Safeguarding Malaysia’s Biodiversity for our Future
Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh
Salam Sejahtera and good morning.
I am delighted to be here this morning to address this distinguished audience. I congratulate the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) and the Academy of Sciences Malaysia on jointly organising this important and timely conference. The world is facing unprecedented threats to its tropical biodiversity. In 2002, the world’s leaders agreed to do their part to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. In the recent Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, the United Nations announced that this target has not been met, and warned that the world is fast approaching a point of irreversible damage. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species offers equally grim news of a biodiversity crisis. I understand that the data presented here yesterday by international and regional experts have reinforced the urgent need to act judiciously and find innovative ways to balance sustainable development with conservation.
- The term ‘biodiversity’ entered the English language only recently, in the 1980s, when eminent researchers such as Dr Edward O. Wilson began to draw the world’s attention to the declining state of the environment and the diminishing number of living organisms. By 1992, issues involving biodiversity became the central concern of the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro. Biodiversity represents the totality and variety of living organisms on this planet and consists of genetic, species and ecosystem varieties that interact with each other and the environment. Biodiversity has an effect on our daily lives whether we realise it or not. Bare necessities such as clean air and fresh water are supplied by healthy ecosystems. The many species of plants, animals and microorganisms provide us food, medicines and other products we need and use on a daily basis. More than conserving plants, animals or habitats, biodiversity is very much about conserving our life support system. Without biodiversity, there can be no life on earth as we know it.
- Malaysia has less than 0.1 percent of the world’s land mass, but its diversity of flora and fauna makes it one of the richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity per unit area, second only to Indonesia in Southeast Asia. It is not surprising, therefore, that Malaysia is recognised as one of the 12 mega-diverse countries in the world.
- Malaysia’s location in the humid tropics provide favourable conditions for the growth of rich and diverse life forms, from the microscopic organisms such as bacteria and plankton to larger species of plants and animals. Our myriad ecosystems are estimated to support more than 185,000 species of fauna and over 12,500 species of flowering plants. This is a conservative estimate. To date, there is record of 150,000 species of invertebrates alone. And many more new species remain to be discovered.
- But we also have a high number of threatened species. In the global ranking of countries with the highest number of threatened species, Malaysia is ranked 6th for mammals (with 70 threatened species), 6th for conifers (with 15 threatened species) and 16th for birds (with 42 threatened species).
- Like most developing countries, Malaysia places heavy emphasis on economic development in order to raise the living standards of its people. Economic considerations have typically led us, like other developing countries, to modify and develop rather than preserve natural spaces. In the 1970s, 74 percent of Malaysia’s land area was covered by forests. Today we have roughly 59 percent forest cover. In Peninsular Malaysia, we have less that 45 percent forest cover remaining. Economic considerations place very heavy demands on scarce resources, and clearly, the balance has oftentimes tipped away from efforts at conservation. Traditionally preservationists have pushed for conservation based on aesthetic and moral arguments. There are also strong economic arguments.
- Let us begin with the big picture. From a global perspective, tremendous economic value can be assigned to the services provided by nature – such as fresh water supply, energy supply, oxygen release, soil and watershed protection, flood and erosion mitigation and carbon sequestration, not to mention aesthetic and recreational opportunities. One celebrated study conducted in 1997 estimates the combined worth of the world’s undisturbed ecosystems at US $33 trillion a year – more than half of today’s global GDP. But because the services provided by nature are not adequately quantified in terms comparable with other economic goods, services and manufactured capital, they are often given far too little weight in policy decisions.
- In some economic sectors, however, the value of a well-conserved biodiversity is clearly evident and can be measured in monetary terms. The tourism sector is a classic example. For Malaysia, tourism is a major foreign revenue earner and ecotourism is one of the fastest growing subsectors within tourism. Malaysia’s rainforests and rich marine life attract thousands of tourists yearly, providing our economy with a regular and growing income stream. It is of course important to monitor the impact of the number of tourists on specific ecosystems and regulate visits through good management practices if we are to ensure a sustainable and thriving ecotourism industry.
- The biotechnology sector is also very much dependent on biodiversity. Our natural environment contains tremendous potential for new discovery that can be applied to medical processes and food and pharmaceutical production. The degradation or destruction of natural habitats will pre-empt the development of this young sector, depriving the country of an important source of growth.
- There are also other indirect ways through which we can derive economic benefit from biodiversity, although these are perhaps the most difficult to quantify. For example, human beings can learn a great deal or at least be inspired by nature’s numerous designs, structures and processes. As noted by physicist, Yoseph Bar-Cohen, “for millions of years nature has (already) experimented with the principles of physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, material science, mobility, sensors and many other fields we regard as science and engineering”. Today, more and more scientists and engineers are mimicking nature in the design of products and processes.
- One of the earliest commercialized products that mimicked nature was Velcro, invented in 1941 by a Swiss engineer who noticed the burrs sticking tenaciously to his dog’s hair. Under the microscope he observed tiny hooks on the end of the burr’s spine that caught anything with loops – such as clothing and fur. Velcro is now used extensively worldwide as fabric fasteners.
- Volvo engineers have been studying how millions of swarming locusts avoid colliding with each other and hope to imitate this marvel in designing anti-collision sensors in their cars. Daimler-Chrysler is modelling a green car inspired by the shape of the Box Fish, aimed to provide greater energy efficiency and passenger safety. Japanese engineers based the design of the world’s fastest bullet train on the aerodynamic shape of the Kingfisher’s beak.
- The unfortunate reality today is that many economies remain blind to the enormous value of the diversity of species and ecosystems to human wellbeing. It is far easier to assign value to short-term gains on commercial activity that exploit nature such as logging, industry and agriculture. But over the long run it impoverishes the planet as a whole. When elements of biodiversity are lost, ecosystems lose their resilience and become vulnerable to threats such as climate extremes, diseases and natural disasters.
- I am heartened to note that there exists a growing consciousness of the importance of biodiversity in Malaysia. Since the 1990s, Malaysia pledged its commitment to protect our biodiversity by becoming a party to several multilateral environmental agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).
- Our own National Policy on Biological Diversity was formulated in 1998 which strives to ‘conserve Malaysia’s biological diversity and to ensure that its components are utilised in a sustainable manner for the continued progress and socio-economic development of the nation’. The policy is an in-depth document that clearly frames the problem and outlines strategies to safeguard our biodiversity. One of the strategies is to increase the number of terrestrial and marine protected areas.
- We have had some success in this respect. And I am happy to note MNS’s role in the successful gazetting of the Royal Belum State Park in 2007. MNS has also directly and indirectly, helped in the establishment of other protected areas such as the Kuala Selangor Nature Park, the Endau-Rompin National Park, the Penang National Park, and Batu Caves.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- The United Nations has designated 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB 2010). We have just entered its final quarter, and it is opportune to reflect upon the achievements as well as setbacks we have encountered in conserving and using biodiversity sustainably. Of course, the damage that has already been done cannot be easily reversed. But we can start acting more responsibly and doing things differently.
- I cannot over-emphasise the importance of education and the development of a scientific knowledge base. Education is often seen as the key to changing behaviour. Indeed, how can people engage in environmentally responsible behaviour when they do not understand the impact of their actions, or know the details about how to engage in responsible behaviour? If, on the other hand, Malaysians are made to fully appreciate the benefits and hazards of particular actions, their cumulative future behaviour can make an immense difference to their surroundings and their lives. It is my hope to see more cutting edge research on tropical biological diversity issues produced by Malaysian educational institutions, as well as a greater pool of trained, informed and committed manpower in the field of biodiversity.
- Well-planned policies and well-crafted legislation are also crucial ingredients in protecting our biodiversity. In this regard, I am very encouraged by the comprehensiveness of Malaysia’s National Policy on Biological Diversity, and the recent adoption of the Common Vision on Biodiversity (2009) and enactment of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010. Wherever needed, existing policies and legislation should be reviewed, updated or replaced to reflect contemporary realities. I believe there is still the need to incorporate the economics of biodiversity, and the multi-trillion dollars worth of services it provides, into our decision-making.
- Of course, policies and laws are only as effective as their implementation and enforcement. There must also be sufficient resources to efficiently regulate, manage and protect our natural spaces. Limited finances, inadequate expertise and poor governance practices will all lead to haphazard implementation and lax enforcement. These in turn will result in the failure to attain the vision and goals of the various policies and laws.
- I wish to add here that the responsibility of conserving biodiversity cannot and should not remain with government agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). I believe that corporate bodies are well placed to make a significant contribution. Businesses have the ability to produce technological innovations and deliver the means for genuine progress in sustainable development. When a well-run business applies its vast resources, expertise and talents to problems that it understands, feels strongly about and have a stake in, it can make a greater impact than any other institution. It is my sincere hope to see more meaningful Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, and more alliances between corporate Malaysia, the government and NGOs in addressing our biodiversity issues.
- We are just a small country but we have an important part to play in the grander scheme of things. Because we are one of the few mega-diverse countries in the world, we are entrusted with additional responsibility. We need to ‘think global and act local’ in tackling the biodiversity issues we face in Malaysia. By developing and supporting local solutions to these issues, Malaysia can contribute to the knowledge base of replicable solutions for other parts of the world to adapt and apply.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- In its 70-year history, the Malaysian Nature Society has played a pivotal role in advocating the preservation of Malaysia’s biodiversity. The Society has participated actively at various governmental levels to provide important feedback and recommendations on conservation issues. It has also unceasingly communicated the importance of biodiversity to the public through its environmental education programmes and publications. I congratulate MNS on its 70th anniversary and I have no doubt that that the Society will continue to spearhead efforts in safeguarding our biodiversity.
- I wish you all a productive conference and I hope that the topics presented will stimulate ideas and bring forth practical solutions to some of our pressing needs.