Kota Damansara Community Forest 0 (Dorothy Woon)

Nibbling Away at Kota Damansara Forest

Inadequate protection of precious urban forests is shrinking them, warns community researcher and organiser Peter Leong.

TAPAN KUMAR Nath’s recent article in Macaranga, Support community efforts to better manage urban green spaces, shines an important light on the urgent need for community based organisations to gain a role in the governance of urban green spaces (UGS).

A 2019 study which found that KL “lost about 88% of its UGS between 2007 and 2017″ is most alarming – it highlights that the door of meaningful opportunity for these organisations’ impact in UGS governance is closing.

(Feature pic: In the densely built-up Klang Valley, remaining forest patches are precious to local communities | Photo by Dorothy Woon)

This is encapsulated most recently by the Rangkaian Urban Green Spaces (RUGS) initiative funded by the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Similar to how ‘50% forest cover’ commitments were devalued by timber plantations, agriculture and quarrying within forest reserves, the proponents (and possibly the regulators as well) of urban development probe the loopholes especially around ‘public purpose reserves’.

I wrote recently on this, triggered by the latest in KL’s on-going loss of flood retention ponds.

The quest to entrench community based organisations’ participation in UGS governance is therefore inextricably linked with the broader citizens’ movement seeking to secure rights to urban wellness and liveability.

As Tapan’s research shows, creating urban community forests is a key pathway and must be backed up by multi-faceted activism involving (but not limited to) the public interest aspects of forestry, land and planning laws.

Kota Damansara Community Forest (photos by Dorothy Woon)

The top policy document concerning this matter in the spatial planning realm is probably PlanMalaysia’s Garis Panduan Perancangan (GPP) Kawasan Lapang.

Notice that it addresses Open Space generally with a classification hierarchy that ranges from National Parks down to neighbourhood children’s playgrounds, by taking a development perspective ie public recreational spaces in the spatial planning context.

Much advocacy and policy shaping work is needed to influence development control and local government frameworks towards adopting the ideals expressed in Tapan’s article.

For the present moment, urban community forests could perhaps be viewed as a ‘top-tier’ UGS, in particular the ones which are significantly sized mature forests. Coming readily to mind in the Klang Valley are:

As we journey towards more sustainable urban development and UGS governance models, examining and mitigating against the threats faced by these top-tier community forests would help to ensure that the best is preserved, researched and documented, continually strengthening the case for better governance models.

Kota Damansara Community Forest Gazette 2010
Kota Damansara Community Forest Gazette 2010

The KDCF is arguably the most secure urban community forest in the Klang Valley. It is not beset by legally disputed status as is the Shah Alam Community Forest, and its status as a public-access amenity forest is secured under Sec. 10 of the National Forestry Act 1984.

However, it is being threatened by land alienations which seemingly overlap the forest reserve, and encroachments at its edges by adjacent landowners/occupants.

The KDCF is a 320ha forest in Kota Damansara that is all that is left of the 6,400ha Sg Buloh Forest Reserve, one of the oldest (if not the oldest) forest reserve in Malaya. It was first constituted in 1898 under the then-prevailing land laws.

On 18 Feb 2010, a totally new forest reserve (Hutan Simpan Kota Damansara) was constituted based on an ‘approximate’ Gazette Plan (PW), no. 1534. On the same day too was published a classification gazette declaring it to be an “amenity, education and research forest”.

The Department of Survey and Mapping subsequently refined this in 2012 as Certified Plan nos. 205341 and 205342 designating this forest reserve as Lot 65188. It therefore has boundary delineation to the same standard of accuracy as our house/land titles.

Kota Damansara Community Forest (photos by Dorothy Woon)

To protect KDCF’s biodiversity heritage in line with the National Policy on Biodiversity, the Kota Damansara Community Forest Society was formed in 2011.

The society is committed to demonstrating the extraordinary potential of public participation by collaborating effectively with the Selangor Forestry Department and engaging local stakeholders including scientist/conservation professionals, academic institutions, schools, and Orang Asli.

The society does this in addition to maintaining the forest’s trail network and other general upkeep, relying largely on corporate social responsibility activities which generate a not-so-steady stream of funding.

No joint management

Nonetheless, the society’s major obstacle has revolved around the non-formation of a Joint Management Committee comprising stakeholders and institutional members. This has impeded the evolution of an effective participatory management/ joint governance model.

With the journey towards entrenching effective participatory UGS governance across the legislative and institutional structures is likely to take decades, it is necessary to plant clear stakes in the ground to protect what we already have.

On various dates in 2015, the Department of Survey and Mapping issued four new Certified Plans – nos. 226893, 226894, 226895 & 226900 – for 23 bungalow lots of Bayu 23, a posh ‘gated’ community at the south-east corner of the forest.

What is most remarkable is that 13 lots are inside the forest reserve. Can Certified Plans overlap? The answer must surely be somewhere in the Survey Department’s SOPs. But what we do know – from the National Land Code and the National Forestry Act – is that land/house titles cannot be created within a forest reserve. Yet there they are, the purchasers/residents of Bayu 23.

Could there have been a partial excision of the forest reserve legitimising the 13 ‘offending’ bungalows? Selangor had just four years before that legislated for public inquiry for forest reserve degazettement.

But no such public hearing was conducted.

Kota Damansara Community Forest (photos by Dorothy Woon)

More recently in May 2022, another parcel of the forest reserve north of Bayu 23 received several visits by developers and state agencies . The parcel appears as “58.43 ek/23.65 ha” (see map) in a land development proposal whose origins can likely be traced back to before the forest reserve gazettement.

This site has appeared as a forest clearing in satellite images from 2007; by 2011-12, it had revegetated. There was also a Right of Way (hak lalulang) granted by the Petaling District and Land Office in 2004, but an officer later said that the 2010 forest reserve gazettement “automatically extinguished this Right of Way”.

Nonetheless, the Forestry Department in 2012 still left out this area in its map of the forest reserve. But it also left out Bayu 23.

Officials visit

The May 2022 visitors included a developer’s representative who sought the acquiescence to develop that plot, of the residents of D’Rimba Apartments west of the plot.

Majlis Bandaraya Petaling Jaya’s involvement was understood to relate to a ‘watercourse diversion’. A natural stream flows through D’Rimba Apartments – a pleasing and soothing natural landscape feature which the residents have come to love. The residents of D’Rimba Apartments were made to understand that this would dry up.

The fringes of HSKD do also exhibit other worrying signs of being nibbled on at the edges (see map).

The two Certified Plans of 2012 by the Department of Survey themselves warrant a re-examination. Surveying protocols should have required, for example, investigation of competing claims and rights, and due diligence in ensuring that the state Forestry Department had unencumbered control over all areas included within it.

Land in most of the Klang Valley is ‘precious and valuable’ in the development context. The Kota Damansara Forest Reserve was a hard won gazettement following more than a decade of dogged activism. It should have only value, but never a price that can be negotiated upon. Every bit of its 320.8 hectares is priceless, and therefore the territorial integrity of KDCF demands attention.

But many forest reserves, especially those far away from urbanised areas, simply continue being delineated by only Gazette Plans.

Without clear lines in the sand drawn by civil society, there will be no hope of arresting continual shrinkage of UGS across the urban landscape.

Kota Damansara Community Forest (photos by Dorothy Woon)

Call to action to the authorities

On behalf of the members of the Kota Damansara Community Forest Society and civil society at large, I call upon the Selangor State Forest Department, the Selangor government, and relevant Federal agencies under such ministries as the Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability Ministry to institute measures addressing this issue:

(i)  Undertake a collaborative mapping study together with the Society and other stakeholder groups looking at the exact boundaries of the KDCF and the ground-truth in comparison to that;

(ii)  Institute a regularisation exercise (ie ’program pemutihan’) whereby encroachers are given a deadline to vacate encroached land, and an appropriate treatment determined for irreversibly alienated land;

(iii)  Identify adjacent state land suitable for replacing hectarage lost to defective alienation, and commission the Survey Department to produce a new Certified Plan for the KDCF of equivalent acreage of the original PW1534; and

(iv)  Consider extending the fence (currently already built along the boundary of Sections 9 and 10 residential precincts), or other suitable means of boundary demarcation, across to D’Rimba and Bayu Damansara up to the North Klang Valley Expressway – as part of a broader, sustained approach involving ‘boundary policing’ by the local community.

Peter Leong is a committee member of the Kota Damansara Community Forest Society and former secretary of the Friends of Bukit Kiara.

[Edited by SL Wong]

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Macaranga.

MORE REMARKS:  Support Community Efforts to Better Manage Urban Green Spaces | Empower the Dewan Negeri to Safeguard Forest Reserves | Lapangan Terbang Baru Tioman Perlu Difikirkan Semula

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