Malaysia: Treasures from Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve

MyKampung Sin Chew Daily 26 Jul 14;
Translated by SOONG PHUI JEE

The Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve is the largest mangrove forest in Peninsula Malaysia.

Environmentalist Wu Yong Quan's first job after returning from Taiwan was to join the Wetlands International Malaysia and he lived in Kuala Gula for two years. He was surprised when he first saw the spectacular estuary mangrove.

He received mangrove narrator training when studying in Taiwan and said that there are many mangrove-related books in Taiwan while many mangrove narrators have also been trained.

He was shocked to find that Taiwan is actually having only 3km2 of mangroves while in Malaysia, mangroves can be found at almost all estuaries and the sizes could reach more than 3km2 if there is no serious damage or development projects.

He explained that it is because Malaysia is having a tropical rainforest climate which is suitable for the growth of mangrove. There are about 1,000km2 of mangroves in Peninsula alone. However, many have been destroyed in the name of development due to the lack of proper protection.

There are only about 70 mangrove species worldwide while Malaysia is having 40 of them and is currently ranked world's sixth in total mangrove area.

The Matang Mangrove Forest is 400km2 in size, covering estuaries of several rivers include Kuala Larut and Sungai Sangga Kecil. It is the largest mangrove area in Peninsula. Since it is far from the sea and most mangroves are planted, it is lack in biodiversity.

Wu said that local mangroves are cut to make charcoal.

"Almost 300km2 mangroves are cut and replanted for a period of 30 years, while the remaining quarter of the area is kept for conservation, research, recreation, education and seed banking," he added.

Matang Mangrove Forest claims to have the world's best mangrove management system but it is not necessarily best protected. He said that the initial management was drawn in the early 20th century. A new management plan will be drawn every 10 years since the 1950s to amend and assess mangrove deforestation. It was estimated that Matang mangroves for charcoal and piling have brought RM30 million of profit each year.

Many people think that mangroves serve mainly as a windshield and thus, mangrove conservation plans started to be promoted after the 2004 Aceh tsunami, but Wu does not share the thought. He thinks that the windshield functionality of mangrove is not really strong.

"Malaysia has many mangroves and drifting mangrove saplings grow naturally wherever the environment is suitable," he said.

In fact, places with strong winds and waves are not suitable for the growth of mangroves. He explained that when the southwest monsoon blows, the huge waves are blocked by Sumatra. Fine mud brought by rivers are left on the coast and thus, west coasts are relatively more dirty. However, it is also more suitable to grow mangroves. It is also why the sizes of mangrove forests in east coasts are relatively small and most are having beach ecology instead.

Mangrove forests catch nutritious fine mud from upstream and nourish river creatures. Meanwhile, fishes, shrimps, crabs, shellfishes resting under the shade of mangroves absorb nutrients provided by decomposed leaves, increasing fishermen's catches.

Since it biggest feature is enriching seafood cultivation, the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve has brought RM230 million of revenue to the seafood cultivation industry.

Drives local charcoal industry

Although charcoal and piling wood are not the main sources of profit, the Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve has still driven the charcoal industry in Kuala Sepetang. There are 348 licensed charcoal kilns in Sepetang and charcoals produced here are also exported to Japan.

Mangroves used to make charcoals are usually "Bakau Minyak" and "Bakau Kurap".

The management for mangroves used for charcoal production and piling wood is as followed:

The 30th year: All mangroves within the management area are completely deforested for charcoal production while 3 metre of buffer zone next to the river is conserved to prevent sea erosion.

The first to third year: Control weeds, plant seedlings and replace dead seedlings.

The 15th to 19th year: Selectively cut some trees to increase the distance between trees, while the wood can be used for construction purposes.

The 20th to 24th year: Selectively cut some trees again.

The 29th year: Survey mangrove growth condition and estimate production.

Wang Hong Xi, 34, is one of the kiln operators. He explained that a ship can load 9090kg of mangroves per trip.

Mangrove trunks must first be peeled before being arranged vertically in the kiln. About 1300 trunks can be arranged vertically in a kiln and each of the trunks must be padded with a small brick to allow hot air circulation, leaving space to allow the discharge of steam. A small opening must be left before kiln fire is lit.

Instead of being directly burned, charcoals are made through evaporation. Mangrove trunks will first be smoked with high heat, about 240 degrees, for 10 to 15 days before the heat is reduced to 85 degrees.

Pyroligneous acid or wood vinegar is channelled through a tube and collected in a blue plastic bucket next to the charcoal kiln. Wang said that applying wood vinegar to burn wounds could help prevent blister while applying it to cuts can help in hemostasis.

Mangrove trunks will turn into pink colour when they are carbonised and later translucent blue. They will continue be smoked with reduced heat until they become charcoals and the whole process takes about a month.

Wang stressed that kiln fires must keep on burning or the trunks will automatically burn up inside the kiln.

The last step will be sealing the kiln and letting the trunks to slowly cool down inside the kiln. Charcoals are removed from the kiln after more than ten days of cooling.

No trunk in the charcoal kiln is allowed to exceed 5 feet and 3 inches long or the operator will be fined RM10 for each trunk for first violation, RM20 for second and RM40 for third. Once blacklisted, it will affect license renewal which must be made every 10 years.

Each charcoal kiln is limited to operate in 2.2 hectares of mangrove forest to avoid excessive deforestation. In addition, kilns must be piled with 24,000 bricks and their heights must be 6.7 feet in diameter. Wang has three kilns producing 10 to 12 times of charcoals respectively each year and kiln operators are required to file 11 tons of taxes each time charcoals are removed from kiln.