FOR those who know, the sparse, savannah-like Gelam forests that line the coastal areas of Terengganu, Pahang and Johor are a precious gift of nature that are essential for the well-being of communities in their vicinity.
Most people, however, see them as a wasteland that can be developed for economic activities such as agriculture, fisheries and mining and for urban dwellings.
Over the years, that view has proven to be costly for various growers whose projects have floundered in the nutrient-poor environment of the Gelam habitat, say ecologists who are calling for its conservation.
One such plantation in the Setiu district of Terengganu, which has a chokehold on Tasik Berombak, is now at the centre of a multi-stakeholder initiative to restore the Gelam wetlands there to their natural condition.
Possibly the largest freshwater lake in the East Coast, the proposed conservation area, which lies some 60km north of state capital Kuala Terengganu, could become a reference point for community forest projects in the country, according to a conservationist linked to the initiative.
“The conversion of a large Gelam ecosystem surrounding Tasik Berombak into a plantation in the late 1970s has to be the most glaring example of development pressure on this habitat,” says Dr Jarina Mohd Jani, an environmental researcher at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) who is advising the state government on its conservation value.
The affected area, running along a narrow “sea horse-shaped” lagoon for some 24km down the Terengganu coastline, is so large that it is easily seen in satellite images of the district (see map).
The plantation owes its genesis to a state government venture about five decades ago to grow cashews as a cash crop.
In the name of rural development, says Jarina in emailed notes to The Edge, an area of more than 1,600ha on the northern and eastern banks of the lake was cleared to make way for a cashew plantation run by Cashew Industries of Malaysia Sdn Bhd (CIMA).
When the cashew-growing project failed after some years, the plantation was acquired by Ladang Sri Alam Sdn Bhd (LSASB) for a mere RM2 million, says Jarina.
The company was granted a temporary occupation licence by the state to continue the initiative but it soon replaced the cashew trees with oil palm.
To irrigate this monocrop, LSASB dammed Sungai Ular, an important natural outlet from Tasik Berombak towards the Setiu Lagoon, to channel water around the vast plantation.
As the water level dropped because of its increased usage and the dam slowed the water flow, much of the area surrounding the lake has become drier, and swamp species have slowly taken over.
“Now, only the central part of the lake is open water,” says Jarina.
The rest remains a swampy wetland dominated by Hanguana, a tall grass-like plant, and other freshwater swamp species.
Home of the tea tree’s relative
Ecologists describe the Gelam landscape as beach ridges interspersed with swales (BRIS), characterised by sandy dunes and depressions that become waterlogged after the rains. This coastal wetland gets its local name — Paya Gelam — from the Gelam (Melaleuca cajuputi Powell) tree species, which dominate in the harsh conditions of this ecosystem.
A tall shrub, the hardy Gelam is related to the tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), which is endemic in Australia and used to produce tea tree oil, popular as an ingredient in skincare products. The local plant is the source of minyak kayu putih (cajeput), an aromatic oil highly valued in traditional herbal treatment.
Gelam probably derives from the Malay word “tenggelam” (drown), owing to its rare ability to thrive in submerged areas, says UMT Associate Professor Dr Jamilah Mohd Salim, who has researched the health of the Setiu Wetland forests and their ecological functions.
The sandy BRIS landscape of Tasik Berombak is not suitable for most commercial crops, and the sickly palms of the LSASB plantation stand as proof of this.
Following the death of the plantation owner more than two years ago, it appears to have fallen into disuse, says Jarina, as the gates remain shut and the oil palms are stifled by undergrowth.
A company search of LSASB shows that it has a paid-up capital of RM5 million. Its shareholders are Mohd Feisal Ismail (2%), Sri Alam Sdn Bhd (42%), Ismail Mohamad (16%) and Rasa Rata Sdn Bhd (40%).
Recognising the importance of protecting this shrinking ecosystem and nurturing its ecological services for its surrounding population, the state government set up the Terengganu State Parks Management Council (TSPMC) in 2017.
The following year, the Setiu Wetlands State Park and Kenyir State Park became the first areas to be gazetted under the council’s management. An initial 445ha were established as the Setiu Wetlands, and a further 1,150ha, including Tasik Berombak, would be added to the protected area by year-end, the council said in an email to The Edge.
“TSPMC is committed in safeguarding the Setiu Wetland State Park ecosystem, including preserving and rehabilitating Tasik Berombak and the river in Setiu to its original natural condition by monitoring activities in the gazetted area and enforcing the rules and regulations made under the Terengganu State Park Enactment 2017,” says council deputy director Tengku Mohamad Hafiz Tengku Hashim Badli.
Over the past few decades, economic activities have altered the landscape of the Gelam ecosystem. Aquaculture is a prominent example.
Driven by the federal government’s vision of developing aquaculture as a source of economic growth, its strategic investment fund Khazanah Nasional has entered the prawn farming industry in a big way. Its wholly-owned subsidiary Blue Archipelago Bhd operates the 1,000ha Integrated Shrimp Aquaculture Park (iSharp) in Setiu with the aim of putting Malaysia on the world map for shrimp exports. Blue Archipelago has another 368ha aquaculture park in Kerpan, Kedah.
Another big factor is silica mining. The largest silica resource in Asia lies in Setiu, according to the website of the Terengganu Silica Consortium Sdn Bhd, which mines the mineral at a 1,000ha site in the district and aims to be the largest producer of high-purity silica sand in Asia and Ocenia.
This ties in with the development of the Terengganu Silica Valley Eco-Industrial Park, which is slated to become the focal point for industrial mineral-related activity in the East Coast region, a mission set out in the East Coast Economic Region Master Plan 2.0.
Study of Gelam ecosystem services in progress
These activities and their associated infrastructure development are affecting the ecosystem services that Gelam forests provide.
Mangroves and Gelam ecosystems co-exist in some areas, such as in Setiu. But while mangroves have come to be well appreciated since the Asian tsunami of 2004 as a buffer against natural disasters, much less is known about the ecosystem services associated with Gelam forests, which range from providing timber and other produce to flood regulation and recreational uses (see “The hidden value of a vanishing ecosystem”).
The Gelam conservationists are encouraged by a growing stream of corporate efforts to promote tree-planting. Last September, for example, Nestlé announced a plan to plant three million trees by 2023 in line with its net zero greenhouse gas emissions target for 2050.
In January, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin gave impetus to these initiatives with the launch of the government’s campaign to plant 100 million trees by 2025.
The groups supporting the Gelam forest conservation initiative collectively reflect a range of skill sets from forest restoration to fundraising and networking. Some will play the role of technical advisers, states a draft concept paper sighted by The Edge.
Universiti Malaysia Terenganu’s research on the Gelam ecosystem provides a scientific basis for it to advise the park management on Tasik Berombak’s hydrological features and its plant life as well as to guide the development of the community forest project.
Another partner is Proforest, a global non-profit organisation that supports efforts for responsible production and sourcing of agricultural and forest commodities. It will provide technical input and link up with other multi-stakeholder initiatives overseas to secure resources and increase the profile of the restoration efforts, says its Southeast Asia director Surin Suksuwan in an email to The Edge.
Technical advice will also come from Ecological Economic Solutions Sdn Bhd (2E Solutions), a research consultancy that provides natural resource management solutions for government, private and civil society clients across Southeast Asia.
In the role of commercial partner is Tanamera, a boutique nature-based spa products maker looking to source supplies from the community forest.
“Our involvement will start from the point when the raw material is produced,” says Tanamera co-founder Mohamad Faisal Ahmad Fadzil in a phone interview with The Edge.
After the essential oil has been extracted, Tanamera will create formulations containing the oil, adding value to the natural produce, and then marketing the results, he says (see “People love to be involved in helping the community”).
Other participants in the conservation initiative will play important, albeit informal, roles through networking and fundraising with local and global grant-making institutions.
Reclaiming the Gelam ecosystem will involve a wide range of interventions.
Tree-planting and nursery development are probably the easy part, says a conservationist in the group.
Early steps would include getting the site ready and selecting suitable species. Conservationists speak of restoring a habitat to the condition that existed before it was altered.
“Fortunately, there is a small patch in Tasik Berombak where an old graveyard is sited that has been left untouched. So, we have a reference area to guide our restoration work,” says Jarina.
Establishing a nursery could involve the local community, which would be followed by the planting of seedlings and saplings, maintenance of the conservation site and monitoring of the area.
“Restoring and then managing the wetland ecosystem through a community-based approach will be a long-term endeavour,” says an ecologist in the core group.
Ironically, a UMT survey shows, since the 1970s, when the area around the lake was converted for cashew growing, the local people have gradually all but forgotten about the existence of Tasik Berombak.
If the conservation initiative is successful, Tasik Berombak, which was previously so large that its waters were frequently choppy, may live up to its name once again.
Hidden value of a vanishing ecosystem
The essential oil minyak kayu putih, or cajeput oil, is probably the best-known product that is harvested from the Gelam forests — the sandy, undulating wetlands in the East Coast states that are coming under heavy development pressure.
The oil, which has a camphor-like smell, is extracted from the leaves of the Gelam tree (Melaleuca cajuputi Powell) and is commonly used to promote healthy skin, for aromatherapy, and as a treatment for skin conditions like eczema and skin irritation.
As it is also said to aid in wound-healing, it is popular as a handy home remedy for minor cuts and wounds.
The value of this natural treasure is not lost on the Terengganu state authorities. In an email to The Edge, the Terengganu State Parks Management Council cites these uses among a range of applications that the essential oil is noted for, and they are among the reasons for which the council is working to protect its habitat.
Used as an ingredient in Tiger Balm for its pain-relieving properties, minyak kayu putih is familiar to most people because of its volatile scent. It is also enlisted for a variety of traditional cures, ranging from cough and cold treatment to soothing frazzled nerves.
While minyak kayu putih is mostly produced in Sulawesi, the Gelam tree can be found in Malaysia, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea.
The Gelam tree is related to Melaleuca alternifolia, from which tea tree oil is produced. Currently, world production of tea tree oil is cornered by Australia, which meets 80% of global demand.
“All kinds of tea tree oil products can be found in our shopping malls, but they are almost all from Australia,” says Dr Jarina Mohd Jani of Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT), who is studying the socioeconomic and cultural features of the Gelam ecosystem in the Setiu district of that state.
“Malaysia should have its own tea tree oil industry,” she says, drawing attention to the economic value of the Gelam ecosystem, which should be recognised before it is bulldozed in the name of development.
Resilient species like Melaleuca and Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia) thrive in the nutrient-poor soils of Gelam forests, where other vegetation does poorly, says Jarina.
The Gelam forests are just one of at least 10 interrelated ecosystems found in the Setiu Wetlands of Terengganu. Together, they form a lifeline for the local communities that depend on their natural resources, according to a draft project paper for the rehabilitation of the area.
It also serves as an artery for the lowland areas by channelling water to the otherwise dry coastal or lowland forest, the paper states. These ecosystems become a nursery ground for many aquatic species, particularly during the monsoon months.
A rich variety of about 160 bird species are found in this area, although it is not well-known as a bird-watching site.
It is also a natural flood mitigation system, as the excess water from the rivers is channelled into the lake, regulating the water level of the area.
Flood control is just one among a number of regulating functions played by the Gelam ecosystem. Other vital eco-services include water filtration; carbon storage, especially in its peat content; and wind protection, says Jarina in emailed notes to The Edge, citing research by her UMT colleague associate professor Dr Jamilah Mohd Salim and studies in the region.
Besides providing freshwater fish to the local communities during the rains, the Gelam wetlands supply timber for building and furniture-making and other traditional uses, such as for fuel wood and charcoal.
Aside from the minyak kayu putih, another Gelam forest product that is becoming much sought after is Gelam honey. It is generating interest in medical research due to its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer properties, as well as its ability to speed up wound healing.
Finally, the ecosystem is valued for its life-supporting roles in stabilising soil, in nutrient cycling and as a habitat for flora and fauna, says Jarina.
‘People love to be involved in helping the community’
Marketing produce from a community forest that is proposed for the Setiu district in Terengganu is an idea that has a natural appeal for Tanamera, a tropical spa products maker that has carved a niche for itself in the premium segment.
“If you have a product that you can link to the heart space, with customers appreciating that they’re helping a community without looking only at the cost, people will buy, as long as you do the marketing right,” says Tanamera co-founder Mohamad Faisal Ahmad Fadzil.
He was speaking to The Edge in a phone interview about the boutique brand’s role as a commercial partner in a proposed conservation project for the Gelam forest in Terengganu.
The ecosystem, which is the habitat of Gelam trees that yield the minyak kayu putih (cajeput) essential oil, is at high risk because of development pressure.
A multi-stakeholder initiative to restore the Gelam ecosystem in Setiu, which includes the establishment of a community forest to support local livelihoods, has gained impetus with the imminent gazettement of Tasik Berombak, a large freshwater lake of cultural and ecological importance, as the extended Setiu Wetlands State Park.
“The idea of a community forest appeals to us because first, Setiu is one of the poorest communities in Malaysia,” says Faisal.
“If we want to go into conservation, we have to prove that there is a monetary value to it. This is not so much for the state government but for the people in the surrounding area.”
He stresses that conservation should be looked at in a holistic way so that it brings value to all stakeholders. Merely selling the land and razing its natural assets makes poor sense, he points out.
“Setiu is literally one of the most beautiful wetlands you can get. It is stunningly gorgeous,” he observes, drawing attention to its huge potential as an eco-tourism attraction.
Faisal sees Tanamera’s involvement in the Tasik Berombak conservation initiative from the viewpoint of his firm’s corporate social responsibility (CSR).
It builds on an earlier CSR project — Tanamera Hearts — in aid of marginalised communities, which were engaged to sew bags for the company’s aromatherapy packs.
“This is something we can do again under Tanamera Hearts, where we want to make a special range of products based on essential oils,” says Faisal.
He is confident that public sentiment is in favour of such efforts to balance social inequalities. “People love to be involved in the whole idea of helping the community, especially in times like this pandemic.”
His belief is based on the growing acceptance of Tanamera’s place as a home-grown business.
“Previously, it was so much harder being a local brand, especially as Tanamera is a proudly Malaysian business, and we don’t apologise for it. We’re premium and we’re Malaysian,” says Faisal.
“Maybe people are becoming more empathetic about the struggle of Malaysian brands in their own country, so we get more support now from Malaysian buyers. If you can include an element of CSR in a certain range of products, then it will be a more powerful sell because of the story behind it.”
For a local boutique brand, Tanamera has come a long way since it opened shop in 1995. Today, it has a range of 140 products and exports to 12 countries.
“We’re very Malaysian-centric. We don’t only sell our products; we sell our country, our story, our history,” says Faisal.
“We tell people about the Malay art of wellness. Our post-natal range is widely used in the region. In fact, our biggest markets are Vietnam and Hong Kong. We even have Tanamera rooms in hospitals where they practise the Malay art of massage and steam treatment after birth. In a lot of ways, it puts the Malay art of wellness on the map.
“Everyone talks about traditional Chinese medicine and other traditional practices, but the Malays are not too bad too.”