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Towards preserving the richness of Malaysia’s green heritage

The New Straits Times, April 21, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

April 21: WORLD Earth Day, first celebrated internationally in 1990, initially started in 1970 as an environmental awareness event in the United States.

Today, it has become a powerful global catalyst for awareness and change.

This time around, World Earth Day is even more meaningful given the various issues relating to air and water quality now confronting Malaysia.

One of them is the state of our forests and its unparallel biodiversity. Reportedly, some of its flora and fauna are under threat.

According to the book, Malaysia Environment — Alert 2001, "a total of 614 known species of mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes and plants are threatened and dying out." We stand to lose our most valuable resources and heritage if the country's forests are further tempered with. One such real possibility is the plan to "develop" part of the forest reserve in Kepong where the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) is located.

When discussing the forest, at least two aspects of biodiversity come to mind — genetic and species diversity.

The latter refers to the richness or variety of species in a region, whereas genetic diversity refers to the variation of genes within species. It covers distinct population of the same species or genetic variation within a population.

This is where the FRIM "scare" must be taken seriously since Malaysia could be deprived of a potential botanical garden of international standing, the Kepong Botanical Garden, FRIM said.

As it stands today, the Penang Botanical Garden is Malaysia's only gazetted botanical garden, and is the oldest. If we are serious about our green heritage as is the case of the Penang Botanical Garden, the country should have many more such gardens.

Created during the British administration in 1884, the garden today occupies a 30hectare site, nestled in a valley described by some as "an amphitheatre of hills" covered with lush tropical rainforests.

It is sometimes called the Waterfall Garden because of the cascading waterfall nearby. According to one source, the collection "has since become significant samples in the world's major herbariums." While some plants were brought from the famous Kew Gardens in England, many are local species. Among them are trees locally known as Seraya or Shoerea curtisii, after Charles Curtis, the architect and designer of the garden. Yet another name closely linked to the Penang green heritage is that of a local botanist, Mohamed Haniff (1872-1930).

Haniff's legacy can be clearly felt in a highly sought-after volume on Malayan economic plants — The Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula — which he co-authored with I.H.Burkill.

Citing an article by Mohd Nor Jamalul Lail in the second issue of Folia malaysiana (http://www.foliamy.com.my), Haniff was employed as a botanical apprentice under Curtis at the Penang Botanical Garden. Over the years, Haniff "made significant herbarium and living collections for the Gardens Department of the Straits Settlements." Several local plants were even named after him — Eugenia haniffii (Henderson, 1923), Dendrobium haniffii (Ridley, 1924) and Bulbophyllum hanifii (Carr, 1932).

In addition, the naming of one ginger family, the Haniffia (Holttum) was suggested to "commemorate" the late Haniff in 1950. This made Haniff the first Malaysian after whom a botanical genus has been named.

All these go to show how since over a century ago, painstaking efforts have been cultivated to preserve genetic and species diversity in this country.

In fact, of late, in Penang alone, an extensive population of Haniffia (Holttum) was discovered. Among them is another new variety, identified only in the state, and also named after Haniff, this time by C.K Lim, also mentioned in the same issue of Folia malaysiana, Interestingly enough, the first Earth Day allegedly started as teach-ins involving 20 million participants, addressing decades of environmental pollution. The event subsequently led to the US Congress to pass Clean Air and Water Acts, and the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency to research and monitor environmental issues as well as implement environmental laws.

By highlighting and recognising the works and efforts of Malaysians like Mohamed Haniff, similar events will take place among the present generation to safeguard our biodiversity. Names like Curtis and in particular Haniff should be kept alive during every Earth Day celebration to inspire us to protect and promote the richness of Malaysian green heritage in its totality — be it genetic, species, ecosystem and even cultural diversity.

Thus, in the same tradition as that of Malaysia's oldest botanical garden, the Penang Botanical Garden, we need to continue to create new gardens, for example the Kepong Botanical Garden.

Without such greeneries, not only is our heritage seriously endangered, so too is our survival recognising the intimate relationships and interdependency of our existence on our natural and undisturbed environment.

Recommended site: http://www.sukpp.gov.my/KebunBunga/main.html 

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