Shawn Lum on Pasir Ris woodland

Keep or clear? It's not so clear-cut
Straits Times Forum 19 Jan 13;

THERE have been a number of resident-based efforts to save patches of woodland in the past few months. The latest ("Fight to save forest patch hots up"; Jan 9) was the topic of Dr Wee Yeow Chin's letter ("Not all green patches worth preserving"; Jan 11).

An interesting and important point was raised - what constitutes a wild area worth saving, given the trade-offs between conservation, ecosystem services, allocated uses of land and economic development, among other factors?

Biodiversity value runs the spectrum from a pristine rainforest to a species-poor grassland. Given such extremes, it is easy to make a case for keeping the former but not the latter.

If, however, a nature area lies somewhere in the middle of the biodiversity spectrum, the case for clearing or keeping is not as straightforward. For example, if an internationally threatened migratory bird species stops there, clearing a woodland patch might have global repercussions for that species.

There is also the future biodiversity potential of an area. Many of our richest biodiversity sites today were once spent agricultural lands that nature reclaimed and gradually enriched, becoming havens for wildlife many decades later.

Small patches of nature may serve some purposes - noise mitigation, reducing the localised "heat island" effect, accumulating biomass, reducing run-off and more - far better than manicured parks.

Most importantly, there is a personal benefit - aesthetic, psychological, emotional or even spiritual - for people who live near tiny pockets of nature.

Such areas might not interest a biodiversity specialist, but for the residents, who are the ultimate stakeholders in a neighbourhood, these areas may be priceless and provide meaning to their lives, ground them in a community, and provide a platform for inter-generational and cross-cultural engagement.

It is an encouraging sign that residents are increasingly speaking up for what is important to them.

Finally, wide-eyed innocents may later turn out to have been visionaries. Twenty years ago, my predecessors at the Nature Society were criticised by some for proposing that naturally formed wetlands be incorporated into future parks in the Marina Bay district.

Nature areas on prime reclaimed land may have seemed preposterous then, but today, those wildlife-rich areas in the district that we suggested retaining are the site of a green attraction that incorporates newly constructed wetlands - the Gardens by the Bay.

Shawn Lum
President, Nature Society (Singapore)

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