The probable effects on the climate of Penang of the continued destruction of its hill jungles

Kwong Wah Yit Poh

IT IS REMARKED that the whole of the eastern front of the range (of a mountain in Pinang) has within a few years been denuded of its forest. The greater part of it is too steep for any permanent cultivation, and in all probability after the fecundity of the fresh soil, enriched by the ashes of the trees, has been exhausted, it will be abandoned by the Chinese squatters. It is not here alone that I was surpsrised to see the rapid progress which squatters and Chinese charcoal burners have made in destroying the jungles on the hills during the last two years. In Singapore the present zealous governor has, in an enlightened spirit akin to that which has for some time distinguished the government of India in reference to the same subject, absolutely prohibited the further destruction of forest on the summits of hills. Representations have been often made to the local authorities in Pinang, urging the necessity to preserve the jungles on the summits and higher slopes, but hitherto without effect. The reply has generally been, if the forests are of so much importance as the agriculturalists insist, they must have a certain value to them and they are at liberty to purchase any tract they choose. But it is impracticle for the holders of land to unite in making such a purchase, and, were it at all practicable, the majority, from ignorance and selfishness, would refuse to contribute. But climate concerns the whole community, and its protection from injury is one of the duties of Government. In Germany and France there are special laws and departments for the preservation and extension of forests.

It is not necessary to cite Humboldt or Boussingalt to prove the great influence in tropical regions of forests, and especially of mountain forests, in attracting and condensing clouds, diminishing local temperature, and increasing humidity. But if the forests had no effect than to protect the clay soil of the mountains from the action of the sun's rays, this alone ought to be sufficient to ensure their careful preservation. It is in this soil that the waters which supply all the streams of the island, and which percolate downward to the lower lands, are enclosed.

These mountains are in fact great natural reservoirs, elevated in mid air and exposing the most extended surfaces possible, which are covered to a small depth with a sponge of porous decomposed rock for the absorption and retention of water. In ordinary seasons, when there is a considerable fall of rain, the importance of preventing the contents of these reservoirs from being dissipated may not be so obvious. But it may now be considered as a well established fact that the eastern archipelago is subject to periodical droughts, although the laws of their recurrence are not yet ascertained. That such droughts will again and again happen, and are in fact in the settled course of nature admits no question.

Daniel Lee

A postcard of "Ayer Etam taken around 1900. (From Penang Postcard Collection 1899-1930s by Khoo Salma Nasution and Malcolm Wade.)

Nature when left to herself provides a compensatory influence in the dense leafy forests, but if these are consigned to destruction, every successive drought will prove more baneful than the preceding one. Unless the government will reserve at least the steeper mountain tracts, which are not adapted for permanent culture, there is nothing visionary in the apprehension, for it has been realised in other localities, that in some prolonged drought, after the naked sides of the hills have been exposed for a few weeks to the direct heat of the sun, every stream in the island will be dried up, and universal aridity ensue. The great extent to which the plain of the mainland of Pinang has been shorn of its forests would of itself produce an urgent necessity for a stop being at once put to a war with nature, which must entail severe calamities on the future. In those mountains in Greece which have been deprived of their forests the springs have disappeared. In other parts of the globe the same consequence has followed. The sultry atmosphere and dreadful droughts of the Cape de Verde Islands are results of the destruction of the forests. In large districts in India climate and vegetation have rapidly deteriorated from a similar cause, and the government having become fully impressed with the necessity to respect the stubborn facts of nature, has used every means to arrest and remedy the mischief. Forests which had been so easily and thoughtlessly cut down have at great cost been restored.

WE ARE INFORMED that the destruction of jungle on the mountains of Pinang has been allowed to proceed unchecked during the last two years. If any of the residents will bring it to the notice of the governor we are sure, from our knowledge of his opinions with respect to the necessity of preserving hill jungle, that he will not only make an order on the subject, but, what is essential, provide the means for carrying it into effect. While referring to the government jungles on the Pinang hills we might also suggest the preservation of the taban trees. There is not a tree now left in Singapore nor does all southern Johore furnish h2o piculs per month. Before 10 years are past, taban seeds and young plants will be invaluable. The government forests in Pinang, if carefully protected, would always yield a ready and plentiful supply.

Editor's note:

Taban is the Malay name for the isonandra gutta tree from which a resin called “gutta percha” is obtained. The latex was widely used locally for treating many ailments. It was later used to insulate the first cable wires across the Atlantic Ocean (Source: Singapore National Library Infopedia).

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