people are angry, they’re refuting your lies, and you’re being watched.”
Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari did not respond to Macaranga’s request for comment. Neither did Hee Loy Sian, the Selangor executive council member who holds the Environment portfolio, or Ahmad Fadzil Abd Majid, the director of the Selangor Forestry Department.
II. “The Secret Sauce”: A Multi-Generational Coalition
PHSKLU is a diverse multi-generational group of NGOs and activists. Members say this is what enabled them to speak to different audiences, which amplified their campaign.
The coalition came together out of necessity. In February 2020, the Selangor government announced plans to degazette about 931 hectares of KLNFR. Faizal Parish, the director of Global Environment Center, an NGO member of the coalition, recalls that several NGOs were separately voicing out against the proposal.
But they were hit with multiple obstacles: media articles on the degazettement were quickly retracted; Orang Asli and members of the Kuala Langat community received short notice of a public hearing on 28 and 29 September 2020; some were barred from entering the venue of the public hearing.
“We realised the limitation [of] what could be done without a bigger group,” says Faizal. Shortly after the public hearing, a number of NGOs met online to exchange ideas – that was when PHSKLU was formed.
Ride the digital waves
Together, the coalition used an illustration of one of the forest’s endangered animals – the slow loris – as their mascot. They churned out catchy hashtags like “#HutanPergiMana”. They also built a microsite where supporters could easily access digital assets to share and download, quick facts, and even tweet generators.
The main goal was to keep the conversation alive, says Nephi Shaine William of MISI: Solidariti. She explains that realistically, their social media posts were never made to change policies or affect politicians’ decisions. Rather, they were to galvanise the youth to take action – to sign a petition or share it with their peers.
Strength in unity and diversity
Shaq says that working with youth groups gave their campaign another layer. Workshops and film screenings intrigued a lot of people and prompted them to not only understand the movement, but become a part of it.
That’s the secret sauce, Faizal says of the diverse coalition. “Maybe we (the older members of the coalition) are stuck in our old ways, and the things that we’ve said cannot be done, have been the more successful and effective strategies.”
III. Political Pressure
One of these strategies was to play their political cards right.
Firstly, they urged ADUNs to announce their objection to the degazettement. The coalition launched a campaign to encourage the public to email their elected representatives to voice their objection. Nearly 1,500 emails were sent, according to Greenpeace Malaysia.
To drive the point home, the coalition also delivered plants donated by GRASS Malaysia and EMPOWER Malaysia to several ADUNs to remind them that they, as lawmakers, have the duty to protect the environment.
Secondly, PHSKLU called out Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto to govern based on principles of sustainability, biodiversity and the community’s best interests. This was crucial, says Faizal. Pakatan Harapan’s credibility was at stake, especially in light of the upcoming general election.
Then the ADUNs spoke
On 11 November 2020, the Selangor state legislative assembly unanimously passed a motion brought by Bukit Anggerik ADUN Mohd Najwan Halimi to protect all gazetted forest reserves in Selangor.
The motion was successful due to a confluence of efforts from NGOs and politicians, says Wong, the Bukit Lanjan ADUN.
On the other hand, Subang Jaya ADUN Michelle Ng says that PHSKLU efforts carried little weight.
“Myself and a few ADUNs did our own research, and a good number of us were convinced on various facts on balance that we do not agree with the decision [to degazette KLNFR].”
Can it be replicated?
The state’s decision to regazette the forest was a major milestone for the coalition. By then, PHSKLU had campaigned for more than a year, gathered thousands of signed objections, and spurred protests and public support across social media.
This prompts the question: can this outcome be achieved for other forests under threat, or was it merely a timely confluence of favourable factors?
Faizal believes this campaign strategy can be replicated, and quotes senior forestry officers, who have said it is the most successful model. “It worked here because it was right in the heart of Klang Valley, where millions of people are, and yet the government is lying to the public.”
However, it may not work for safeguarding a forest in Sabah or Sarawak, he admits, as they are more remote and have a smaller population.
William of MISI: Solidariti goes further to suggest that PHSKLU’s efforts can also inform how we approach activism for other causes.
“Advocacy is tiring in Malaysia,” she says. “A lot more NGOs and issues can benefit from contacting other organisations, to combine their resources, [and] focus on their strengths and audiences for more impact.”
[Edited by YH Law]
NOTE: 2nd paragraph of article corrected on 7 Jan 2022, 9.30am with updated information of KLNFR’s regazettement timeline.
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