Having fun stopping the haze

People’s Expedition to Experience Peat

How to stop the haze and have fun at the same time? Here are the three ingredients: a group of passionate people, a peat forest, and warm, welcoming homestay. We overcame a long journey, hard labour and the scorching sun, and built our own 3.5 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep canal block to help maintain water level of the peat swamp. We left our worries behind and waded through the peat swamp forest reserve and supported local agro-tourism. The wonderful 3-day People’s Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP) at the Raja Musa Forest Reserve (RMFR) in Selangor, Malaysia allows us to deepen our understanding of peat land conservation in the local ecology and economic context and to feel accomplished and bonded more than ever.

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Image from Google Earth

(The dark green area on the map comprises of the sungai karang forest reserve, sungai dusun forest reserve and the raja musa forest reserve. The red marker indicates our canal blocking site.)

Highlight #1 Canal Blocking

The Raja Musa Forest Reserve is a peat swamp forest surrounded by agriculture land mainly consist of rice paddy and oil palm plantations. The peat swamp forest acts like a sponge and supplies water to the communities: during wet season, it stores water, and during dry season it releases water. Our local partner Global Environment Center (GEC) has been supporting the Government of Selangor and the Selangor State Forestry Department to manage the reserve since 1998. One of the key challenge is the decrease of water level in the peat swamp caused by drainage of water by the oil palm plantations outside the reserve. During dry season, the dried peat catches fire easily, causing haze and contributing to global warming. To reduce the impact of the drainage, canals blocks are built to dam up the stream and maintain a desirable water level within the forest reserve, meanwhile supplying the excess water to the surrounding plantations. These canal blocks will keep the peat swamp wet and are the most cost-effective measures to prevent fire.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

The canal-blocking project was crowd-funded and we would like to express our deepest appreciation for those who donated to the project. We raised S$1750 in two days, which went entirely to pay for the cost of canal-blocking and planting 30 native Tenggek Burung trees.

We filled up about 100 sand bags to fill the 1.5 meters deep canal under the scotching sun.

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Photo Credit: LightCraft

About 100 unites of mangrove poles were used to build the “casing”. We immersed ourselves in the cooling peat water to tie up the poles with wires.

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Photo Credit: LightCraft

A blue canopy is used to wrap and hold the sand bags. We had to resist great force from the fast flowing peat water stream while arranging the sandbags. Six experienced locals can build two such canal blocks in one afternoon, while 20 of us struggled with one for 3 hours. Well, there is a learning curve!

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Photo Credit: LightCraft

We were really happy after 3 hours of hard labouring. Look how strong the canal block is! It held the weight of all 20 of us.

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Photo Credit: LightCraft

Ta-da our canal block (3°30’23.43″N, 101°26’41.09″E)! Notice how it helps to raise the water level of the canal block and thereby keeping the surrounding peat moist.

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Photo Credit: LightCraft

Highlight #2 Peat Swamp Tour

Definitely the first time for most of us to wade through a peat forest. According to Raj from GEC, Raja Musa Forest Reserve (RMFR) is part of a huge peatland area larger than the size of Singapore. Peat swamp forests, also known as peatland forests, are a unique wetland ecosystem where partially decomposed organic matter has accumulated over thousands of years under waterlogged conditions to form carbon-rich soil, or peat. Besides serving as source of water supply, peat swamp forests also serves as a habitat for numerous flora and fauna including many threatened and endangered species. The guided tour through a small part of the forest is about 2 hours. Some parts of peat are chest-deep and difficult to walk, with tangled roots under the black water. We enjoyed ourselves having intimate contact with nature.

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Photo Credit: Chevon Low

The distinct black colour of the acidic peat water comes from decomposing organic matter. When we walk in the swamp, the bottom felt very soft and spongy. Peat can store large amount of water because its structure is not very firm and has a high pore volume.

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Photo Credit: Chevon Low

Even in the dry season, water level in the peat swamp forest is quite high. The organic matter under the water decompose very slowly due to the absence of bacteria which makes peatland excellent carbon storage. In about 100,000 years, peat will turn into coal!

The peat landscape is in stark contrast with the oil palm plantations nearby. Oil palm plantations on peat are created by draining the peatland. Notice the drastic transformation of the landscape. According to Raj from GEC, the exposed root is a sign of peat subsidence, a result of the release of huge amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. Peatland is therefore not suitable for large scale agriculture and no new peatland should be converted to grow oil palm or timber. 

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Photo Credit: Zhang Wen

Highlight #3 Homestay

RMFR and the adjacent areas have a long history of fire occurrences. Besides the community-based rehabilitation program where villagers are involved in fire prevention measures, additional incentives for community to protect the forest is created through the local agro-tourism. The Sungai Sireh agro-tourism homestay program started in 1989. Villagers generate additional income by hosting tourists all over the world. The program makes protecting peat forest easy: locals are incentivised to protect the peat forest for tourists.

We tried our hands on planting rice. The mud is nice and warm and we enjoyed excellent view of the never ending rice paddy.

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Photo Credit: LightCraft

Pak Rashid and Mak Young hosted the girls. Pak used to work in Singapore for a few years and really likes to take photos with his guests. So we took a lot of photos!

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Photo Credit: Jang Leong Chia

Final thoughts

The 3-day expedition trip is refreshing and rewarding. To most of us who are used to urban life, it is a great reminder of how kampong life was once closely connected with nature. Once in a while, Singapore is shrouded in haze from burnings used in agriculture in the neighbouring countries. No one party, be it business or government, can resolve the issue single-handedly. If we want to stop the haze, we need to learn the many facets of the problem and find where we can play a part. Supporting the local agro-tourism is a great way to have fun while protecting the peat swamp forest. Blocking canals is another way to reduce the impact of agriculture activities around the peat swamp forest.

Our founder Tan Yihan was so inspired by the trip that he wrote a poem:

We were hoping to see stars

but all we got were scars

Hundred bags of sand and stone

under the scorching sun we strove

peat’s blood loss to hold

our national days with blue skies to behold

Why, you ask, do we endure?

When others travel in comfort, I’m sure

Perhaps indeed it is comfort we seek

not without, but within

Minds for imagining

hands for giving

a sense of belonging

a purpose for living

underneath the scars

only stars    

It is the mission of PM.Haze to empower people with the knowledge and means to stop the haze. We are deeply heartened by the great spirit from the expedition team. Join us if you want to be part of it. Sign up our mailing list at pmhaze.org and stay tuned for our next PEEP. 

Special thanks to Benjamine Tay and Tan Yihan for organising the trip.

Special thanks to Chrispy Vege and Lawrence Chia from LightCraft production team for capturing our great memory. Find out more about LightCraft via their website or Facebook.   

Special thanks to Global Environment Center for the meaningful program and the Homestay Sungai Sireh for being our wonderful host.