Attendees of the Rimba Project’s Conservation Conversation listening to the discussion on nature conservation.

MALAYSIA is one of the world’s megabiodiverse countries. Its plants and animals are key to the wellbeing of its environment.

At the same time, it is a rapidly developing economy and its national population is 75 per cent urban ­— well above the world average of 50 per cent.

Most mainstream conservation takes place in rural and wild habitats that are far from human habitation. But the same cannot be said about green spaces that are being obliterated in urban areas in the name of progress.

Clearly, there is an increasing disconnect between nature and the majority of Malaysians, and this may affect the general health of towns and cities. But what can we do about it?

This was the concern of a panel discussion — also called Conservation Conversation — organised by University of Malaya’s Rimba Project recently.

Professor Michael Bruford.

In collaboration with UM’s Development and Estate Maintenance Department, Rimba Project is helping to introduce ecologically sound principles in campus development: improving green cover by planting rainforest trees for habitat regeneration; raising seedlings of native trees for sustainable long-term campus landscaping; and, conserving forested land across campus.

Led by the project’s founder, Benjamin Ong, the panel comprised Michael Bruford, a professor of Biodiversity at the School of Biosciences and co-director of the Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University in Wales, UM’s Dr Zeeda Fatimah Mohamad, a senior lecturer at the Science and Technology Studies Department with an academic background in ecology, environmental management, and science, technology and innovation policy, and Dr Sharifah Aishah Osman, a senior lecturer at UM’s English Department, who is a researcher of 19th century English literature.

Ong asked the three on ways themes of nature and conservation were addressed in the sciences and arts and humanities. He also asked whether arts and humanities could play a more significant role in nature conservation, especially in Malaysia.

Bruford started off by talking about the Sustainable Places Research Institute’s collaboration with the United Nations University Institute of Global Health.

The Rimba Ilmu botanic garden at University of Malaya.

“For our project, we are using a number of case studies to look at benefits and constraints of managing green spaces in a green environment, the impact on people’s health and how we can improve the situation. Ultimately, that is going to be the real key to making sure that green infrastructure is embedded into the environment.”

Based on his research experience in Sabah, Bruford said the pace of development was driven by necessity.

“All you are doing is accelerating time... catching up with the situation that we have in northern countries. But you have the advantage of not having existing infrastructure to limit you. Here, good planning and good management should reap its rewards. It is all down to governance and strategy. We as scientists need to tell policymakers to build green infrastructure and healthy living spaces in cities.”

Bruford said universities could provide the evidence to support the recommendation in this dialogue.

“That is our role. We do not make policy, but, at least, we provide evidence that make recommendations and suggestions. Then, it becomes a matter of political will. If policymakers and politicians want to accept the evidence, they can act on it. It is about making sure it happens.

“In urban environments, there are so many different actors, from planners to people involved in health and managing urban spaces. So, it is difficult to please everybody. Planners, for example, have a different view of what a city should be than ecologists and we have to bring them together,” he said.

He said different disciplines coming together would provide different perspectives to the problem.

“That is what we have been doing for almost eight years at our sustainability centre in Cardiff. I am a geneticist. I spend a lot of time talking to social scientists and this has made me realised that the more we can speak the same language and work together, the more chances we have to make big gains. The best way of doing this is by studying project-based case studies. We can talk theoretically how natural scientists and social scientists can come together, but when you come across a real problem, we can come up with a solution that would work for everybody. We cannot continue to work in isolation,” said Bruford.

Dr Zeeda Fatimah Mohamad.

Zeeda pointed out that conservation in the city was important.

“The majority of the world population will be in cities. The urban population is expected to continue to grow so that by 2050, the world will be one-third rural and two-thirds urban. I am not saying development is not good but the challenge — the amount of built environment-is higher and more spread out.”

She said there must be a combination of science and humanities knowledge to look for solutions in this issue.

“We must encourage citizens and scientists to collaborate. People must work together to find scientific, indigenous and religious knowledge, and create solutions,” she said, adding that this was where action research could help solve problems related to nature conservation in urban development.

Dr Sharifah Aishah Osman.

Sharifah, meanwhile, said development had affected society and it had gotten disconnected from nature.

“Be it for progress or development, we are losing our humanity and selling our souls in pursuit of wealth. We have to evaluate the way we view nature. Is it something that we should exploit? Or should we just appreciate nature for what it is?”

Sharifah highlighted that the younger generation must be educated on ethics when dealing with nature.

She said this could be done through the idea of heritage, which was evident in folklore.

“Heritage is a theme that we can all collaborate on to bring change in societal attitude. This goes back to how we teach children, not just from the science point of view. Encourage your family to appreciate nature,” she said.

Zeeda agreed and emphasised the importance of intergenerational conversations.

“Look at what is best in terms of history and prospects.”

“If we have the ingenuity to get into the situation, surely, we can get out of it,” said Bruford.

“I have travelled a lot. One thing that strikes me is that we all have same aspirations but they manifest in different ways. I have faith in humanity. People will ultimately do what is best for the environment,” he concluded.

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