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Peatland News

Title: A trail run highlights why we must save our wetlands
Date: 12-Jun-2016
Category: Malaysia
Source/Author: The Star
Description: Boh Tea Plantations recently organised an exclusive 8km trail run to highlight the importance of preserving our wetlands to help curb the haze.

Boh Tea Plantations recently organised an exclusive 8km trail run to highlight the importance of preserving our wetlands to help curb the haze.

The run was within a tea plantation in Bukit Cheeding, Selangor. Runners also had the opportunity to explore the neighbouring Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR) for the first time.

At the event , there were display booths of the event partners, namely, Selangor Forestry Department, Global Environment Centre (GEC) and the Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa).

I was delighted to see the Orang Asli at the forefront of this event – a group of women were weaving baskets while some men were dressed in traditional costumes. Too often, the Orang Asli communities are left out of social events in their own locality.

Later on, Boh CEO Caroline Russell told me that the local Orang Asli community was very much involved in this project because they had helped clear and mark the jungle trail. For them, the precious eco-system was critically important for their livelihoods.

Tranquil tea plantation

After a brief warm-up and stretching routine, a siren at 7.30am signalled the start of the run. The chirpy participants made their way along a spacious dirt track through the surrounding landscape of endless rows of tea bushes interspersed with tall palm and coconut trees. They were all so immaculately arranged that it reminded me of a beautiful English garden – minus the colourful flowers!

The splendid views were mesmerising, and it was the sort of peaceful oasis that makes you forget all your troubles – a perfect getaway for stressful city folks to relax and recuperate.

Many runners took this rare opportunity to capture the scenery on their mobile cameras. The plantation air was so fresh and clean that it made me realise how poor the air quality in the cities are.

Halfway through our trail, we entered in single file, the actual grounds of the KLNFR, home to unique flora and fauna, surrounded by a delicate peatland ecosystem with a unique water catchment feature.

Although the trail was short, I felt quite devastated thinking about how forests around the world have been reduced over the years due to unchecked fires and rash development everywhere.

Peatland forests are the most important ecosystem globally for preventing global warming and Malaysia has the third largest surface area with this type of forest. In their natural state, peat swamp forests rarely burn. However, excessive draining of water can lead to the peat being susceptible to fires. With temperatures soaring higher in this El Nino season, the peatland has lost much water and become vulnerable to fires.

In recent years, fires in neighbouring areas have also spread into the KLNFR and damaged part of the forest reserve.

Our small efforts today can make a difference to the helpless creatures and plants that inhabit the forest. By just participating in this event, I no longer felt like a useless bystander. Rather, I was actually doing something positive – at least learning about it and promoting awareness about its importance.

 Explained: The connection between peat swamp forests and the haze 

We often ignore peat land or peat swamp forests but they are actually crucial for our water supply and flood control.

Before the run began, I spent some time at the Global Environment Centre (GEC) booth where coordinator Raj Rengasamy patiently explained to me how peat land stores (extra) water during the rainy season and releases that water back into the rivers during dry spells.

Unfortunately, during the recent El Nino hot and dry weather, it is very easy for peat land to catch fire – this was largely responsible for the dreaded haze in the Klang Valley a few weeks ago.

Thankfully, the Selangor Forestry Department, Fire Department, as well as the local Orang Asli and Cheeding villagers, have all banded together with the GEC to provide an early warning system to monitor and control such haze-generating fires.

According to GEC consultant Faizal Parish, “If the peat fire is not extinguished between the first 12 to 18 hours, it will burn underground for at least three weeks until it reaches the water level underneath.”

He also explained that, on average, peat soil is four metres deep, and it’s very very difficult to put out such fires – which is why the haze they cause will often persist for weeks.

Boh CEO Caroline Russell added, “We must educate people to stop throwing cigarette butts out of passing cars which can easily lead to raging forest fires.”

The proceeds from the 600 participants of the run, amounting to RM28,000, were given to the GEC. The much-needed funds will be used by GEC for practical purposes like field monitoring, where the threats of peat fires will be assessed via their ongoing Peatland Forest Ranger Programme.

The money will also be used for training camps, talks and exhibitions in participating schools (including two Orang Asli schools) to increase the awareness of peat swamp forest conservation among the younger generation.

A version of this article appeared in print on June 11. Gus Ghani is the Founder of Running Toons, a HIIT Fitness Coach and a sports writer.

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