KOTA BARU: She recognizes jungle tree species by sight, drives a truck delivering jungle saplings across the country, and even grew one that 33 years later became the planks and beams to build the house of his dreams.
Cik Noriah Cik Wil, 48, has the rare privilege of calling herself a “forest lady”.
She cultivates jungle trees for a living in Tanah Merah, Kelantan, and estimates that she has grown around one million, all replanted in the Malaysian jungles.
“I learned from my father. Since I was a child, I followed him everywhere and learned to look for tree seedlings in the jungle, take them out and grow them,” she said.
When she was 21, the Pahang government needed jungle trees to restore them to an illegally cleared stretch of jungle.
“Pahang wanted a lot of sentang (from the mahogany family) and jati (teak wood). It took my father and I four years to find and cultivate a few hundred thousand saplings for Pahang.
“At the time, there were only a few trucking services in Kelantan, so I had to get a truck driver’s license and buy one to deliver the saplings myself. I still use that truck to this day,” she fondly recalls.
She said that in Kelantan and Terengganu, there were only 15 to 20 foresters who depended on the government and licensed loggers to grow the young jungle trees.
A mother tree, she explained, releases tens of thousands of seeds each season, carried for miles around by the wind.
“The seeds take up to two months to germinate. They are small and hard to find, so what we are looking for instead are seedlings around 20cm tall,” she said.
These seedlings are carefully dug up and sent to Cik Noriah’s nursery, where she grows them until they are about a meter tall.
She said she sells the saplings for RM2.50 to RM5.
And this year she herself experienced the financial value of such a tree.
When she was 15, she planted a sapling merawan siput jantan – also called ironwood – on the family land.
When she wanted to build a new house on their land this year, her uncle suggested that she harvest the tree.
“My 33-year-old tree gave us 3.7 tonnes of planks and beams and saved us around RM40,000 in construction costs. We still have leftover planks,” she said, adding that the tree stump was still alive and waiting for it to sprout new shoots.
Cik Noriah said she hopes the federal government will give more resources to protect mother trees.
“In legal logging compartments, mother trees are specially tagged and the Forest Department prohibits licensed loggers from harvesting them.
“But we haven’t found any merbau (Malaysia’s national hardwood), sentang or jati seedlings for four years. It is possible that some mother trees deep in the jungle were felled illegally,” she said.
Young trees cultivated by Cik Noriah are also replanted in the jungles of Kedah.
In Alor Setar, Kedah Timber Association (KTA) Chairman Amin Mokhtar said that since 2020, a budget of around RM70 million per year to replant jungle trees has triggered a forestry sub-sector.
“All over Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak are nurseries of jungle trees.
“Rural people who know the jungle cultivate precious trees by the thousands to replant them.
“We want the government to know that the annual budget given since 2020 is paying off, so more funds need to be allocated to the Forestry Department to scale it up,” he said.
He said this sustainability effort ensured that developed countries such as the European Union and Japan would approve of Malaysian timber.
Amin explained that the replanting of jungle trees happened in three ways.
“Approved loggers must replant 30 saplings per hectare after the harvest of licensed trees,” he said, adding that trees that produce food for wildlife were never felled and only licensed species of specific trunk circumferences could be harvested.
The other two cases of replanting jungle trees, he said, were done by the Forestry Department.
“When a jungle is cleared illegally, the Forest Department is responsible for repairing the damage by planting up to 660 trees per hectare.
“The third way, also practiced by the department, is called enrichment planting, where trees that produce food for wildlife are planted,” he said.
Amin also urged the government to give tax incentives to loggers to use special cranes called loggers.
“Imagine a giant fishing rod, reel and line. The crane allows the loggers to extract the felled trees without the need to clear a path so that we can keep the jungle as intact as possible.
“But buying a log fisher, which is a patented Japanese technology, is a big capital investment, so the tax incentives will encourage more loggers to adopt it,” he said.
Malaysia’s timber exports ranked third in 2020 despite the Covid-19 pandemic, raking in RM22 billion, after palm oil and rubber.