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28 May 07
Malaysia Uproots Forest to Build Graveyard
Story by Clarence Fernandez
KOTA DAMANSARA, Malaysia - Geckos splash in a green pool and chattering, beady-eyed monkeys swing through the trees in one of Malaysia's oldest patches of forest as bulldozers crunch jungle nearby to build a cemetery for Muslims.
A clash is shaping between the demands of environmental protection and devotion to religion in mainly Muslim Malaysia as protesters prepare for a last-ditch bid to persuade authorities to spare a rare wildlife haven on the edge of the capital.
"Why dig up a valuable tree to bury a corpse?" asked Noor Lelawati Khalid, who is preparing to take on developers and town planners in a battle to preserve the forest on whose fringes she has lived with her husband and five sons for the last four years.
Local officials say the cemetery will occupy just a small part of the forest, but residents fear the move is only the first step in a campaign to cut down trees, level the hill on which they stand, and build hundreds of homes on the razed ground.
Forestry officials say more than half of Malaysia is swathed in permanent forest reserves, but environmentalists say fears are growing that rampant development and illegal logging are putting the country's forest cover at risk.
The shrinkage of Malaysia's forest cover has accelerated to 0.7 percent over the five years to 2005, nearly double the figure of 0.4 percent seen over the decade to 2000, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation said in a recent report.
And green patches near cities are slowly disappearing.
"We're reaching a point where, if we don't make a real good effort to reverse the situation, it will become irreversible," said biologist Loh Chi Leong of the Malaysian Nature Society, which is supporting the Kota Damansara residents' protest.
Razing the forest patch outside Kuala Lumpur will increase the risk of floods and landslides and drive up temperatures, say residents, many of whom are Muslim themselves.
"This is not a religious issue because I know that tolerating poor planning and deception by authorities and developers is not something that Muslims are called upon to do," Malaysian Nuraini Mohamed Arsad wrote in a letter to the New Straits Times daily.
Before cutting down forest, officials should have studied the possibility of reusing graves in existing cemeteries, she added.
Formerly one of the country's oldest forest reserves, the forest at the Sungai Buloh site had shrunk to just about 340 acres by 2005, from more than 4,000 in 1898. Development is nibbling it up even faster after Malaysia dropped plans for a national botanical garden there.
Experts say the same story is being played out elsewhere in the country, with cemeteries encroaching on three more forest locations near the capital alone.
Striking the correct balance between development and environmental protection is hard, one forestry expert said. "This is the issue that we are grappling with, development versus conservation," Abdul Razak, head of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, told Reuters.
"There have been plans since the 1960s to convert some areas from forest areas to cultivation or some other use," he added. "But you will see a lot of protests now as people clear the forest, because as we develop, our standard of living rises, and people want to keep these things."
On a narrow trail winding uphill through the forest, bird songs drown out the noise of traffic. Noor Lelawati Khalid watches out for monkeys as she picks her way through a dense litter of twigs, branches, and leaves.
"One doesn't know where the monkeys went in this part of the forest after the development was carried out," she said. "Before monkeys would come out during the morning and late afternoon."
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