The green warrior fighting to save our forests

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.”

Lonely fight

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?”

Forests in Selangor under threat

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 February 2011 © The Nut Graph

THERE was much cause for celebration when Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman announced on 16 Feb 2011 that the plan to build a 30 megawatt coal plant in the state’s pristine east coast had been scrapped.

Instead, the government is now considering gas and other cleaner energy options like biomass. Activists, particularly those from environmental coalition Green Surf, ought to be commended for their tireless campaign, since 2007, against the proposed coal plant.

Postcard protesting the coal plant (© Postcards to PM)

I wish the same were happening for the forests in Selangor. The state has been delaying its decision on a proposal to convert the Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest to an oil palm plantation. Additionally, the federal government has been turning a deaf ear to civil societies’ opposition against the Kuala Lumpur Outer Ring Road.

Indecisive Selangor

It was in late 2010 that the Selangor Agriculture Development Corporation proposed to develop the 7,000ha Kuala Langat South forest reserve into oil palm estate. The clearing of the forest could potentially generate RM1bil in timber revenue.

Map of Selangor State Park, with permission from Treat Every Environment Special (TrEES).

It is troubling that the Pakatan Rakyat-led state did not reject the proposal immediately. After all, it announced that it would impose a 25-year moratorium on logging when it came into power in 2008.

To the Selangor government’s credit, however, it did commission an audit in December 2010 to assess the forest’s biodiversity value. In addition, it has engaged environmental non-governmental organisations as well as government agencies in its biodiversity audit.

The audit report was expected to be presented to the state in January 2011 but it was postponed to early February. To date, the Selangor government has yet to make an official announcement on the matter.

When asked by reporters recently if a decision was made at the Selangor Economic Action Council’s meeting, executive councillor Elizabeth Wong, who is in charge of the environment portfolio, skirted the issue.

Granted, commissioning an audit to assess a forest’s biodiversity value before clearing it for plantation or other development purposes would be unimaginable under previous state administrations. But the state’s current indecision on the Kuala Langat South forest reserve also seriously raises doubt about whether the state might revoke the status of other forest reserves when there is further pressure for development.

It should be noted that the Kuala Langat South forest reserve can be deemed as the most important peat swamp left in southern Selangor as almost all others have been lost to development.

Putrajaya’s silence

Another lingering threat to Selangor’s forest reserves is the KL Outer Ring Road which would cut through the ecologically-fragile Selangor State Park.

A federal government project, the highway is being proposed to ease traffic congestion on the Middle Ring Road Two. Construction near the Kanching Forest Reserve has already begun but the road alignment that would slice through the Selangor State Park has yet to be confirmed.

Photo of Klang Gates Dam at dawn in 2010 (by Gan Pei Ling)

Gazetted in 2005, the 108,300ha park is an important water catchment area for the Klang Gates Dam and Ampang Intake. Ironically, Putrajaya and Selangor have been wrestling over the construction of the Langat 2 plant to source water from Pahang to avoid potential “water shortage” in the state. Yet, little attention has been given to the highway’s potential impact on Selangor’s water supply.

To date, the federal government has yet to respond to civil societies’ objections against the KL Outer Ring Road.  The Selangor government has said it is not within its power to scrap the highway.

An election issue?

Compared to the proposed coal plant in Sabah, which has been going on for a few years and also attracted international attention, the threats to the Kuala Langat South forest reserve and the Selangor State Park have received much less media attention.

However, if there are some lessons to be learnt from the anti-coal activists, it’s that with persistence and a persuasive campaign strategy, governments may be compelled to listen to civil society after all.

In the end, the people are the boss in a democracy and if the government-of-the-day wants to be re-elected, it had better learn to listen to the people — not just wealthy developers, but environmental groups and concerned citizens, too.

Growing up in the Klang Valley, Gan Pei Ling didn’t know until recently that around 30% of land in Selangor is still forest reserves. She hopes most, if not all, of these reserves will still be around in 2050. Would that be too much to ask?

Green issues: Top 10 in 2010

by Gan Pei Ling / 24 January 2011 © The Nut Graph

WHAT were the environmental highlights and low points of 2010? Do we stand a chance in conserving Malaysia’s amazing biodiversity and rich natural resources?

With the help of several “greenie” friends, I made a list of 10 major environmental happenings in Malaysia in 2010. These events give us an indication not only of how the environment continues to be under threat in Malaysia, but also how efforts are being made to combat that threat.

What stood out for you environmentally in 2010? What appalled, encouraged or enlightened you? List them down so that we may have a better picture about how we Malaysians are caring for our environment.


1. Nuclear power plants

(Pic by merlin1075 /

The federal government decided to go nuclear, announcing in May 2010 that Malaysia would build a nuclear power plant by 2021. Serious concerns were raised regarding safety and feasibility, considering the disastrous effects of accidents and shoddy radioactive waste management. Activists also questioned whether the government had exhausted renewable energy options, especially solar and biomass.

Despite this, Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Peter Chin announced in December 2010 that Malaysia intended to build two plants, the second expected to be ready a year after the first.

To date, the government has not made public its nuclear waste management plan or emergency plan detailing what steps it would take in the event of a radioactive leak or natural disaster.

2. Sabah coal plant

Meanwhile, the federal government is planning to build a 300-megawatt coal plant on Sabah’s pristine east coast. Environmental coalition Green Surf and other activists have been campaigning tirelessly against the plant, reminding the government to consider cleaner alternatives like biomass and geothermal.

The plant’s detailed environmental impact assessment was rejected by the Environment Department. However, Chin said last December the proposed coal plant would go ahead, claiming it was the best option to ensure uninterrupted power supply.

3. Bakun Dam

The flooding of the Bakun Dam began in October 2010. The flooding of the 69,000ha area, roughly the size of Singapore, to the top of the Bakun Dam wall, about half the height of the Petronas Twin Towers, is expected to take over seven months.

Disputes over compensation for the approximately 10,000 indigenous peoples displaced from their land remain unresolved. The construction of the Bakun Dam began in 1996, and its cost was reported to have ballooned from RM4.5bil to RM7.5bil due to cost overrun and compensation for delays.

Despite that, Bakun is just the beginning. The 944-megawatt Murum dam is currently being constructed, and it was announced in February last year that five more dams with a combined capacity of 3,000-megawatts are in the pipeline.

4. Renewable energy bill

(Pic by ronaldo/

The long-awaited Renewable Energy Act was finally tabled in Parliament in December 2010. Once passed, the Act will enable the public to sell electricity generated from renewable energy, most likely solar, to the power grid through the feed-in tariff scheme. Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) will buy user-generated electricity at above-market rates. Concerns, however, are that TNB might pass on the cost to consumers by raising general electricity tariffs.

Other than the feed-in-tariff, it is unclear how the government intends to fulfill its target of generating 11% electricity from renewable energy by 2020.


5. Rejang river logjam

This bizarre incident last October involved Malaysia’s longest river, the Rejang. Logs and debris choked the mighty river for 50km, making many places inaccessible by boat.

The Sarawak government tried to pass off the incident as a “natural” disaster due to floods. A BBC report, however, quoted the blog Hornbill Unleashed, which blamed poor infrastructure and excessive logging for the logjam.


6. Capture and trial of wildlife trafficker Anson Wong

In August 2010, Wong was caught with 95 boa constrictors in his bag at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. I, personally, was delighted when the High Court substituted a Sessions Court sentence of six months’ jail and a RM190,000 fine with a five-year jail term. The heavier sentence will be more likely to serve as an effective deterrent.

In addition, Parliament passed a tougher Wildlife Conservation Act, which came into force in December 2010. Punishments include fines of up to RM500,000. and up to five years’ jail for smugglers of protected species like tigers and rhinos.

7. GM mosquitoes

(Illustration by Nick Choo)

Dengue, carried by the Aedes mosquito, has been endemic in Malaysia for years. Genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes have been proposed as a solution to curb its spread. The mutant male mosquitoes do not produce any offspring and help lower the mosquito population.

Great fears, however, have been expressed over this experiment as experts say removing the mosquito from the ecosystem could wreak havoc on other species, and ultimately, the environment.

Despite these concerns, the Health Ministry intended to release GM mosquitoes in Bentong, Pahang and Alor Gajah, Malacca. Protests from local and international groups resulted in a cancellation of the programme.


8. Selangor State Park

The federal government intends to build the Kuala Lumpur Outer Ring Road (KLORR) through the Selangor State Park to ease traffic congestion. This is in spite of the park being categorised as an Environmentally Sensitive Area (Rank 1) under the National Physical Plan-2. It serves as an important water catchment area, and as such, no development, except for eco-tourism, research and education purposes, should occur there.

The highway was originally designed to cut through the park and a potential Unesco World Heritage site,  the Klang Gates Quartz Ridge. The Selangor government convinced the developer to dig a tunnel to avoid damaging the quartz ridge last November. But it remains to be seen whether they can persuade the developer to re-route KLORR away from the state park, too.

Public outcry, not just from environmental groups but also concerned residents, continue. It remains to be seen whether the federal government will scrap its plans.

9.  Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest

Wong (front) visiting the Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest in December 2010.

The Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation proposed in 2010 to convert the 7,000ha Kuala Langat forest reserve into oil palm plantations. The clearing of the forest could reportedly generate RM1bil in timber revenue.

Selangor executive councillor for the environment Elizabeth Wong has led opposition to this proposal. A biodiversity audit, done with the assistance of environmental groups, found tapirs, sun bears, white-handed gibbons and rare trees.

The audit report has yet to be presented to the menteri besar, but I’m hopeful he will make the right decision. After all, the Pakatan Rakyat-led government promised to ban logging for 25 years when it came into power in 2008.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

10. No plastic bag day

The no plastic bags campaign, pioneered in Penang in 2009, is now nationwide. Plastic bags are no longer free on Saturdays except in Penang, where they’re not free every day.

Plastics manufacturers’ indignant reactions amuse me. Although the campaign may reduce our reliance on plastic bags, it is mainly symbolic. The campaign helps us rethink the impact of our use-and-throwaway consumption on the environment, but is unlikely to eliminate all use of plastics bags, or plastics, in our lives. Perhaps the manufacturers need to start listening and evolve in accordance with consumer demand for more sustainable products.

Although I initially found the above list a bit depressing, I realised that the story of public resistance against potential ecological destruction echoed throughout. And there are many more environmental heroes that did not make it into the list. A rural Kelantan community that successfully solved the human-elephant conflict in their village, for example. Or the Bukit Koman community that continues their attempts to protect their village from pollution from a gold mine.

And I’m sure there are many, many more such stories.

Again, Gan Pei Ling finds herself more inspired by grassroots communities and individuals than governments in 2010.