Social Capital Required for Upgrading Parks

By Wong Teik Aun

January 2023 FEATURE
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ONE OF THE main ways of environmental conservation is establishing nature parks or protected areas. Signatory countries of the UN’s Aichi Target 11 aspire that “By 2020, at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water, and 10% of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved…” In a similar vein, Malaysia’s National Policy on Biodiversity targets safeguarding all key ecosystems, species and genetic diversity by 2025.

That said, it is hard to attain these lofty targets without strong public support and political will.

Public support for nature parks stems from their perceived value in terms of human appreciation, enjoyment, recreation and utility. This broad range of social considerations is nicely captured and articulated by the concept of social capital – a social phenomenon derived from relationships formed, developed and nurtured from daily interactions and experiences. Social capital is intangible, but has value and tangible effects, and can be converted into other forms such as economic, human and political capital. Though intangible, it can form connections with a physical place that acts as the basis for individual, group or institutional interactions, such as nature parks.

The social capital of nature parks varies by locality, community practices, social norms and cultural beliefs. In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, leads to increased appreciation and valuation of nature parks. Shinrin-yoku entails experiencing nature holistically through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. The result is therapeutic, and studies have established the physical, emotional and mental health benefits of shinrin-yoku

Malaysians’ experiences of nature parks are diverse. As an avid hiker, I consider myself an environmentalist and experience nature in various ways. Like most nature lovers, I love outdoor fresh air, a cool breeze and even the occasional drizzle. I love discovering, observing and appreciating nature, from gurgling streams to the orchestra of forest birds and the visual spectacle of luminescent moss on a moonlit forest floor. In moments of stillness and calm in the forest, I contemplate the inter-connectedness of nature, and cannot help philosophising humanity’s place in the grand scheme of existence.

In my hikes, I find the physical challenge of navigating difficult terrains, be it steep slopes, slippery waterfalls or claustrophobic caves, exhilarating. With my trusty parang, I trailblaze and explore unknown grounds, and feel satisfaction when I find a new route or reach a new destination. Sometimes, I hike solo and strive to practice mindfulness and “walking/hiking meditation” in solitude. But I also love the camaraderie of hiking and exploring nature with family and friends. 

While most nature parks now are protected areas, historically, these are established for public use and enjoyment. The first nature park of the modern era, Yellowstone National Park in the US, was established in 1872 “as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”. Similarly, Yosemite National Park, another iconic nature park, was established for “public use, resort and recreation”. Nature parks are legislative constructs, and are not permanently “protected”. Their continued existence and maintenance rest on their store of social capital; they can be downgraded, downsized and de-gazetted according to their level of social capital. 

Penang’s experience with nature parks is illuminative. Densely populated with approximately 1.8 million inhabitants spread over 1,048km2, land use in Penang is a highly contentious issue. Nature parks in Penang comprise recreational forests (hutan lipur) and forest reserves (hutan simpanan) managed by the state government, as well as a national park managed by the federal government. Within recreational forests, strategic areas are developed into forest parks (taman rimba) for public access and use. The total area of nature parks in Penang is 51.53km2 or 4.9% of the state’s total land area, as shown in Table 1.

A nature park’s store of social capital is inferred from its relative popularity. Penang National Park is very popular among both domestic visitors and international tourists. Formerly the Pantai Acheh Forest Reserve, it was upgraded to a national park in 2003 with the support of the local community, domestic visitors, academia and NGOs led by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS). Field observations reveal considerable domestic visitors and international tourists, with some voluntarily plogging (concurrently jogging/hiking and collecting rubbish), suggesting meaningful relationships with the nature park and the abundant presence of social capital.  

Government Hill Recreational Forest hosts the iconic Penang Hill, beloved by both domestic visitors and international tourists. The hiking trails of Penang Hill are popular among domestic visitors, many of whom are regular and repeat visitors. Some even voluntarily build and maintain various rest stations along the hiking trails, such as No. 39 and No. 45, that provide drinks and snacks to the public free of charge, funded by public donations. These voluntary and civic behaviours also suggest a strong relationship with the protected area, and a high level presence of social capital. 

Teluk Bahang Recreational Forest and Bukit Mertajam Recreational Forest are moderately popular. Tourism facilities such as a visitor centre, road access and basic amenities are provided in Teluk Bahang Recreational Forest, while the latter also has basic facilities and amenities. Less popular among international tourists, domestic visitors nonetheless predominate in both these nature parks.

Bukit Panchor State Park was formed in 2008 by upgrading the then 155-hectare Bukit Panchor Recreational Forest and enlarging it to its present size. Approximately eight hectares within it are developed with tourist facilities and amenities.

Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest (Hutan Pelajaran Air Hitam Dalam) is situated in a freshwater wetland that supports a wide variety of avian species. Various facilities and amenities for tourists were developed, including a comprehensive 1,000m boardwalk. Originally 11ha, it shrank to 10ha when part of it was de-gazetted for flood mitigation infrastructure in 2006 – a change largely unnoticed by the public. Both Bukit Panchor State Park and Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest, despite the latter’s biodiversity, are not popular; their infrastructural facilities are not well-maintained, and they receive very few domestic visitors and no international tourists.

It is clear that the varying levels of social capital, even in a relatively small state like Penang, have influences on the continued maintenance and support of nature parks. Penang National Park and Penang Hill – both high in social capital – see additional protection, as in the upgrade of Penang National Park from its previous forest reserve status. On the other hand, Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest and Bukit Panchor State Park, both low in social capital, receive no civic and voluntary help in maintaining their deteriorating facilities. 

Social capital is important for the establishment, maintenance and enhancement of nature parks, and underestimating or overlooking it increases the risks of downsizing, downgrading and de-gazettement, and rolls back environmental conservation efforts. As such, environmental conservation efforts should incorporate social capital considerations in all public policy decisions and deliberations.

Wong Teik Aun

is a senior faculty member at a private institution of higher learning. Issues on environment, economy and education are close to his heart.