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 a warm, welcoming homestay.
This weekend (July 29 to 21), we had our first ever people-to-people collaboration between Singapore and Malaysia to prevent fires through a peatland rewetting project in Malaysia. We overcame a long journey, hard labour and the scorching sun to block a 3.5 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep canal. Our dam helped maintain a high water level in the peatland to prevent Haze causing fires.
We left our worries behind and waded through the peat swamp forest reserve and supported local agro-tourism. The wonderful 3-days People’s Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP) at the Raja Musa Forest Reserve (RMFR) in Selangor, Malaysia allowed us to deepen our understanding of peatland conservation in the local ecology and economic context and to feel accomplished and more bonded than ever.
The Raja Musa Forest Reserve (RMFR)
Project surface: 35,656 hectares
The Raja Musa Forest Reserve is a peat swamp forest surrounded by agriculture land mainly consisting of rice paddy and oil palm plantations. PM.Haze’s 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. To reduce the impact of the drainage, canals are blocked to 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.
Highlight #1 Canal Blocking
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.
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.
A blue canopy was used to wrap and hold the sand bags. We had to resist great force from the fast flowing water stream while arranging the sandbags.
Six experienced locals can build two such dams in one afternoon, while 20 of us struggled with one for 3 hours.
Well, there is a learning curve!
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.
Ta-da our canal block (3°30’23.43″N, 101°26’41.09″E)!
Note how the dam helps to raise the water level in the canal and thereby keeping the surrounding peat moist.
Highlight #2 Peat Swamp Tour
It was 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 Singapore. Peat swamp forests, also known as peatland forests, are unique wetland ecosystems where partially decomposed organic matter accumulates over thousands of years under waterlogged conditions to form carbon-rich soil, or peat. Besides serving as a source of water supply, peat swamp forests also serves as habitat for numerous flora and fauna including many threatened and endangered species.
The guided tour through the forest was about 2 hours.
Some parts of peat were chest-deep and difficult to walk in, with tangled roots under the black water. When we walked in the swamp, the bottom felt very soft and spongy.
We enjoyed ourselves having intimate contact with nature.
Peat can store large amount of water because its structure is not very firm and has a high pore volume. Even in the dry season, water level in the peat swamp forest is quite high.
The distinct black colour of the peat water is due to tannin from decomposing organic matter. The organic matter under the water decomposes very slowly as bacteria struggle to survive in this very acidic and oxygen depleted environment. Because the decomposition is slow, organic matter accumulates and peat grows over time. This 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.
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 was nice and warm and we enjoyed excellent view of the never ending rice paddy.
We also saw how the rice fields use a mix of river and peat water for irrigation.
Pak Rashid and Mak Young hosted the girls. Pak Rashid 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!
What a kampong life experience!
A once in a lifetime experience!
There is a lot that we can lose
if we do not protect the peatlands.
A crazy Kampong immersion
and a rich human experience
which directly benefits
to the local community
I was glad to join the People’s Expedition to Experience Peat (PEEP) because I was sick of whining about the haze and wished to take active steps to learn about why haze happens, and therefore be empowered to make it stop!
Understand the ground level conditions
and be able to see the rise in water level
on the spot after fun sweating work!!
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
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 Benjamin Tay and Tan Yihan for organising the trip.