STW Sundays #4: Justine Vaz, on Managing a Community Forest in Kota Damansara

Save-The-World Sundays is a series of interviews conducted with remarkable individuals who have started environmental initiatives and movements. This Sunday, we feature Justine Vaz, the founding President of Persatuan Rimba Komuniti Kota Damansara (a.k.a. Kota Damansara Community Forest Society, KDCF Society in short). The Society aims to play a key role in connecting the public to the forest, and partnering with the Selangor Forestry Department to develop the state’s first urban community-managed forest.

Tell us about yourself.

I am an independent researcher based in Petaling Jaya. I have extensive experience as a conservation practitioner with WWF Malaysia in Sabah, and I am fascinated with Borneo, indigenous cultures, traditional knowledge and local resource management approaches. I recently completed a study to identify community-conserved areas in Sabah and served on the consulting team that helped formulate the draft Sabah Biodiversity Strategy.

My first degree was in geographical and environmental studies from the University of Adelaide, Australia. Later I received a scholarship which enabled me to use my conservation work in Ulu Padas, Sabah for PhD research.

More recently, I have been working on a semi-scholarly book to be published by the Asian Public Intellectuals and Areca Books in 2013. Living Landscapes, Connected Communities: Culture, Environment, and Change Across Asia features communities contemplating contemporary environment and resource challenges in five Asian countries.

What is your Save-the-world project?

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The Kota Damansara Community Forest Reserve

My Save-The-World project is in my backyard, which I am blessed to say is the Kota Damansara Community Forest. The Kota Damansara forest exists as an island of green amidst the urban sprawl. This remnant lowland mixed dipterocarp rainforest of just over 320 hectares is a fraction of the once extensive Sungai Buloh Forest Reserve which was 6,590 hectares. It was saved from the unrelenting replacement of natural areas into landscapes of asphalt and concrete, thanks to the intervention of concerned individuals, organisations and communities, particularly from 2003 onwards. Champions from the Malaysian Nature Society played a significant role in rallying together a coalition of residents’ groups to vocally defend the forest. The campaign was sustained for many years by regular folk who volunteered their time, energy and money to ensure that the forest would remain.

What inspired you to start the project?

I have to say that this was not a movement started by me. When I moved to Kota Damansara in 2009, there was already a vibrant grassroots movement to save the Kota Damansara forest from clearing for housing development. This involved actively engaging the wider public to appreciate the importance of the forest and to join forces in its defence. You could say that these individuals and organisations, willingly giving their time and resources towards this cause, are what inspired me to get involved! I served as a volunteer at the Earth Day celebration in 2010 which was the year that the Selangor Government made good on its promise to gazette the Forest Reserve. The Kota Damansara Community Forest Reserve was gazetted in February 2010 as a Hutan Lipur to be used for conservation, education and recreation.

Because I have previous experience with managing community-based conservation projects (when I worked with WWF Malaysia in Sabah), I was invited by my Residents Association to help them implement a Global Environment Facility – Small Grant Project to engage with Forestry Department to forge a strong working relationship toward jointly managing the Forest Reserve. The need to formalise an entity to represent residents and other groups interested in contributing to the protection and sustainable use of the Kota Damansara forest led to the registration of the KDCF Society.

How did the project begin?

Between 2003 – 2010, the main focus of the campaign for the Kota Damansara forest by the community was to ensure that the forest would still be here today! The work of the coalition of residents and special interest groups involved compiling research, raising awareness and engaging supporters from all sectors for the cause.

We are very fortunate that the focus can now shift from defending the forest to being part of implementing the Forest Management Plan, for the balanced use of this forest for conservation, education and research, as well as amenity and recreational use.
In recognition of the unique history of the KDCF Reserve, the Selangor Forestry Department has stood by its commitment to partner with local community organisations. This openness towards collaborative management is consistent with contemporary global approaches on facilitating public participation in the management of areas of biodiversity. This is a new approach for many parties concerned. The benefits of successfully planning and operationalising a joint forest management system together with resident organisations and other partners could be central to the establishment of a dynamic conservation model, which could potentially be replicated to safeguard other urban forest remnants.

At what stage of your project are you right now?

Now that KDCF Society is officially registered, we have a growing member base of about 400 people. We have become more firmly established as a legitimate representative body, and are also productively engaged in a cultivating a vibrant and dynamic community of forest lovers and supporters. We are grateful to be able to leverage off the expertise and commitment of our close partners, the Malaysian Nature Society and the Trails Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor (TRAKS). This is a key component of our ongoing environmental education programmes for schools and colleges, as well as the volunteer and outreach activities focused on the maintenance and extension of our network of sustainable forest trails. We have also received support from CSR initiatives of companies such as IJM Land, Nestle, Standard Chartered Bank and OYM Manufacturing among others. We hope to engage in many more company-based activities.

All our activities are sustained by a new GEF-Small Grant, which will keep us going till 2014!

We eagerly anticipate the formalisation of the Forest Management Plan for Kota Damansara and the allocation of much-needed government investment in a visitor centre and a permanent base for both Forestry Officers and KDCF Society. Until then, the KDCF is ‘open for business’, so to speak, due to the continued commitment of community volunteers who give their time to maintain the trails and introduce newcomers to the trail.

Our focus over the next year is to actively engage parents and teachers from local schools to promote greater appreciation of the forest and to nurture a forest-loving community for the future. We will soon be rolling out a Forest Guardian programme in which members of the KDCF community who frequent the trail will assist the Forestry Department in ensuring that the rules and regulations of forest protection are adhered to. With the privilege of access to this important forest, comes responsibility for ensuring its protection.

What difficulties did you face while working on the project?

We are fortunate in that we have had such wonderful support from community members, residents, our local MBPJ councillor, Forestry Department, MNS and many others.

I would say that the main difficulty at the moment is that we do not have a proper base to operate from and we have yet to see substantial investment in visitor facilities and infrastructure deserved by such a strategically significant Forest Reserve. We still do not have toilets, bike racks, washing facilities, the list goes on.

Other bugbears include the long wait for proper road signage to help visitors to find the KDCF! We hope for progress in this area in the coming year.

The other challenge is apathy (now that the forest is not under threat), and the large task before us in the specific area of cultivating greater respect and appreciation of nature and public spaces among school children. This is a problem in the stressful urban environment, in which people are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature.

We also face an ongoing challenge with getting the kind of volunteer commitment we need to sustain the trail-network initiative. This sees a lot of KDCF Society members having no weekends off! It is sometimes deflating to see that the increased enjoyment of the trails by hikers, runners, and bikers, does not translate into the same enthusiasm for trail building and maintenance. This contributes to delays in meeting some of our key milestones such as the launch of new forest trails.

What is rewarding about your project?

It is really gratifying to meet and get to know people from all walks of life who love the forest and want to be involved. I am bolstered by the number of people who are willing to give up their personal time to work on the trails, or to lead a group of children through the forest!

I believe that the forest is helping us build a new community in Kota Damansara. It provides a space for people to come and get involved in building something of lasting benefit to all. If you are on the trails, people greet each other and human relations comes back in contact on the ground level. The volunteers working on trails always get a shout of thanks and appreciation for their work.

Ultimately, at a personal level, the opportunity to spend so much time in the forest is its own reward. It is a special pleasure to be able to enter into this green oasis, and to emerge refreshed, centred and recharged!

What are the lessons that you have learnt from your project?

The KDCF is a place where I continue to learn lessons on the need to be patient, and to have faith in people. I have learnt the importance of having a consistent message, and walking the talk. I have also learned that you get the most out of this work if you come with an attitude of service. There is no room for big egos or expectations of accolades. (If I ever get too full of myself, someone please smack me on the back of my head).

All the most rewarding work happens behind the scenes! If we can ensure that the KDCF endures in perpetuity and continues to provide inspiration and escape for future generations, this is a legacy well worth investing in.

Would you be willing to talk to (and share resources possibly with) people who are interested to start a project similar to yours?

Absolutely! One of our objectives is to provide a learning space for other community groups willing to take the plunge to adopt their own green areas. This year alone, we had a gotong royong with residents alongside Hutan Padang Kota (near Dataran Sunway) to revive the forest trails inside this recreational forest. We have also hosted communities from Hulu Kelang that are at the beginning of establishing a riverine park in conjunction with the River of Life (initiative of the Department of Irrigation and Drainage). We look to support other groups wanting to adopt forest refuges if anyone wants to start something.

Kota Damansara Community Forest in urban PJ

Kota Damansara Community Forest in urban PJ

Any advice that you would like to give to someone else who wants to make a difference?

I would say, don’t be afraid of starting something. Support will come as long as your cause is worthy and your motives are pure. The quote by Margaret Mead below is an oldie but goldie, and rings true today as it did in the past.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

For further information, please visit KDCF Society’s MESYM profile.

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