Sunday, 27 November 2016

Up in the Clouds: Is Sustainable Use of Tropical Montane Cloud Forests Possible in Malaysia?

The value of cloud forests transcends their biological uniqueness. In Peninsular Malaysia, for instance, nearly 62,000 indigenous people are scattered across the Titiwangsa Range (WWF-Malaysia 2002). Cloud forests are also important water sources for densely populated lowland areas. In addition to capturing rainfall, cloud forests strip moisture from passing clouds, which augments groundwater and maintains stream flows. Cloud stripping can actually double the amount of effective rainfall in the dry season and increase total moisture inputs to forests by 10% (Bruijnzeel et al. 1993). Montane vegetation also protects soils from erosion and rivers from sedimentation, thereby protecting the integrity of watersheds (Leong and Chan 2006). Despite their importance, the hydrological and nutrient-cycling dynamics of cloud forests in Southeast Asia are still poorly understood, and more research is clearly needed.

Anthropogenic threats

Using the IUCN Red List database (IUCN 2009), we calculated the proportions of threatened birds, mammals, and amphibians in Malaysia and compared them with those in 10 other Southeast Asian countries—Burma, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Timor-Leste, Thailand, and Vietnam. Although relatively few montane bird species were threatened in Malaysia, the numbers (and proportions) of threatened mammals and amphibians were among the highest in the region (figure 5). Below, we highlight the major threats to Malaysian cloud forests and their biodiversity and ecosystem services—threats that are also likely to jeopardize the future of other cloud forests in Southeast Asia.
Figure 5.
Total number and proportion of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) threatened cloud forest species of birds, mammals, and amphibians in 10 Southeast Asian countries. Threatened species include species that are critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, and near-threatened according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species ( Black bars represent Malaysia.
Agricultural expansion. Cloud forests increasingly have been cleared for intensive agriculture (figure 3c). In Sabah, for example, forest conversion for agriculture and horticulture has progressed to the borders of Mount Kinabalu National Park, and montane forests in Sabah have been converted to pastures for cattle (Kitayama 1994). In the Cameron Highlands and Mount Kinabalu (figure 2), montane forests have been cleared for exotic temperate agricultural and horticultural crops (at altitudes as high as 2100 m on Mount Kinabalu; Kitayama 1994). In the past decade, 22% of the Cameron Highlands has been converted for such purposes (Lim 2000). The lack of long-term investment in sustainable agriculture practices can be attributed in part to the short-term land leases offered to resident farmers in the form of temporary occupancy licenses, which have to be renewed annually. Although the government introduced guidelines to control and limit hillside development in the Cameron Highlands in 2002, many large-scale farmers eventually relocated to the nearby Lojing Highlands (figure 2), an area that was subsequently devastated by further clearing for agriculture as it was not affected by the guidelines (McIntyre 2007). In addition to heavy pesticide use, cultivation in such areas often involves large amounts of commercial fertilizer (Kitayama 1994) because vegetation on montane soils frequently has low net primary productivity and slow rates of decomposition (Bruijnzeel and Veneklaas 1998). Heavy pesticide and fertilizer use can eventually contaminate watersheds (Kitayama 1994). Forest conversion to tea estates on steep slopes also reduces water yield in highland streams (Doumenge et al. 1995), and land clearance can cause severe soil erosion (Leong and Chan 2006). In the Cameron Highlands, for example, clearing for agriculture had adverse effects on water catchment areas, resulting in stream diversion, reduced storage capacities of reservoirs, and excessive accumulation of silt at the Sultan Abu Bakar hydroelectric dam (Barrow 2006). A threefold increase in siltation in several lowland rivers has also been recorded since earthworks in the Lojing Highlands began in the 1990s (McIntyre 2007).
Commercial logging. Commercial selective logging, even at low intensities (Brook et al. 1999), poses a serious threat to cloud forests in general. Commercial logging affects around 1.1% of all cloud forests globally per year, a rate higher than that for other tropical forests (Bruijnzeel and Hamilton 2000). The timber industry continues to be a significant contributor to the Malaysian economy. In 2008, timber and wood products contributed an estimated US $6.6 billion (Malaysian ringgit [MYR] 22.5 billion) to the Malaysian economy and 3.3% of the country's merchandise exports, and provided employment for around 300,000 people (MOPICO 2009). Although logging has little effect on forests of the upper montane zone, the lower montane zone is under immense logging pressure, particularly where relatively fewer state forest reserves in the lowlands are available for timber extraction (MOPICO 2009). For instance, parts of the Lojing Highlands in Peninsular Malaysia have already been logged indiscriminately since the 1990s (McIntyre 2007). As timber exports from Malaysia are targeted to increase by 6.4% per annum (MOPICO 2009), the pressure to extract timber from cloud forests will mount in order to meet this burgeoning demand.
Although logging operations in Sabah are still mostly below the montane zone, the potential threat from commercial forestry looms large as new exploitable tree species are found in the highlands (Kitayama 1994). In fact, logging in the lowlands of the Crocker Range in Sabah was highlighted as an impending threat to rare montane herpetofauna (Das 2006). The expansion of logging roads and modern extraction techniques will further increase the possibility of harvesting useful tree species from previously inaccessible montane regions. The impacts of logging on lower montane forests are well documented (see Burgess 1971). Even low-intensity, selective logging that attempts to harvest only 10% of the stand area ultimately damages 50% to 70% of the forest area (MSTE 1997). Such extraction methods are likely to be even more destructive to cloud forests, which often occur on steep slopes with readily damaged wet organic soil horizons.
Infrastructure development. According to Burgess (1971), road construction is probably “the greatest damaging factor in hill forest exploitation” in Malaysia. Over the years, roads have been constructed in Malaysia's mountainous regions to improve accessibility for agriculture, settlement, and other land uses. With the growing economic potential of local timber and agricultural industries, the demand for better road networks in cloud forests is set to increase. There are already 12 existing major roads in the Titiwangsa Range (about 2 million ha) in Peninsular Malaysia (Davison 1996), and plans are afoot to widen them or even build additional roads to handle growing traffic flow (Leong and Chan 2006). East-west roads cutting across the Titiwangsa Range have also been proposed in Malaysia's National Highway Network Development Plan (DTCP 2006). Such road expansion schemes will be detrimental to the biological and physical integrity of the cloud forests, given the well-documented impact of roads on tropical biodiversity (Laurance et al. 2009). For example, roads can fragment habitats of montane species with restricted elevation ranges and hinder altitudinal movement (see Young 1994). Road construction in cloud forests also can destabilize slopes and create downslope scars (MOW 1995Leong and Chan 2006). Furthermore, erosion along highland roads can cause potentially catastrophic landslides (Leong and Chan 2006). More than 150 locations have been identified as landslide-prone areas along the East-West Highway, which cuts across the Titiwangsa Range, and more than $43 million (MYR 180 million) was allocated by the government for mitigation work (Davison 1996). Two of Malaysia's most dangerous and costly landslides occurred in the Cameron and Genting highlands, with the latter resulting in 20 deaths and 22 injured in 1995 (Shaluf and Ahmadun 2006). In 2008, another massive landslide rendered a $15-million (MYR 50 million) road linking the Gap to Fraser's Hill impassable, and repairs amounted to an estimated US $6 million (MYR 20 million; MOW 2008). Apart from roads, the construction of high-voltage electricity pylons and houses on steep slopes may also increase the probability of landslides in cloud forests (e.g., in the Cameron Highlands; Chiew 2010).
Tourism development. The worldwide tourism industry currently generates 9.4% of the global gross domestic product and employs 220 million people (World Travel and Tourism Council, Tourism trade has been thriving in many tropical mountainous regions of the world. Data on the number of tourists in the highlands of Malaysia are outdated, but even these indicate that 2.3 million tourists (roughly a fifth of all incoming tourists) visited the highlands early in the decade (WWF-Malaysia 2002). In recent years, overall tourism rates have increased rapidly—Malaysia received 23 million visitors last year—so it is likely that tourism pressure on the highlands has increased concomitantly. Unfortunately, mass tourism developments have led to localized deforestation. Facilities such as casinos, hotels, and Malaysia's largest amusement park have sprung up in the Genting Highlands (figure 2), while urban centers in the Cameron Highlands and Fraser's Hill have been expanding to accommodate large numbers of visitors (figure 3d). Golf courses in cloud forests have recently emerged as a new form of recreational land use; turf-grass plantations for the Mesilau Gold resort have replaced cloud forests below the Mesilau entrance of Mount Kinabalu. The economic viability of such golf courses in the highlands remains questionable. For example, the Fraser's Hill Golf and Country Resort caused large amounts of cloud forest loss, and the resulting siltation ruined waterfalls popular among tourists—the venture eventually collapsed because of low visitor numbers. The ecological impacts of such projects are also significant; for example, the species richness of montane forest-dependent birds began to decline when more than 20% of the montane forest canopy cover was cleared, and less than a third of these species remained when more than 40% of the canopy cover was lost (Soh et al. 2006).
Other potential threats. In Malaysia, global warming, biological invasions, and poaching also threaten cloud forest biodiversity, and these factors may act synergistically with habitat loss and disturbance (Sodhi et al. 2006). There is considerable evidence that tropical montane biota is particularly vulnerable to global warming; elevational distributions of animals in Malaysia may have already been altered by this phenomenon (e.g., Peh 2007). Although long-term studies documenting the impact of global warming in Malaysian cloud forests are scarce, Leong (2006) recently showed an increase in annual mean temperatures recorded from one meteorological station in the Cameron Highlands (at a calibrated rate of 0.7° Celsius per 100 years) from 1930 to 2003. Understanding the cause of such warming, however, may be confounded by urban development in the mountains (Chan et al. 2006).
Other threats such as biological invasions potentially can cause local extinctions of native species and modify ecosystems in Southeast Asia (Peh 2010). Fortunately, all known invasive bird species found in the highlands appear confined to town centers (Soh et al. 2006), suggesting a low threat to forest ecosystems, for now. Moreover, threats such as poaching for wildlife trade are probably greater in lowland forests where accessibility is greater as a result of more developed infrastructure.

Can cloud forests be managed sustainably in Malaysia?

The potential threats described above include the destruction of geological features, changes to climate and rainfall regimes, deterioration of water quality and quantity, soil erosion and stream siltation, and the loss of forest cover and biodiversity. Ultimately, economic development, tourism, agriculture, water supply, and power generation all depend, in part, on natural ecosystem services from cloud forests. Are such uses sustainable? The concept of sustainability has been defined as the ability for a resource to meet human needs today and in the future (Fricker 1998); defined less anthropocentrically, it means the ability to meet human needs without compromising the health of ecosystems (Callicott and Mumford 1997). Such sustainability goals will require serious changes in politics, technology, and society (Lee 2001). An example of the type of bold policy needed is Malaysia's National Physical Plan (DTCP 2006), which is a statement of strategic policies on physical development and conservation at state and federal levels in Peninsular Malaysia (not applicable to East Malaysia). This plan identified environmentally sensitive areas (including several cloud forests) where development is forbidden above 1000 m (except in special management areas) and on slopes with an incline of more than 25°. However, the declaration of certain cloud forests as inviolate may be considered unrealistic by some because it will hamper the country's economic progress. Although it will be challenging to achieve sustainable use of the nation's cloud forests, we offer several strategies (table 2) for the following sectors to mitigate threats to cloud forests.
Table 2.
Strategies for different sectors to ensure sustainable use of cloud forests in Malaysia.
Agriculture sector. Agroforestry may be one of the solutions to achieve sustainable agriculture in cloud forests. The integration of forest tree species into existing agricultural lands and improved animal husbandry can maximize economic returns with limited land resources. Agroforestry has already been practiced in lowland forests and is endorsed under Malaysia's National Agricultural Policy (MOA 1999), but it is not yet practiced sustainably in the highlands. Perimeter planting of tall montane forest trees and thick hedges in plantations might provide suitable refugia for cloud forest species, and the presence of forest patches might also facilitate their movement across human-dominated agricultural landscapes (Vergara et al. 2010). The maintenance of cloud forest biodiversity, in turn, may be useful in ensuring the proper functioning and stability of agroecosystems in montane areas. To prevent massive soil erosion and runoff on steep slopes, land managers and farmers must employ practices such as preserving old tree stumps and root debris, using agricultural waste for mulching, contour planting, and high-density planting (Barrow 2006). Any government agroforestry program in montane areas should also enhance farmers' topographic knowledge, provide economic incentives for planting soil-conserving perennial crops, and strictly regulate the frequency and size of forest clearance (Hashim and Abdul Rahaman 2006). At the same time, greater effort should be made to regulate the number of farm operators and their choice of crops so as to avoid compromising the ecological integrity of montane landscapes in Malaysia. Ultimately, further research is needed on integrated farming in cloud forests in order to identify the best choice of montane forest species, appropriate techniques of planting, and suitable farm designs.
Forestry sector. Although none of the world's tropical forests is sustainably managed (ITTO 2000), Malaysia's emphasis on sustainable forest management is an encouraging sign for its cloud forests. Since 2005, Malaysia has adopted the Malaysian Timber Certification Council's scheme to ensure that its management practices comply with International Tropical Timber Organization standards. Under this scheme, felling in areas within forest reserves at elevations greater than or equal to 1000 m is prohibited (although this applies only to states within Peninsular Malaysia). Apart from enforcing these regulations at these elevations, state forestry departments should continue to reinforce reduced-impact logging protocols in forests below 1000 m to minimize the impacts of timber harvesting on cloud forest biodiversity. In addition, researchers must enhance the ability to collect and analyze Malaysian timber statistics in order to monitor and regulate timber trade flow from different forest types, including cloud forests. Such information, coupled with market transparency and certification systems, is vital for sustainable timber trade (ITTO 2000). Long-term monitoring programs to analyze remotely sensed forest cover data must also be augmented within the forestry sector; this will allow state forest departments to better understand deforestation patterns under their jurisdictions and help them prioritize vulnerable cloud forests for protection. For example, cloud forests with high deforestation risk scores (e.g., Linkie et al. 2004) should be gazetted as protected areas by state forestry departments (e.g., Gunong Stong State Park was gazetted by the Kelantan State Forest Department).
Infrastructure sector. The expanding tourism and timber industries in Malaysia will eventually result in the construction of more roads through the cloud forests (Barrow 2006). Roads are essential for a host of economic activities, but they are a major threat to tropical biodiversity (Laurance et al. 2009) and could potentially expose more remote cloud forests to exploitation. To prevent illegal agriculture and other types of land use, road construction should not be allowed in sensitive cloud forest watershed lands. Lobbying efforts by nongovernment organizations (NGOs) resulted in the Malaysian government shelving a proposal to build three roads through cloud forests, including a 200-kilometer highlands resort road linking the Cameron Highlands, Fraser's Hill, and the Genting Highlands. If roads near cloud forests must be constructed, relevant bioengineering erosion-control techniques should be adopted (e.g., Leong and Chan 2006), and extreme gradients should be avoided to prevent massive soil depletion (MOW 1995). Researchers must evaluate the effects of roads on montane animal movement and plant dispersal, as well as potential fragmentation and edge effects. Following road construction in cloud forests, stricter regulations and monitoring are needed to prevent excessive timber extraction and human settlement expansion. Reforestation of native montane trees along roads can also increase soil stability and facilitate animal movement.
Tourism sector. if tourism in cloud forests were managed carefully, it could become one of the most lucrative and environmentally friendly industries in Malaysia. Malaysian cloud forests are becoming increasingly attractive to tourists; 48,604 climbers (54% of whom were foreigners) scaled Mount Kinabalu in 2008, an increase over the two previous years (Bernama 2009). The main tourist draws of local cloud forests include bird and butterfly watching, mountain trekking, photography, and visits to temperate crop farms. Although such activities seem noninvasive, managers must consider the potential negative impacts of increasing visitorship in cloud forests. One leisure corporation in the Genting Highlands has set a good example by concentrating tourism development in two main areas, and approximately 96% (4297 ha) of its land bank has been preserved as virgin forest where logging is prohibited (Resorts World Berhad 2007). Anticipatory management planning is also important, especially when there is an increasing demand for road access and tourist accommodations. On existing tourist trails (e.g., in Fraser's Hill or Mount Kinabalu), alternative paths and regulation of tourist numbers might allow the recovery of deteriorating trails. For community-based conservation initiatives in cloud forests to be successful, local forest residents must be involved from the onset (Clifton 2006), and projects must be tailored to specific socioeconomic and cultural contexts. For example, people who rely on cloud forests for sustenance should receive a share of the ecotourism revenue as an incentive to protect their habitat (Clifton 2006). Sound ecotourism should also train local stakeholders; NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Malaysia have trained locals as nature guides in Gunong Stong State Park in the State of Kelantan.
Policy and law enforcement sectors. Conflicting policies that require immediate reconciliation include the Highway Network Development Plan and the National Physical Plan; roads planned in the former already have been constructed through the environmentally sensitive areas identified in the latter. Such conflicts can be resolved with greater dialogue among state and federal government agencies. A laudable example of the resolution of conflicting policies was the merging of two sets of guidelines to produce the recently approved “Guidelines for Hillside and Highland Areas Development Planning,” which now prohibits most developments on gradients above 35° and unstable ridges (Azree 2009). At the local level, land-use plans need to afford more spatial and management considerations for biodiversity conservation—this will minimize the proposal of conflicting developments. Special area plans, which include a public participation process and become legal documents once published, should start recognizing cloud forests as development-free zones. Furthermore, existing policies related to cloud forest conservation need to be expedited for endorsement—the draft National Highland Policy written in 2006 has yet to be considered by the Malaysian cabinet, and policies mean nothing if they are not enforced. Enforcement agencies should continue ensuring that development projects adhere to guidelines that require environmental impact assessments, erosion control plans, and surveillance. In order to combat violations of such assessments or illegal logging (e.g., in the Lojing, Cameron, and Genting Highlands; Bernama 2007Chiew 2010), corruption must be tackled immediately, in part by (a) providing feedback to the Malaysian Anti-corruption Commission, (b) strengthening judicial institutions, (c) enhancing public access to information, and (d) improving social capital (Peh and Drori 2010).

Sustainable use of cloud forests in Malaysia is possible if our recommended sustainability strategies (table 2) are carefully implemented by the respective sectors. Simultaneously, the general public and stakeholders (e.g., owners of timber companies, politicians, decisionmakers from state and federal government agencies, farmers, local communities, and tourists) need to develop a greater conservation ethic for cloud forests, possibly through participation in educational campaigns, seminars, study visits, workshops, and exhibitions organized by the government and NGOs. Multidisciplinary research (e.g., determining the total economic value of intact cloud forests and their ecosystem services) should also be promoted in cloud forests, which have contributed to only 3% of biodiversity research in Malaysia (figure 1), but the results must be regularly communicated to government agencies to facilitate planning of more ecologically friendly projects in this delicate and unique ecosystem. We stress that the best way to protect cloud forests is using less and preserving more. Still, sustainable use based on the greater understanding of anthropogenic impacts on cloud forests is vital. If our recommended strategies are implemented in Malaysia, and if relevant aspects are adopted to improve other national cloud forest conservation strategies, we believe the future of cloud forests in Southeast Asia will be less nebulous than the status quo.
This article benefited from discussions with researchers and students at the Swedish Biodiversity Center. We thank Jonathan Eyal, Lauren Coad, Ruth Swetnam, Neil Burgress, Geoffrey Davison, Liew Thor-Seng, Sanath Kumaran, and Wong Khoon Meng for their help and comments on previous versions of this manuscript. We also thank Ch'ien C. Lee for the photographs.

References cited



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