Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Rampant agribusiness malpractices are damaging Malaysian hill stations and water catchments - Part 1: The iconic Rafflesia flower is threatened

Figure 1: The Rafflesia flower met during a trek in Cameron Highlands

Last February in Cameron Highlands, we had the chance to admire one of the wonder of nature, the giant Rafflesia flower, icon of the virgin forest.

After 2 hours trekking far into the hilly forest, we walked along a heavily muddied stream and arrived at a waterfall where we might have soaked some weeks before. Our guide explained that this was a recent pollution due to a new uphill strawberry farming settlement.

Further he introduced us to the mysterious Rafflesia flower in full blooming (see Figure 1) and to the tiny flowers’ buds scattered in the forest. But sadly he explained, such nature's miracle was doomed to disappear due to the growing pressure of farms.

First I thought that such nightmare was an extreme view from a radical nature lover!

Unfortunately weeks later he informed me that his bad dream had come true: the Orang Asli people had cut down all flowers and buds upon incitement by the farmers. Certainly the later were eager to show that the place was useless for the Rafflesia before a further clearing of the forest to expand their dirty strawberry business.

Being a witness of such a rampant “ecological murder”, I wanted to try to understand such aberration. How mankind would better strive to have ever more strawberries than to protect and admire this mysterious Rafflesia that nature granted us!

Malaysia’s forest and hill resorts

Cameron Highlands in Pahang covers an area of 712 km2, the size of Singapore. The hill resort is located along the central mountain range close to the border of Pahang and Kelantan, the most rural states of peninsular Malaysia. Both states have large upland areas straddling the Central and East mountain ranges, the backbone of the peninsula (see Figure2). 

Figure 2: Central & East Titiwangsa mountain ranges and Bintang West mountain ranges, hill stations and park in Peninsula Malaysia , in red dots distribution of Rafflesia kerrii 

Pahang and Kalimantan Rivers’ basins are covering the biggest part of these tates including highlands ranging between 1,000m and 1,500m in elevation, with peaks more than 2,000m high.  The Pahang River system is flowing southeastward while Kelantan River system flows northward. Both basins have an annual rainfall of about 2,170 -2,500 mm, a large proportion of which occurs during the North-East Monsoon from October to January.

These highlands are mostly covered with virgin forest, including montane mossy cloud forest in the highest parts. Progressively tea plantations, oil palm, rubber and various agribusinesses have been encroaching upon the virgin jungle.

Taman Negara National Park is a national heritage area for trekking around Gg Tahan.

Pahang houses the three most popular Malaysian highland resorts, namely Cameron Highlands, Fraser’s Hill and Genting Highlands where temperatures are averaging 18° C to 22°C during the day.

Cameron is now the most important fresh fruit and vegetable producing center of the country traded in the neighboring urban areas- IPOH, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Singapore.

In the Kelantan basin, the Lojing forest in Gua Musang some five km away from Cameron Highlands on the other side of the state border is also impatient to develop also as a tourist hill resort. But as we will see, it is now developing questionable large new agribusiness scheme.

Lojing is famous for the Rafflesia kerrii species which may be the largest Rafflesia in the world.
In Malaysia this species is only found at the borders of Kelantan, Pahang, Perak and Kedah in Bintang Range. If Lojing is damage so will be this magnificent flower.

Agribusiness development and pollutions in hill resort and water catchments

During the last 10 years Cameron Highlands population (now 37,147) has been booming with an yearly increase of 2.80%, while overall Malaysia made only 2.17%, and Kelantan & Pahang increased their population at a much lower rate respectively 1.26% and 1.62%.(see last Malaysian census)

Such increase is due to a huge development of vegetable agribusinesses and the production of quality vegetable including hydroponic production. But rampant agribusiness malpractices are destroying the hill stations environment and the Bertam river basin watershed. 

Pollution of river

Prior to the development of the hill station about 90% of the Telom and 65% of the Bertam catchments were covered with forest. Natural river quality- before pollution- was slightly acidic because of its origin from rain water tannin and leaves acid release from the forest floor. Naturally photosynthesis and respiration played an important part in the river purification. 

Agribusiness uncontrolled activities encroachment in the catchment areas have increased from approximately 10% to 34% in the Telom River and from 28% to 36% in the Bertam River between 1960 and 1990. And during the last ten years the land use change associated with vegetables, fruits and flowers farming on steep valleys, have further accelerated.

Pollution in river basin is produced from point sources (domestic sewage) and non-point sources (agricultural runoff). After water runoff on agribusinesses, nutrients are stored in the surface soil layers to be released in the river during rainy time. 

Nitrogen nutrients in the Bertam basin are largely exceeding the recommended minimum fixed by the WHO. Registered values are exceeding twice the WHO minimum level in average water flow (AWF) and up to 7 times in high water flow (HWF).

Phosphorous nutrients just as they do in land are stimulating aquatic plants growth including undesirable algae. Agricultural fertilizers released in HWF are causing severe eutrophication of the river basin.

Huge decline in water quality are observed during post-monsoon (HWF) at all stations which indicates that agribusiness non-point pollution sources have a major impact on water quality.

Besides pollution from organic compounds, siltation is causing additional water quality deterioration. Total Suspended Solids (TSS) were found extremely high especially at HWF at Bertam river, Brinchang town and Burong river.

Siltation from land erosion resulting from uncontrolled deforestation, indiscriminate land clearing and unchecked agribusinesses installation on steep slopes are major contributor.

As an example the Ringlet Reservoir next to the iconic Lakehouse has lost all of its dead storage (2 mil m3) plus 70% of its live storage (4.7 mil m3) to sedimentation not to mention the reduction of generated peak power capacity of the hydroelectric scheme.

Why is the Rafflesia Flower icon of Malaysian hill’s stations so precious? 

The Rafflesia - known locally as the Lotus Flower - is used by women Orang-Asli to cure their figure after childbirth. The carnivorious flower feeds on flies and other insects attracted by its rotten smell.

Rafflesia Kerrii - maybe the biggest Rafflesia in the world- is found only in Southern Thailand and up to Lojing, Cameron  and the borders of Kelantan, Pahang, Perak and Kedah in Bintang Range. To date it has only been recorded in these locations.The Rafflesia is the icon of Cameron and Lojing Highlands.

The enigmatic Rafflesia is inherently rare as a result of a number of factors of their life cycle  :
The flower can only successfully parasitize a particular species- the Tetrastigma vine a member of the grape family-; both Rafflesia and Tetrastigma vine in turn are found only in specific habitats.

There is an extremely unbalanced sex ratio in the Rafflesia flowers observed, with many more male than female flowers.

Flower buds have a high level of mortality and only 10 -18% go on to bloom, the blooming lasting for a maximum 10 days.

The pollination process is still unknown…

So the chances of a male and female flower being in bloom at the same time in a close enough vicinity to be pollinated by an unknown insect are therefore extremely low. 

The Future of the Rafflesia is gloom

Figure 3: The Rafflesia is praised on Malaysian banknote 

Malaysia in one of the hot spots of "mega-diversity area" in the world. The country primary or old-growth  forests- believed to be from 200,000 years (cloud forest) up to 130 mil years old (rain forest) - have produced an amazine range of flora such as orchids, pitcher plants as well as the enigmatic Rafflesia the world largest florest. 

There is a need to better know and protect the flower as proposed by Universiti Malaysian Kelantan (UMK). At least three species victim to excessive habitat loss are thought to already be extinct.

But is the protection of Rafflesia icon of the Malaysian hill highlands -praised on Malaysian banknotes (Figure 3)- really a national priority?

Also unrestrained agribusiness pollutions already have had a huge impact on Pahang and Kelantan rivers which are among the most important Malaysian water catchments and need to be conserved and protected.