Malaysia's Development Race Puts Mangroves at Risk
KUALA LUMPUR Malaysia's scramble for rich country status threatens its mangroves unless the government puts teeth in its plans to protect the rich wetlands that offer a home to marine life and help block extreme weather.
Malaysia's mangrove forests, made up of evergreen trees and shrubs that grow on stilt-like roots in dense thickets, are home to 41 of the world's 69 species of mangrove plants, but they have shrunk about 30 percent in the last 50 years.
Although the prime minister has called for the mangroves to be protected, individual state authorities have the final say on the use of the land where mangroves are located, biologist Ong Jin Eong, a former professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, said.
"There's no point in the prime minister saying 'Save the mangroves' and then leaving the states to deal with the matter, because there is no one to stop them doing what they like with the land," Ong added.
Conversion to oil palm plantations, development for urban road networks, and illegal encroachment and exploitation are the key threats to mangroves, environmentalists say.
And while a managed mangrove forest in Matang in central Perak state supports a fishery worth $100 million a year, mangrove loss hit 84 percent in some state reserves over the quarter century to 2004, the Maritime Institute of Malaysia says.
If present trends continued, there would be no mangroves left by 2020, Ong said, referring to a 15-year plan the government unveiled last week to reach its goal of developed country status by 2020.
"It could be a new development index," Ong told a meeting of researchers in the Malaysian capital. "If you have no mangroves left then you are a developed country."
Mangroves have luxuriant and complicated root systems that form a natural barrier against destructive waves, prompting several Asian nations hit by the December 2004 tsunami disaster to launch programmes to plant mangroves along their coasts.
But mangroves remain at risk of arbitrary action by planners and developers because policymakers have persistently proved unable to put a correct valuation on their numerous benefits, environmental economist Lucy Emerton said. Economists traditionally calculated the value of goods and services generated by coastal ecosystems only in terms of market prices, but ignored indirect values, such as weather protection and flood limitation, she said.
And aspects such as the premium put on maintaining species and genetic resources for future uses with economic value -- such as drug and agriculture development or tourism prospects -- got left out of conventional models, or wrongly priced, she added.
"Treating, counting and managing mangroves as part of development infrastructure provides a more equitable and sustainable base for future coastal development and security," said Emerton, who works for the World Conservation Union, IUCN.
Protecting mangrove forests would not hit the availability of land for development since mangrove forests now make up just 1.75 percent of Malaysia's land area, researcher Tan Kim Hooi of think tank the Maritime Institute of Malaysia said in a study.
"With proper interventions it is possible to reverse the destruction and degradation of mangroves in Malaysia," he added.
Malaysia's junior environment minister said action by state governments, which control about 100,000 hectares of Malaysia's 570,000 hectares of mangroves, was key to save the forests.
"What is now urgently needed is a strong commitment from state governments to protect their mangroves," S. Sothinathan said, adding that Malaysia plans to spend 40 million ringgit over the next five years to rehabilitate its mangroves.