Every year, the funicular train that takes visitors and workers up Penang Hill is temporarily closed for nine days of routine maintenance works. This year, during the train shutdown, 40 staff from The Habitat Penang Hill and The Habitat Foundation travelled to Sungai Acheh to plant 150 mangrove saplings and get stuck into wetland restoration work with local experts!
Gathering in the Mangrove Forest Education Centre, we listened to Mr. Ilias Shafie, the chairman of PIFWA (Penang Inshore Fishermen’s Welfare Association) who shared how the organization came to into being. We learned about their ongoing efforts to help people understand the importance of mangroves for marine life, coastal protection and carbon sequestration.
Wetlands are mainly threatened by pollution, overharvesting, and conversion for agriculture and aquaculture. In 1997, PIFWA began championing wetland restoration to reverse the impacts of coastal degradation and its negative impacts on local fisheries resources. They started by conducting surveys, and experiment with developing nurseries for mangrove seedlings of different species. Their reputation as community experts in mangrove rehabilitation has grown ever since. They now boast and aroboretum of as many as 14 species of mangrove trees, Replanting mangrove species used for soil protection, producing food products, and craft-making is now one of their major activities.
Following the talk, the team headed down the boardwalk and into the mud, which was initially dry and compact, but eventually became wetter and deeper. After arriving at the planting site, they began digging suitable-sized holes before carefully removing the saplings from the polyethene nursery bags, placing them inside, compacting the mud around them and repeating the process until all 150 were planted. As a result of PIFWA’s activities, 347,900 mangroves have been replanted in Penang, with a 90% survival rate. Over the years, their experience has shown that rehabilitating wetlands, such as degraded mangroves, is beneficial in the long run as the improved ecosystem has regenerated disappearing species, thus reviving its biodiversity along with acting as a major carbon sink. Their mangrove replanting initiative also helps protect coastlines from erosion and damage by tidal surges, currents, rising sea level, and storm energy in the form of waves, storm surges and wind. Furthermore, it plays a role in supporting good water quality and marine life, including commercial fish and crustaceans, thus helping sustain local abundance of fish and shellfish populations.
On the way back to the education centre, some of the staff spotted several species of wildlife including a Brahminy kite (Haliastur indus), white-throated kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), Van Hasselt’s Sunbird (Leptocoma brasiliana), crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis), green jewel bugs (chrysocoris stolli) and several species of fiddler crabs.
A hearty meal of rice, curry fish, fried chicken, cooked vegetables and ulam with sambal, was served by the PIFWANITA, the women’s counterpart to PIFWA. The ladies contribute to their families’ livelihoods by catering for guests, and producing and promoting mangrove-based food products such as jams and herbal teas. Both organizations regularly travel to participate in exhibitions and environmental fairs where they talk about their experiences and promote their activities and products produced from mangroves.
By raising the profile of Malaysia’s wetlands, and enlisting partners in local government as well as private sector companies operating in Penang, they have been pro-active in ensuring that these areas are constantly monitored leaving no opportunity for these wetlands to be illegally cleared or degraded. With persistence and curiosity, they have succeeded in cultivating experience and knowledge that is now actively shared with other coastal communities.