Meet those trying to save the forests

He remembers the time when it all happened. It was the first day of the Lunar New Year. Families and friends caught up with each other over reunion meals, sounds of laughter and shuffling of mahjong tiles filling the evening atmosphere. However, it was a different kind of Lunar New Year for him. “Brice, Kranji Forest is 50 per cent gone you know, you better go and take a look.” After dinner, he drove down to Kranji Forest and was shocked by the sight. “Goodness! Half gone?!” What seemed like a joyous occasion turned into an unsettling revelation for him.   

The Rail Corridor between Clementi and Old Holland Road. Photo: Supplied by Brice Li

In 2019, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) announced plans to establish the Agri-Food Innovation Park (AFIP) as a pilot cluster to facilitate agri-tech ecosystem innovations, which was set to open in phases from the second quarter of 2021. The AFIP project is part of Singapore’s arrangement to provide healthy and safe food to regional cities in view of expanding urban populations through urban food production and urban indoor farming. The AFIP is set to be located within the Greater Sungei Kadut area, where Kranji Forest is a part of. Hence, about 18 hectares of land in Kranji Forest was set aside for Phase 1 of the AFIP project. Prior to the execution of land clearance, a biodiversity baseline study and an environmental and management plan must be completed. These were expected to be completed around April 2021, but it was discovered that erroneous land clearance had already begun during a site inspection on 13 January 2021. 

This isn’t the first time nature has been cleared to make way for urban development in Singapore. As Singapore continues to become an industrialised nation, there is no doubt that nature must be sacrificed to achieve this vision. Nonetheless, how long can we continue to do so without killing Mother Nature? 

Earlier this year, news of the erroneous clearance of forested areas along the Rail Corridor at Kranji sparked disappointment and anger among the public, especially nature enthusiasts. Starting from the northern part – Woodlands Train Checkpoint, right down to the southern part – Tanjong Pagar Railway Station of Singapore, the 24-kilometre trail played a vital role in Singapore’s trading relations with the Malay Peninsula back in the 20th century. It wasn’t until 2011 when the railway land was returned to Singapore, allowing endless possible opportunities in developing the area as an open space for the local community. Multiple community engagement programmes have taken place at the Rail Corridor including a trekking session with the then Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin in 2011 and the first Green Corridor Run in 2013. After many rounds of consultations with the community and working with relevant stakeholders, the National Parks Board (NParks) and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced the commencement of enhancement works along the Rail Corridor in 2018  

To some, the Rail Corridor has been a significant part of their childhood. It is the case for Brice Li, an Art Director at Hi Footprints Pte Ltd, an art and graphic design service provider in Singapore. A walk down memory lane transports Li back to his former home at Queens Crescent in the 1970s. “Since young, I was already in touch with this Green Corridor,” says Li. “At that time, it was still a railway track, so once in a blue moon, I’ll walk from my house all the way to the small little farm at Tanglin Church to feed the chickens, ducks and goats with the grass I plucked from the ground.” Li reminisces about his younger days as he stares into space, a slight smile of contentment appearing at the corner of his lips. “On and off I’ll still be running along the Green Corridor. I spend quite a lot of time in there over the years.” 

Just a quick look around his nature-inspired office shows that Li is an avid nature enthusiast. “Sometimes, people thought it’s a café or a florist,” Li chuckles as his sips on a can of Coke Zero. “A lot of them even came in to ask if I sell any coffee or flowers!” The love and appreciation towards nature stems from Li’s interest in birds. When he was nine, just like any other curious child, a blue-white bird caught his attention as it flew past outside the windows of his classroom. It was only after participating in a birdwatching group organised by the Malayan Nature Society that Li discovered the bird species. It was a White-Throated Kingfisher. Since then, Li has been actively exploring rainforests around Singapore, sometimes in Malaysia too.  

The first BioBlitz wildlife spotting event took place at the Rail Corridor in 2018 by the Friends of Rail Corridor (FRC) community. A total of 73 wildlife species were spotted along a mere 4km stretch of the central part of the Rail Corridor. This shows the huge biodiversity that exists within the Rail Corridor over the years. According to Li, the Rail Corridor houses “a lot of Albizia trees” which is a nesting hotspot for eagles given its massive height and the woodpeckers and parakeets because of its soft wood. “To some, Albizia is a bad tree because it grows so fast, and that the wood is very soft,” Li says. “When it is too tall, with heavy rain and thunderstorm, it collapses very easily, you see.” 

When asked about the significance of the Rail Corridor, Li’s reply puts it into perspective. “Along the Rail Corridor, there are pockets of small forests such as the Everton Forest, Alexandra Woodlands, Clementi Forest, Pang Sua Green, Kranji Forest. It’s important that they keep these pockets of forests because wild animals and birds can use this Green Corridor to travel from places to places to search for food and migration. It’s not only for us, but also for the wild animals like the Civet Cat.” Li mentions an important point – that we must think for the wildlife within the forests too. According to a proposal done by the Nature Society Singapore (NSS) in 2010, the Rail Corridor acts as a “Grand Spine” that connects six main green areas together, facilitating flora and fauna movement across the island. 

Sadly, all these have been destroyed and a meagre “10 per cent of the Rail Corridor” is what’s left, according to Muhammad Sani Abdul Rahim. Widely known as Saniroz online and within the hiking community, he is the founder of Green Bubble Walk. “The Green Bubble is actually just a group of nature enthusiasts,” Saniroz explains. “I organise unprofitable events where I just do my walk as a volunteer guide, covering mostly on the existing green spaces and the history behind them.” Inspired by the unfortunate clearance of 30 acres of Lentor Forest for private housing development, Saniroz hopes to “educate Singaporeans on the existing green spaces” and “for the awareness of saving our remaining forests”.  

“People know me as ‘Saniroz the kampung boy’,” Saniroz says. “I was raised on a forested hill on Bukit Timah. It’s my playground since childhood.” The conversation pauses for a moment as Saniroz falls silent, recalling his days at the village. As a freelance photographer, he is often seen exploring forests in his trekking gear and professional camera. “I do it as a form of love that I have towards nature, especially areas which I’ve seen during my childhood being destroyed and developed into spaces which actually does not retain the remaining history and nature.”  

Sadly, what’s happening at the Rail Corridor is happening at other green spaces around Singapore as well. “Tengah Forest is actually much more important than the Rail Corridor itself,” Saniroz points out, “because that’s the only batch of forest which links up to the Green Corridor, to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and beyond. If they destroy the entire of Tengah Forest, then there’s no existence of the remaining forests at the western part of Singapore.” According to the Housing & Development Board (HDB), the majority of Tengah Forest is being cleared for the development of public housing as Singapore’s first smart and sustainable town, with green features and smart technologies. “They are actually destroying the whole forest and building a ‘Forest Town’, which doesn’t make sense for all the nature enthusiasts,” Saniroz says. 

Back in the 1950s, Tengah Forest (also known as Bulim Forest) was home to several villages including Lam San Village and Bulim Village. Fast forward to the 1980s, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) took over the area and transformed it into a military training ground up until 2018. According to the NSS’s Position on HDB’s Tengah Forest Plan, there are 117 species of birdlife and 44 butterfly species within Tengah Forest. “Yellow flat butterflies are no longer existing in Singapore you know, and I discovered it in 2015, photographed it and brought a specialist down to confirm the existence of it,” Saniroz says. “But sadly, they just ignored.” Other natural green spaces are either currently getting destroyed or have already been destroyed: Lentor Stream, Mandai Forest, Tekong Island, Pasir Ris Park, the list goes on.  

“That’s the saddest part of what’s going on rapidly in Singapore,” Saniroz says as he lets out a sigh of defeat.  

Interestingly, Li says that he doesn’t really feel sad about the Tengah Forest. “I used to train there during my army days, I’ve seen it from the kampung days until now,” Li explains. “Sooner or later, they’ll clear it for redevelopment.”  

What happens to the wildlife then? There have been sightings of wildlife in the open by the public in recent years, such as the wild boar attacks in Punggol and a group of otters at a Bukit Timah bus stop. “When you’re developing and destroying the forest,” says Saniroz, “you’re actually killing them.” Based on a research by Barry W Brook, rapid and large-scale habitat destruction in Singapore results in the reduction of breeding and feeding sites, increase in predation, soil erosion, nutrient loss, dispersal limitation and enhancement of edge effects. A study on more than 30 published species checklists reveals that at least 28 per cent of Singapore’s biodiversity has been lost in the past 183 years. Considering that many species could have been gone even before they could be documented, it is believed that the true extinction figure is probably as high as 73 per cent.  

“At the rate of development, it’s in fact a bit worrying,” Saniroz says. “There’s a lot of submission of reports, findings, and we try to do preventive measures, try to save as much of the wildlife.”  

However, not all hope is lost. The Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park is a success story in reviving Singapore’s biodiversity. Originally a river, the area and wildlife were destroyed, and a concrete canal was built to facilitate Singapore’s drainage system. “Just imagine the concrete design of the canal itself,” Saniroz points out. “It’s a killer for wildlife.” As part of the Public Utilities Board’s (PUB) Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme, the area was transformed into an integrated park with recreational facilities and nature-inspired drainage system. As a result, wildlife flocked to Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, establishing a biodiversity in the area. “This river is a proven concept that it actually attracted back all the wildlife.” 

Both Saniroz and Li have been actively fighting for the conservation of Singapore’s remaining green spaces. “We don’t go for fame, nothing,” Saniroz explains. “But when we managed to save a place, this is a satisfaction which we actually want to achieve.” Aside from the Green Bubble Walk, Saniroz collaborates with NSS specialists and a group of researchers to develop reports that are submitted to relevant government agencies such as NParks, HDB and the Ministry of Development (MND). Similarly, Li often takes photographs of findings in existing green spaces for NSS which are used in their publications and petitions. “Since the 90s, Nature Society has been doing all these petitions to save places,” Li adds. “But last time, there were only people like us who knew, the public didn’t know because all these things weren’t shared on The Straits Times (the national newspaper).”   

Vice President and Conservation Committee Chair at the NSS Leong Kwok Peng explains: “It is crucial that the public is aware of all these destructions happening on our island.” Leong is also the co-founder of Edu Outdoor Activities (EOA), specialising in corporate training programmes relating to environmental conservation. After pursuing a Master’s in Environmental Management at the National University of Singapore (NUS), Leong has been actively advocating for conservation in Singapore. Notable conservation projects include The Green Corridor and Dover/Ulu Pandan Forest. “The thing is, we need non-government organisations like ours to push for extensive conservation efforts as one united voice in Singapore,” Leong says.

Back in the nature-clad office, Li shares his vision for the future: “From what I experienced, the current green movement by the public and nature people is the strongest since the 80s. They can’t hide anymore. They cannot not listen anymore. We have to leave to people like you to fight for the next generation of forests.”  

“Conservation is OUR concern,” Li asserts, as he takes another sip of Coke Zero. 

 

 

 

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