Ecologist Dzaeman Dzulkifli describes how he taps on artificial intelligence and satellite imagery, as well as on-the-ground help from Malaysia's Orang Asli community to help protect and rebuild the nation's natural gardens
Forests play a vital role in stabilising the world’s climate. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, about 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide—or one-third of the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels—is absorbed by forests every year.
Recent data from the Rainforest Foundation Norway, however, revealed that humans have stripped the planet of two-thirds of its original tropical rainforest. Furthermore, only 36 percent of about 14.5 million square kilometres of tropical rainforest that once covered Earth’s surface remains intact.
In Malaysia, more than half of the country is forested, with an estimated 18.2 million hectares under forest cover. But since the start of the millennium, it has lost a fifth of its tree cover due to deforestation, according to Global Forest Watch.
Since 2015, however, Malaysia has seen a drop in the rate of forest loss—news that ecologist Dzaeman Dzulkifli cautions could be due to there being very little natural forest left to be cultivated for agriculture or other means.
Dzaeman's affinity with nature was born from his exposure to the natural world from a young age. As a child, he would often explore the coastal forests and mangrove swamps around his home in the East Coast of Malaysia.
In 2012, he founded the non-government organisation, Tropical Rainforest Conservation & Research Centre (TRCRC), in hope of helping to preserve and restore the tropical rainforests around Malaysia.
Under his leadership as executive director, TRCRC has developed unique strategies that leverage both technology as well as the natural protectors of the forest, the Orang Asli (Malay for indigenous people), who are already working as forest rangers.
Under one of its initiatives, TRCRC trains the Orang Asli in the Belum Rainforest Reserve in the state of Perak to identify key tree species that can be used for forest restoration. They would also monitor, collect and grow them in nurseries in their villages. Dzaeman says such initiatives provide the Orang Asli with job opportunities in environments with which they are comfortable and where they call home.
[Businesses] that are reluctant to take steps to reduce their environmental impact will eventually lose their market edge to those who want to make a difference
Technology is also being used to help save the forest. Dzaeman and his team use satellite images and change detection tools enables to monitor the forests more effectively—any change can be detected as fast as eight hours from a clearing incident, he says.
Malaysia’s federal government is also showing strong support, as it recently rolled out a five-year campaign to plant more than 100 million trees across the country. Despite the widespread enthusiasm expressed by different stakeholders towards planting more trees, Dzaeman emphasizes that careful planning is needed.
“We must avoid planting trees for the sake of planting,” he says. “Planting the wrong tree at the wrong place and time could have a negative effect on the biodiversity of the forest that is being restored. In effect, they may cause more harm than good.”
According to Dzaeman, one of the biggest threats facing the forests in Malaysia today is the legalised conversion of forests into agricultural land.
“We should pay attention to forest degazetting,” he warns. “This is because not all states in Malaysia are required to make public announcements regarding change in land title.” Dzaeman cites Selangor as an example of a state that allows the public to voice out their opinion and halt the conversion of forested land.
He also advises businesses to integrate sustainable practices, as all businesses have an impact on the environment. “Being unsustainable will destroy the business you have created,” he says. “It can be caused by the over-exploitation of a resource which you depend on, destroying the soil you use to grow your crops, or due to the public not believing in your product because its environmental impact has become too great.”
“By taking steps towards reducing that impact, you’re showing the public how responsible you are and people will catch on to that and would want to support you. And those who are reluctant will eventually lose their market edge to those who want to make a difference.”