by Gan Pei Ling, 18 Jan 2018 © The Malaysian Insight
ARRESTED, stonewalled by state agencies and politely shunned by friends and politicians, outspoken environmentalist Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil has colourful tales to tell of her thankless role as a defender of the forest.
Since setting up the Association for the Protection of Malaysia’s Natural Heritage (Peka) in 2010, Shariffa Sabrina has waged “war” against deforestation in Kelantan, Pahang, Johor, Selangor and Penang.
But it’s a lonely battle that she and very few like her are fighting.
“When we meet the Forestry Department, they always say their hands are tied. When we meet the federal government, they say forests are under the state governments.
“We’re often treated like ping-pongs,” she told The Malaysian Insight.
In late 2016, the 55-year-old and her assistant Norhayati Shahrom were arrested and remanded for allegedly making insulting remarks against the Johor ruler.
“We were thrown in a lock-up and treated like criminals just because we asked why the last permanent forest reserve in Mersing is being degazetted to plant oil palm,” she said.
“Our forests are like ATM machines for some people. They think logging is a fast way to make money. Once the forests are cleared up, how are you going to make money?
“And what do you get from logging? Can you make the rakyat rich? (The) Pahang (government) is still in debt. The Kelantan people are still poor.”
Over the years, the owner of the award-winning Tanah Aina Resorts in Pahang said she has tried in vain to pitch to state governments the idea of adopting eco-tourism as a means of sustainable development over logging.
Peka’s success in halting logging activities around Fraser’s Hill in Pahang last year is one of the environmental watchdog’s rare victories in its struggle for nature conservation.
“Eco-tourism is sustainable even though it takes a longer time to develop. You also provide long-term jobs for the locals as tour guides and hospitality staff,” said Shariffa Sabrina, citing Taman Negara as one of the successful examples of eco-tourism.
When asked whether some of her friends from wealthy and influential backgrounds have backed her environmental campaigns, Shariffa Sabrina’s answer was in the negative.
“They just say what I’m doing is good. Full stop. They won’t go beyond.”
Instead, she said, the answer to halting unrestrained deforestation lies in the power of the people.
“The only solutions I can find are the voices from the rakyat. Society, residents of the kampung should come out and go against destruction of green lungs like (the those in Taman Tun Dr Ismail did for) Bukit Kiara.
“If we’re strong together to go against deforestation, the government will think twice (before cutting down forests).”
The certified patisserie chef and fitness instructor draws motivation to fight the unpopular battle against environmental wrongdoings from her love for the forests.
“I look at things differently… My parents divorced when I was four years old. I never had a mother’s love. My mother left me.
“Two things made me happy (growing up): playing sports and trekking in the forests.
“When you go back to nature, it makes you feel very serene, peaceful and happy,” said the feisty Penangite wistfully.
“It gives us so much of benefit, why are we destroying it?”