A plantation of rare trees in Perak is being bulldozed (Credit: YH Law)

Racing to Save a Plantation of Rare Trees

The bulldozing of millions of rainforest trees in private plantation Penawar Hutan has raised the profile of the value of gene banks for conservation.

IN FEBRUARY, endangered tree species in a plantation in Perak, whose lease had expired, were destroyed by a state-linked company. Mounting public concern brought the matter to the Menteri Besar who quickly stopped the bulldozing. The fate of the trees remains in limbo.

The 200-acre tree plantation in Tanjung Malim is owned and operated by private entity Penawar Hutan Sdn Bhd. It housed up to 2.5 million trees of hundreds of species.

(Photo: Penawar Hutan’s Sheila Ramasamy (left) showing the Perak Menteri Besar’s press secretary Adie Suri Zulkefli a bulldozed section of the plantation, Feb 24, 2020. Credit: YH Law)

The company’s director James Kingham founded the plantation over 20 years ago. Kingham collected seeds and wildlings of trees from forests in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, then grew them in polybags and sold them. 

Rows and rows of trees growing in polybags.
Penawar Hutan had rows and rows of trees grown in polybags. (Credit: YH Law)

Penawar Hutan sits on land belonging to the Perak Corporation Bhd (PCB), a state government-linked company under the Perbadanan Kemajuan Negeri Perak

In October 2019, the plantation’s annual operating license expired and renewal applications were rejected, according to Sheila Ramasamy who had worked 20 years in the plantation.

Penawar Hutan was asked to vacate its premise by PCB. In preceding years, Penawar Hutan had seen signs of an eventual eviction but they failed to find a new site for the trees.

Bulldozers started clearing the plantation on February 5 under orders from PCB. Twenty days later, half of what was once a man-made forest is now barren tracts of upturned, yellow soil stamped with tire marks.

Social media outcry

The plight of the plantation was flagged by filmmaker-activist Jules Ong on February 23 in social media postings which went viral. Many concerned netizens criticised PCB and the Perak Menteri Besar for sacrificing the environment for economic gain.

The Menteri Besar reacted fast and sent his press secretary, Adie Suri bin Zulkefli, to Penawar Hutan on February 24 to assess the situation.

Coincidentally, that was the day Macaranga visited the site, as did two other parties: two representatives from Akademi Sains Malaysia and reporters from BERNAMA.

I walked into a briefing by Sheila who was describing how bulldozers were “pushing” trees.

Trees destroyed by bulldozers.
Trees pushed and piled up by bulldozers at Penawar Hutan. (Credit: YH Law)

The plantation had almost 1,200 species of trees, said Sheila. She couldn’t tell how many were already lost to bulldozing.

“But the State has issued a stop-work order,” said Adie.

Sheila paused. “It’s still going on,” she said. Adie looked puzzled.

“I cannot promise any solution,” said Adie “but we can look into ways to relocate (the trees). I don’t know yet. I will be meeting the Menteri Besar after this.

“We are getting to the bottom of this matter especially on the site where the (plantation’s) trees are located.”

Adie revealed that the Menteri Besar office only learned about the bulldozing over the weekend and was “caught off-guard.”

I told Adie that I found it surprising that the Menteri Besar’s Office didn’t know about the actions of PCB.

“Tell me about it,” he replied.

“Just doing my job”

Sheila led us into the hilly plantation on unpaved dirt roads. Rows and rows of trees, each growing out of black polybags, stood on both sides of the road.

Within minutes, we turned a corner, ascended a hill and looked out into a small valley. Felled trees lay on exposed slopes that descended into a pond. A bulldozer was pushing trees on the far side of the valley. We made our way there.

Adie walked down a slope to the bulldozer. “Uncle, please switch off first. Too loud,” he told the bulldozer operator who looked to be in his 50s. Adie explained that the state authority had ordered the bulldozing to stop.

The operator, slightly shaken, said he was only following instructions from his boss, who owns the bulldozers, not the land. Adie assured the operator that he wouldn’t get into trouble and thanked him for cooperating. 

Adie trekked back up the hill with Sheila, only to run down another slope to stop another bulldozer.

Looking at bulldozers clearing a section of Penawar Hutan
Penawar Hutan’s Sheila Ramasamy (right) and the Perak Menteri Besar’s press secretary, Adie Suri bin Zulkefli (left) looking at one of the four bulldozers clearing a section of Penawar Hutan. (Credit: YH Law)

I approached the first bulldozer operator. “I’m just making a living,” he said. “If my boss asks me to continue, I will. I don’t want to destroy trees, I’d rather work in construction.” The latter he said, pays better.

“This is not my fault,” he continued. “If it’s illegal, then they should take it up with the land owner…Surely the State Land and Mines Office knows about this operation and if it wasn’t allowed, the owner wouldn’t dare do it.”

He climbed back up the bulldozer. “Renting these aren’t cheap.”

A partner in need

I hopped into a jeep driven by Suhaili binti Mohamed, a tree nursery manager whom I knew. She told me that the bulldozers started earlier than before that morning and were “more aggressive”.

Suhaili had learned her trade at Penawar Hutan. In 2013, she left Penawar Hutan for the Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Center (TRCRC), a Malaysian non-profit organisation that collects and grows forest trees for reforestation.

TRCRC and Penawar Hutan are associated: James Kingham, who founded Penawar Hutan, sits on TRCRC’s Board of Trustees, and TRCRC uses the plantation to train its field staff.

How to move trees from Penawar Hutan.
TRCRC’S Suhaili binti Mohamed and her team are racing against time to relocate trees from Penawar Hutan. (Credit: YH Law)

TRCRC executive director Dr Dzaeman Dzulkifli sees the value in Penawar Hutan’s trees. The world is planting trees to offset carbon emissions, he said. Destroying the plantation “will set us back 25 years,” referring to the time taken to plant the trees.

Since November last year, a TRCRC team led by Suhaili has been moving the trees from Penawar Hutan to TRCRC’s sites. Her team could manage at most 80 trees a day and had moved about 2,000 trees of 30 species so far.

This is because it takes at least 3 weeks to move a single tree: first sever all woody roots but one and let smaller ‘feeder roots’ grow for a few weeks; then prune the leaves and branches and finally, transport the tree. 

Photo showing feeder roots growing out of tree in polybag and a woody root.
When moving a tree, all woody roots are cut save one. Within weeks, the tree grows finer roots called feeder roots that absorb water and minerals better. (Credit: YH Law)

TRCRC has a commercial agreement with Penawar Hutan to buy its trees. Before the bulldozing, TRCRC had assessed the plantation’s inventory and tallied about 2.5 million trees of almost 800 species.

About 200 species are classified on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered – just two notches from complete extinction.

Dzaeman told Macaranga that the initial plan to save Penawar Hutan failed.  TRCRC then turned to finding new homes for the trees. “But with an operation this large, time is not on our side.”

Botanists concerned

The loss of Penawar Hutan’s collection also had Akademi Sains Malaysia (ASM) very “concerned” and “disturbed”, said one of its representatives present that morning. 

Penawar Hutan has “tree species which are not readily available from the existing nurseries in Peninsular Malaysia,” said ASM Fellow and botanist Dato’ Dr Abdul Latiff Mohamad.

He said that the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) and TRCRC may house the trees temporarily pending a decision with the landowner. Also, “these tree species may be planted in areas that are devoid of greenery.”

Large trees in polybags at Penawar Hutan
These trees tagged with pink tape were meant for a client in Singapore. (Credit: YH Law)

Although the bulldozing has stopped, the trees still need to be moved – an almost impossible task for Sheila.

On the day Macaranga visited the plantation, Sheila looked tired after seeing the visitors off. She untied her blue bandana and sat in the shade of the field house. 

She acknowledged that PCB had given them a few months to vacate the land. But compared to bulldozers, “how much can you save in a day?

“At one point, my boys and I were moving the trees on one side of the hill while the bulldozers were on the other side.”

Manpower loss

What’s more, she’s been losing workers. During its heyday, Penawar Hutan employed almost 50 workers. Clients included royalty, government agencies, and FRIM.

One of the plantation’s regular customers was the National Parks Board of Singapore, which Sheila estimates has bought about 80% of the plantation’s species.

“Anything that has ‘singaporensis’ (in the species name), they took.” 

But as the plantation’s closure seemed certain, workers left. Now, Sheila has only two workers and the TRCRC team of about 10 to move the trees.

One of the rare ones

Sheila walked me to some trees by a road near the field house. Each tree trunk was about a palm-length wide, growing out of a large polybag into a crown with oblong leaves. Those were Shorea hemsleyana, a Critically Endangered species on the IUCN Red List. 

The trees, almost 18 years old, were collected as seeds by Kingham from a single tree in Perak. The mother tree is gone and they haven’t seen another one in the wild since, said Sheila.

FRIM lists three known locations for S. hemsleyana in Malaysia: at least one at the institute, and about 140 trees in two university campuses. Penawar Hutan has these trees too – for now.

Plantation manager stands in front of an endangered tree in polybag.
Sheila Ramasamy standing before a specimen of the critically endangered Shorea hemsleyana collected 18 years ago. (Credit: YH Law)

“I was having sleepless nights, thinking that in a year this place would be no more,” said Sheila. “I just want to be here until the last day.”

Sheila accepts that they must leave. “We aren’t fighting for the land. Our main thing is we need time to save the trees because it’s easy for them to push (the trees down)…We’re not talking about anything else.”

Sheila estimates that if she had two years and 20 more workers, they could save half of the remaining trees. But they would also need money and suitable land for the trees.

To the rescue

Still, there is hope.

On February 26, the Tanjong Malim District Council issued PCB a stop-work order on Penawar Hutan’s premises. Adie, the press officer to the Menteri Besar, told me that they would “bring everyone together to discuss a solution”.

People offering land to house the trees have also contacted Macaranga to connect with Penawar Hutan.

Does Sheila believe that the hundreds of species of trees can be saved? “I am optimistic. I have no choice. Do I have a choice?”

Macaranga first covered this issue on Facebook on February 24 and on BFM89.9’s Daily Digest on February 26.