malaysian naturalist, september 2016
According to the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), a short biodiversity survey carried out in 2008 found an impressive number of species, including mammals, at eight (mostly bats), amphibians (six), birds (65, a good number of them migratory) and 39 types of moths and butterflies, with a surprising discovery of some forest species. Among the 163 species of flora, meanwhile, are two rare plants and two endemic trees.
This area is also part of the city’s green lungs, which currently stand at a depressing 6.2% of the total land area of the city (demarcated as “open space”, and not necessarily forest cover*) and, MNS says, not enough to ensure the health and wellbeing of those who live in, and breathe the air of, Kuala Lumpur. That is the reason MNS has started an initiative called Urban Community Forest (UCF) for Bukit Persekutuan, with the aim of working together with affiliated communities, stakeholders and the authorities to continue protecting the area from being exploited for development and preventing its low-density, institutional status from being irrevocably changed.
*as noted in the KL Structure Plan 2020
In the first step of the initiative, run with Think City, an urban regeneration body owned by Khazanah Nasional, a briefing was held on 28th May at UCF Centre, the second-floor meeting space adjacent to the MNS HQ building. Attended by MNS Honorary-Secretary Stephanie Bacon and board member Chris Boyd, MNS members, Think City’s Solomon Jebaratnam and Riduan Ngesan, green interest groups, fans of Bukit Persekutuan and residents responding to an invite sent to houses and properties in the area, the session touched on Bukit Persekutuan’s ecological and cultural heritage, its richness in terms of biodiversity and necessary steps to take the initiative forward.
In his welcoming speech, MNS Board of Trustees Chairman John Koh spoke about the history of Federal Hill, with representation of eight states in the road names and its build up in the British Colonial era. The buildings were erected from early in the 1900s, and used as government offices and residences for British officers. Among the earliest structures was the European Hospital (circa 1900s), which still stands today as the Health Institute, while of the 100-odd remaining bungalows, the oldest is arguably the MNS headquarters (JKR 641) on Jalan Kelantan, which was noted on a 1929 map. Prominent buildings are the Galeria Sri Perdana on Jalan Terengganu, the former residence of the Prime Minister now run as a museum, and the palaces of the states of Kedah, Perak and Negeri Sembilan.
The remaining bungalows, sited on expansive tracts of land, are owned and run by the government, and used to house its officers. Nonetheless, owing to age, upkeep costs and possibly ancient amenities, the properties became less popular among civil servants, and some have been leased out to non-profits (such as MNS, an orphanage and the Red Crescent Society) while others have been left vacant. This raises the risk of these heritage buildings succumbing to nature or gravity, or the structures being misused, for example by drug addicts or the homeless.
Then there is the larger threat to the area, that of unchecked development. Bukit Persekutuan is arguably the last remaining green area within the highly sought-after triangle of KL Sentral, Bangsar and Damansara, and while it is protected by its status – low density, for public use and non-commercial – attempts are continually being made, Koh said, to chip away at the hill for commercial purposes.
In 2014, The Star newspaper reported concerns by residents after a plot of land on Jalan Travers, next to the police station and across from the Hilton Kuala Lumpur, was bulldozed, apparently for development. The report raised the issue of the land’s institutional status, and recalled similar opposition by residents in 2008 to a land-swap development on the same plot which would have meant the construction of two 30-storey towers and a 16-storey tower atop a five-storey podium. The proposal, which would have altered the land status from institutional to commercial, was cancelled. However, the day following this report, City Hall came back to say that the land would house police quarters and that the “construction of a nine-storey block of police quarters, a three-storey police station, a store room and other facilities… is an extension of the current Travers police station and does not contravene any policies”.
Also around the corner from the police station is Seri Bukit Persekutuan, a rolling, hillside development comprising 148 condominium, terraced and semi-detached units and villas. Completed in the mid-Noughties, the gated enclave boasts “tranquil views of Lake Garden Park and Kenny Hills, as well as the Kuala Lumpur skyline”, with units priced at a range of single-digit millions, as listed on several online property sites.
Houses and land in the area are also on sale, with signage to that effect posted on trees along the narrow roads. In a 19 July 2016 listing on The Edge Property site, a tract with 12,240 sq ft of land and 7,000 sq ft of built-up area, comprising a building with 10 rooms, is priced at RM16 million. It is marked freehold and “suitable for super bungalow redevelopment” (www.theedgeproperty.com.my). Meanwhile, a May listing on iProperty.com has two adjacent vacant bungalow lots on Lorong Travers being offered for RM30 million.
Development, with its attendant land clearing, movement of heavy equipment, debris, pollution and soil runoff, is a death sentence for forests, especially if it does not adhere to practices that protect the environment. And Bukit Persekutuan’s lush greenery is valuable and should be protected, Sonny Wong, UCF’s project coordinator, told the audience in his brief.
He said a survey was carried out in a 2007/2008 project with Badan Warisan, looking at architectural and biodiversity treasures on the joint conservation platform, and the discoveries were plentiful. Aside from recording 113 heritage buildings, the short trek into the nature trail just off the MNS HQ grounds recorded the aforementioned numbers of flora and fauna, some not usually found in a city setting of regrowth forest, which had crept back onto land previously cleared for rubber estates.
The benefits of healthy green lungs also cannot be downplayed. He said Bukit Persekutuan linked up with the Lake Gardens area, Bukit Nanas and Bukit Kiara to create an advanced forest network, which helped to reduce carbon dioxide, filter the air, keep the weather cool and prevent hillside erosion, at the same time absorbing rainwater and preventing flash floods. More directly, tree-lined streets offer shade, offering walkers, cyclists and other road users a tranquil oasis on their travels and better quality of life.
UCF was working towards “World Class Living” as defined in the KL Structure Plan, Wong said, and this included protecting Bukit Persekutuan’s low-density status, the linking of all green spaces, restricting development on dangerous slopes and increasing the open space to 10% of the city area, “although 12% would be better”. This in the face of encroaching development as well as apathy, as a quick look into several gullies show that they are popular spots for indiscriminate garbage dumping.
“By making UCF a model for community-based conservation, plus a centre for environmental education and nature activities, the government may see that this place is being utilised, that it benefits the people and is a tourist attraction, and with a strong management plan for the sustainable running of the initiative, hopefully they will be persuaded to keep Bukit Persekutuan green,” Wong said.
MNS also boasts a wide range of experts willing to share their knowledge, and in fact, on 16 July, UCF hosted a free nature walk led by botanist Lim Koon Hup for the benefit of friends of Bukit Persekutuan and newcomers to forest walks. The 90-minute stroll, punctuated by explanations on different and special trees as well as the spotting of wildlife, was attended by an encouraging number of participants, making the initiative’s first official activity a modest success. In fact, one eagle-eyed participant spotted and managed to take a fetching picture of the UCF mascot, basking on a leaf in the morning sun. Talk about a great start to this important initiative!
Also on the same day, participants from a special interest group (SIG), the MNS Selangor Branch Flora Group, had a walkabout on the trail. Then on the final weekends of July, the UCF Centre was utilised for the MNS Selangor Branch AGM and the Frogs and Reptiles Introduction and Photography talk, while the herpetology SIG went “night frogging” – searching out, photographing and recording frog species, in the dark – along the nature trail.
“We are used to letting the government make decisions, but the people are the ones bearing the impact of development, and as the country gets more developed, we think it is time for Malaysia to embrace wholesome decision-making,” he says. “The people now are more educated, more cultured, and we can really contribute. What the community needs to do is come up with its own plans and decisions for Bukit Persekutuan.”
Balu, a botanist by training and community-involvement advocate by practice, ran several successful people-oriented conservation programmes before joining MNS three years ago, and he wants UCF to be a strong voice in keeping this area green. MNS Selangor’s 5,000-strong membership, which also comprises KLites, means there will be more activities and volunteers to raise UCF’s profile as a hub for city dwellers’ nature needs, he says.
“We want people to feel free to come to UCF, to take a nature walk on the weekends, to meet and discuss ideas, to help at the nursery, to run workshops, to plan more activities.” He adds that feedback from the briefing included ideas to move the initiative forward, including mini expeditions to other areas of Bukit Persekutuan, organising heritage or nature walks, creating more trails and engaging the authorities and even the Member of Parliament, and these can only be carried out by volunteers willing to put in the time and effort. “We hope they will come forward and make this community urban forest initiative a reality.”
It’s responsibility-sharing for the benefit of the whole, and as one of the last remaining greenholds of KL, this may be the best option Bukit Persekutuan has to keep its lush forests intact.
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