As the public celebrates the preservation of the Kuala Langat (North) Forest Reserve, a group in another part of Selangor continues to defend a patch of green they cherish.
Northwest of Kuala Langat is an area known as the Shah Alam Community Forest (SACF), formerly called the Setia Alam Community Trail.
Spanning some 174ha, the size of 242 football fields, the SACF is a popular hiking spot especially among those from Shah Alam and Klang. The forest is also valued for its rich biodiversity.
In the latest draft of a local plan, the Shah Alam City Council (MBSA) designated parts of the SACF as cemetery land and for mixed-development projects. It also wants to build a road through it.
Local residents and environmental groups are opposed to these plans.
Five months after stakeholders communicated their objections in a public hearing, they continue to wait on MBSA for a final decision.
MBSA’s development plans
The SACF is located amidst the lush and increasingly populated townships of Setia Alam and Setia Eco Park.
On the map, it is surrounded by numerous housing developments - some existing and many under construction. Development has now crept up to the edge of the forest.
Hikers are typically greeted at the entrance of the SACF trail by a blue corrugated iron fence surrounding the construction site for the Precinct Arundina housing development.
According to MBSA’s Draft Local Plan 2035 (Draf Rancangan Tempatan MBSA 2035), the local council is proposing a new road connecting Setia Alam and Seksyen U10 in Shah Alam.
The map (see below) indicates that the road will cut across the SACF.
While MBSA does not stipulate how long this road will be, local residents estimate it to measure 1km.
This road is also indicated in another “land use” map in the same draft local plan (below). MBSA further designates this part of the SACF as a “cemetery” zone for the public (shaded in grey).
In addition, the draft plan designates a larger northern portion of the forest for mixed development projects (shaded in violet).
Malaysiakini understands that the grey-coloured portion of the area is MBSA-owned state land.
The violet-coloured portion, meanwhile, belongs to the state government’s Selangor State Development Corporation (PKNS).
Home to endangered species
A strong voice against these plans has been the SACF Society - a group made up of local residents and environmental experts including Teckwyn Lim.
Lim, a conservationist and researcher who teaches at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, said the forest serves as a valuable habitat for wildlife and plant life.
Classified as a primary natural lowland dipterocarp forest, he observed that the SACF had been well-preserved with no signs of large-scale logging or slashing and burning.
In a biodiversity survey conducted in the SACF and surrounding forested areas in late 2020, researchers recorded 106 bird species, 14 of which are endangered or have a vulnerable status.
These included the Greater Green Leafbird, Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler.
They also recorded 14 mammal and reptile species.
This included endangered species like the White-Handed Gibbon, Dusky Leaf Monkey, Sunda Slow Loris as well as vulnerable species like the Long-Tailed Macaque.
Lim explained that the SACF served as a natural bridge linking Bukit Cherakah Forest Reserve and the Subang Dam water catchment area in the north and protected Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam in the south.
The latter was formerly known as the Bukit Cahaya Seri Alam Agricultural Park.
He contended that maintaining this ecological corridor is critical to preserve the existing ecosystem.
“What we have are two large patches (of the forest) in Shah Alam - Taman Botani and the Subang Dam. Now the challenge is to make sure they are connected.
“Because if they are isolated, then all the population of animals between them will suffer from inbreeding. If they go extinct, there is less chance for them to be replenished from the outside.
“It is so important for this connection to be made. The SACF forms the critical link between these two patches of the forest,” he explained to Malaysiakini.
The corridor has already been disrupted somewhat by Persiaran Mokhtar Dahari.
This road divides the northern part of the SACF with a patch of forest connected to Bukit Cherakah Forest Reserve.
Since 2013, Lim has calculated at least seven tapir sightings along the busy road. Sadly, several of them were already dead upon discovery.
The tapir is an endangered species.
Community forest, community benefit
The SACF is not officially recognised as a hiking trail by MBSA or any authority.
Its namesake as a “community forest” came from being discovered, mapped and now managed by local residents themselves.
Over the years, it has become well-known for trails like “MOU” and “Kurma” as well as for the urban legends behind these monikers.
One popular trail leads to “Mirror Lake”, famed and named for its still, blue-green waters that are flanked by lush green vegetation on both sides.
There is also “SACF lake” - a well-liked spot for local birds and photography aficionados alike.
The SACF has several peaks - the highest being Peak Garden (226m above sea level) and the second Budiman’s Peak (143m above sea level).
With all these points of interest, SACF is often crowded on weekends with parking and traffic posing a headache.
This enthusiasm is mirrored online where the community congregates in a closed Facebook group that has 10,000 members to date.
To SACF Society founder and secretary Alicia Teoh, the demonstrable appreciation for the forest is all the more reason why it should be preserved.
“The residents around here appreciate the value of the forest, not just in terms of property price but the scenery and the air.
“There are so many benefits that the forest gives us that you can't put a price tag on, (and) these are just the nature services. (We can still) talk about the recreational value and educational value.
“It is very clear that people are drawn to and want these spaces but I don't seem to know why the government just cannot see it or (maybe) they choose to ignore or deny it,” she told Malaysiakini.
Teoh cautioned that MBSA’s plan to construct the road alone will destroy up to 20ha of forest, about the size of 28 football fields.
Still a forest reserve?
Back in April, members of the SACF Society had attended a public hearing on MBSA’s draft local plan and explained why they were against it.
The local council reportedly received 718 objections for the road and 195 objections for the cemetery.
On top of environmental and community reasons, they further raised the possibility that SACF could still be part of the Bukit Cherakah Forest Reserve.
Back in 2002, the Selangor executive council had agreed to degazette part of the Bukit Cherakah Forest Reserve. This included the area where SACF is located.
Last year, Lim together with forestry experts and members of the Malaysian Bar Council environment and climate change committee conducted a study into the forest’s land status.
They found no evidence of any corresponding notice in the Selangor state government gazette for this degazettement decision.
Section 13 of the National Forestry Act 1984 states that state authority has to publish a notice in the gazette when it excises land from a permanent forest reserve.
Without the existence of such a notice, Lim contended that the degazettement process was incomplete and rendered the entire exercise null and void.
Consequently, he argued that the SACF ought to remain as permanent forest reserve land and be protected from development.
“Even though the exco made a decision, it was never published in the gazette.
“The question then is - is the publication in the gazette really crucial or do you have to look at the exco decision to determine whether it is a forest reserve or not?
“Fortunately, the law is very clear, the law says it remains a forest reserve until the excision notice is published in the gazette,” Lim said.
During the public hearing, Selangor exco members Hee Loy Sian (tourism, environment, green technology, orang asal affairs) and Ng Sze Han (local government, public transport and new village development) reportedly told the SACF Society that they would look into this land status matter.
Despite the society’s efforts to follow up since, they have yet to provide the group with an answer.
Both Hee and Ng have not responded to Malaysiakini’s repeated requests for information about the SACF’s land status.
Malaysiakini has also contacted MBSA and the Selangor Forestry Department for confirmation on the legal status of the land in question. They have yet to respond at the time of writing.
When asked whether the absence of an excision notice voided a degazettement exercise, a former Selangor exco member who was previously in charge of environmental matters opined it did not.
Bukit Lanjan assemblyperson Elizabeth Wong told Malaysiakini that the lack of a notice about a degazettement did not necessarily render an exco decision defective as the land title was the most important document.
“If there was a decision by the exco and the process of degazettement was completed by the Forestry Department and the Land Office had issued a title; then the often-used phrase ‘title is king’ would apply,” she said.
Wong, who now chairs the Selangor backbenchers council, said the government could remedy the discrepancy by publishing a backdated notice.
“The state government’s work is also to remedy inconsistencies or errors,” she added.
As an alternative, Wong proposed that the SACF Society engage with the landowners and negotiate conservation efforts in the forested area instead.