As the self-aggrandized old hand of the Southeast Asian urban landscape, you’ll peer about joyfully bewildered. You aren’t enveloped by partially peeled cement walls and blackened exhaust. Writhing, verdant walls of vegetation veil cyclone fences and railings. The scene outside the window of your cab is not metropolitan.
I was snatched away from my dreamy chlorophyll bath when we rounded a corner, facing a snarling highway of sluggish traffic. With the precipitation, it could have been Seattle, except the familiarity of my shirt with my back was one step away from gene-splicing, even with the AC full tilt. Kuala Lumpur, is surprisingly green (in the sense of trees), some comforts persist, but you’ll still get drenched in the sweat and rain you’d expect in tropical Asia. I’m a fan of KL.
Malaysia, specifically the area now called Peninsular or West Malaysia, has done well fiscally. I had inklings based on the expansive greenbelts and ornate buildings, but I didn’t know as much of the story till I visited the wonderful Muzium Negara, the National Museum. After all, I needed to fill the stunning void my public high school education left me with concerning Southeast Asian history, (to be fair, I blame standardized curriculum not teachers). The region, under various powers, has been on the trading route between the East and the West as long as they’ve been trading. Monsoonal winds are efficient means of pushing a ship across oceans and Malaysia often became a stopover for traders waiting for favorable breezes. With massive forests, spices, and tin, the land had much to offer and was mentioned in writing as far away as Greece and as early as the beginning of the 15th century, obviously on the trading route long before that. Ever since the 2nd century, the Chinese has visited the West coast of the region.
The Kingdom of Melaka, founded in the early 15th century, a soon to be Muslim sultanate, held sway over many resources that the West found covetous. In turn the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British invaded and had their way with the Tin and spices they were after. Through various deals and typical colonial dishonesty, the British found themselves in control of a modern Malaysia. Eventually they created a governed area out of the Peninsular region (which was never one country), and land snatches they made from a flailing Brunei and Sulu (a Sultanate you’ve probably never heard of) in Northern Borneo. I’d recently been wondering how Northern Borneo was Malaysian and now I knew. By 1957 a massive front of multicultural self-awareness had built throughout the states and without too much fuss, Malaysia found independence. The history of this area is absurdly fascinating, I can’t wait to learn more.
Human history puts natural history into perspective (which is why I spend time on it). Malaysia seems to me the most progressive country I’ve visited when it comes to many things, including the environment. They’ve been around the block, seen what can happen when a greedy hand is at the wheel. In all appearances though, the consensus that what’s left is pretty sacred. Thanks to people like me who visit to see nature (on planes, automobiles, using disposable plastics), there is an easily distinguished fiscal reason for preservation. As much as I may agree with other arguments for the necessity of biodiversity, this is a little less esoteric to the general public.
In Kepong, a train and a taxi outside Kuala Lumpur, is the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FIRM). This giant complex of recreational land, educational, and research facilities is a bit of a tourist draw, yet until we found the fantastic museum and coerced someone to let us in, it was difficult to say what exactly brought people here. Sure there was steamy tropical forest, which actually housed many new things for Nick, Ellen, and I. Yet the canopy walkway was closed (something mentioned after we’d paid admission), and the information booth just showed us a path to walk down. Surely people weren’t paying 10 ringgit just to prance about regenerating tropical jungles? We did see a Diard’s Trogon (Harpactes diardii), Spectacled Bulbuls (Pycnonotus erythropthalmos), and a Flying Lizard, all well worth it.
Yet I wanted to know more about this place, what sort of mad scientist experiments were going on in the pulp lab? Alas, by the time a sheepish young man appeared from his four hour lunch break to let us into a informative museum, we only had 15 minutes to eyeball the endless plaques on all forestry research before our Taxi was due. Ellen and I were massively disappointed because learning what Malaysia was doing with their forests was impetus for visiting. Equally frustrating was that I didn’t manage to corner any scientists to beat some interviews out of.
What I saw I couldn’t help admire, here was shameless, proud declarations of what the forest was being used for. I could see foresight and no shame in the use of a strong resource which could be managed sustainably. Growing up a city liberal, it is easy to form the opinion that cutting trees is an irretrievable sin, whilst reading your book, relaxing in a wooden recliner. People aren’t going anywhere just yet and while destruction is destruction, unless all people blink out, creating less invasive and smarter means of extraction and application are obvious.
Yet, Malaysia is the second largest producer of Palm Oil in the world. Palm Oil is the sinister product in so much we use and you don’t grow this bulbous, cancerous looking fruit by sprinkling seeds in the rainforest understory. For comparisons sake, Indonesia is the number one producer and the exhaust from their land clearing makes them the 4th worst producer of green house gasses behind the EU, the USA, and China.
A report from Wetlands International this year, suggests that between 2005 and 2010, almost 353,000 hectares of peat swamp forest were cleared in Malaysia. This is a painful third of the existing habitat, one of the most diverse in Borneo. To visualize one hectare, think of the footprint the entire Statue of Liberty takes up. Environmental integrity is hard won when there’s money to be had and a demanding and thirsty Western world guzzling your product as quickly as you can make more. Finger pointing doesn’t work here, US demand is this issue. All this makes me want to curl of up in the fetal position, but it is the reality of an aspiring environmental journalist.
As I strolled around the Lake Gardens back in Kuala Lumpur, I continued to mull over what it meant to have grand public parks in the middle of the city. This was a luxury born of elevated means, likely ill begotten resources. I found their expanse inviting and comfortable, but was this coming at a cost? (An alternative of course is being a place like Laos, which is still getting torn apart and the people get no kick back). Black-naped Orioles (Oriolus chinensis) chortled overhead. Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis) did what any respectable troop does in proximity to humans, they dined lavishly, in hedonistic revels, on garbage. The pleasant report of the grand mosque sounded in the distance. I couldn’t help but feel as if people were being lulled into a false sense environmental security, with green space and government campaigns on sustainability. I worry about the same at home sometimes.
But the sun was shining, the Milky Storks (Mycteria cinerea) were clattering away, and Blue-throated Bee-eaters (Merops vividis) sped from their perches in search of Hymenoptera. It was nice to be somewhere with such evident pride in self and country, even if it was somewhat hypocritical at times. I passed people from all over the world, resident or otherwise, as I walked back to my grimy China Town guest house. Long-billed Crows (Corvus validus) drifted off to their roosts for the night, reminding me of crows in Seattle. I really like Malaysia.
I promise I’ll get off my soapbox next time but a guy’s gotta vent sometimes. Next? Borneo!!!
Brendan you saw the posturing to be accepted by the corporations that are stealing your resources .What a conundrum . Is that the old journalist photographers ; do I stop clicking away and help bandage or is my duty to document what I see????? I love your insights keep writing .LOve Pops