On our love affair with Malaysian mangroves

This article has been published in the New Straits Times on 11th March 2018

No matter how sturdy they seem to be, or how eerie they may appear, mangrove forests deserve vigilant attention and tender loving care. Caring for mangroves is a simple, straightforward love affair. Just by setting them free from vicious anthropogenic disturbances, they in return shall unconditionally defend and serve us to the best of their ability. As a matter of fact, they have been doing this for a very long time.

Mangrove forests provide multiple ecosystem services and benefits to humans and nature. Their full functions and roles are still way beyond our understanding. But a miniscule portion of their gifts have been identified by scientists, and many more aspects are yet to be discovered. Some of their documented functions are as a regulator of various natural cycles and processes. For instance, mangroves are identified as the most efficient tropical habitat to capture and fix atmospheric carbon in the pursuit to mitigate the increase in temperature and to adapt to global climate change. They are also able to efficiently absorb and sustain water and precipitation.

Mangroves are instrumental as a natural defense from hazardous, life-threatening disasters such as, you may still remember, the tsunami, and other coastal catastrophes. Mangrove forests are the key habitat in the life cycle of a vast number of marine creatures. They are the breeding and spawning grounds for fishes and other marine animals, a sanctuary for birds and marine mammals, and a connecting habitat between terrestrial and marine environments. Mangroves act as a sponge to absorb pollutants from being flushed into the seas, and as a natural buffer protecting people and human settlements from severe wind and typhoons. Simply put, mangroves act as a protector from disturbances both landward and seaward.

For many generations, mangroves have sustained the livelihoods of coastal communities and sparked the birth of many civilisations in the tropics and subtropics. Human dependency on this resource is immense and again, beyond human realisation. A majority of local coastal communities in Malaysia associate their survival with the status of mangroves within their vicinity, both socially and economically. But how far would they go to uphold this love affair environmentally?

Being the third-largest mangrove-holding nation in the world, Malaysia has the advantage and is in the position to set an exemplary act and lead the way for the best mangrove management practice, impactful mangrove research, solid mangrove protection, and sustainable mangrove conservation. Malaysia and Southeast Asia are the centre for mangrove species distribution in the Indo-West Pacific ecological region. We host the highest diversity of mangrove plant species and boast 45 per cent of the world’s total mangrove forest area.

Unfortunately, in the past 60 years, Malaysia alone lost half of its precious mangroves due to multiple anthropogenic factors. Due to that, the coastline of Peninsular Malaysia is currently threatened by severe erosion, particularly on the western and southern ends. Our coastal land is in dire straits, but do Malaysians in general realise this?

Malaysian mangroves, especially the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve in Perak, have been a reference site for studies on forest management and mangrove ecology by researchers from all over the world since the beginning of the last century. The protection and sustainable management of Matang mangroves started in 1901, and at one point, it was recognised as the best managed mangrove forest in the world. Indeed, that was a great recognition and a great achievement for Malaysia, but besides Matang, how about the rest of the mangroves in the country?

Malaysian scientists like Dr Ong Jin Eong, Dr Gong Wooi Khoon, Dr. A. Sasekumar, Dr. Chan Hung Tuck and Dr Chong Ving Ching are globally known figures for their significant contributions to the main body of knowledge on mangrove ecology for the last 40 years. They have recorded so many novel findings and published hundreds of scientific reports and articles concerning Malaysian mangroves. Google these names and you will realise where Malaysia stands in the scientific world of mangroves. However, locally, their knowledge and contributions seem not to have been properly recognised or appreciated.

It occurs to me that the more scientific evidence we acquire, the more mangroves are being lost year in, year out. These scientists’ hard work and knowledge gains should be applied and utilised for the benefit of our mangroves, and this again actually puts Malaysia at the advantage to being a key global reference.

With the little knowledge on the characteristics and values of mangroves, it is very clear that this habitat is worthy to be fully protected and conserved. Partial protection and patchy exploitation resulted in the fragmentation of mangrove habitats, thus limiting their ability and lowering their efficiency in providing the many ecosystem services they naturally do.

Therefore, mangroves must be treated as a valuable inheritance. Here is a simple analogy: Being lucky, you inherit your great grandparents’ wealth in the form of high valued lands and properties. What would you do with these gifts? First, being smart, you would keep them as a fixed deposit or an insurance security for your kids and their kids to enjoy, as the value and benefits would surely increase with time. Or secondly, being less smart, you dispose of and sell them piece by piece for some inconsiderable short term gains.

As a lucky nation, which option would Malaysia opt for?

Dr. A. Aldrie Amir is a Senior Lecturer and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Environment and Development (LESTARI), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He is also the coordinator of the Malaysian Mangrove Research Alliance and Network (MyMangrove)