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Trailblazers This Ecologist Is Using AI To Help Restore Malaysia's Rainforest. Here's How

This Ecologist Is Using AI To Help Restore Malaysia's Rainforest. Here's How

Dzaeman Dzulkifli
Dzaeman Dzulkifli
By Chong Jinn Xiung
By Chong Jinn Xiung
April 14, 2021
Ecologist Dzaeman Dzulkifli describes how he uses AI and satellite imagery, as well as on-the-ground help from Malaysia's indigenous community, to help protect and rebuild the nation's natural gardens

Forests play a vital role in stabilising the world’s climate. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, about 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide—or one-third of the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels—is absorbed by forests every year.

Recent data from the Rainforest Foundation Norway, however, reveals that humans have stripped the planet of two-thirds of its original tropical rainforest. Today, only 36 percent of the 14.5 million square kilometres of tropical rainforest that once covered Earth’s surface remains intact.

In Malaysia, more than half of the country's land is forested, with an estimated 18.2 million hectares under forest cover. But since the start of the millennium, it has lost a fifth of its tree cover due to deforestation, according to Global Forest Watch.

Since 2015, however, Malaysia has seen a drop in the rate of forest loss—news that ecologist Dzaeman Dzulkifli cautions could be due to the fact that there is very little natural forest left to be cultivated for agriculture or other means.

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Photo: TRCRC
TRCRC plans to reconnect forest fragments through the reforestation of degraded patches using native trees sourced from nurseries like this one. Photo: TRCRC

Dzaeman's affinity with nature was born from his exposure to the natural world from a young age. As a child, he would often explore the coastal forests and mangrove swamps around his home in the east coast of Malaysia.

In 2012, he founded a non-governmental organisation, Tropical Rainforest Conservation & Research Centre (TRCRC), in hope of helping to preserve and restore the tropical rainforests around Malaysia.

Under his leadership as executive director, TRCRC has developed unique strategies that leverage both technology as well as the natural protectors of the forest, the region's indigenous people (known in Malay as the Orang Asli), who operate as forest rangers.

Under one of its initiatives, TRCRC trains the Orang Asli in the Belum Rainforest Reserve in the state of Perak to identify key tree species that can be used for forest restoration. They also monitor, collect and grow the trees in nurseries in their villages. Dzaeman says such initiatives provide the Orang Asli with job opportunities in environments where they are comfortable.

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[Businesses] that are reluctant to take steps to reduce their environmental impact will eventually lose their market edge to those who want to make a difference

Dzaeman Dzulkifli

Technology is also being used to help save the forest. Dzaeman and his team use satellite images and change-detection tools to monitor the forests more effectively—changes in the forest can be detected as soon as eight hours from a clearing incident, he says.

Malaysia’s federal government is also showing strong support, recently rolling out a five-year campaign to plant more than 100 million trees across the country. Despite the widespread enthusiasm expressed by different stakeholders towards planting more trees, Dzaeman stresses that more careful planning is needed. 

“We must avoid planting trees for the sake of planting,” he says. “Planting the wrong tree at the wrong place and time could have a negative effect on the biodiversity of the forest that is being restored. In effect, they may cause more harm than good.”

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Photo: TRCRC
TRCRC has developed unique strategies that leverage both technology as well as involving the region's indigenous people to help save the forests. Photo: TRCRC

According to Dzaeman, one of the biggest threats facing the forests in Malaysia today is the legalised conversion of forests into agricultural land. 

“We should pay attention to forest degazetting,” he warns, referring to the act of removing the protected status of certain forests. “This is because not all states in Malaysia are required to make public announcements regarding change in land title.” Dzaeman cites Selangor as an example to follow. The Malaysian state allows the public to voice its opinion and halt the conversion of forested land.

He also advises businesses to integrate sustainable practices, as all companies have an impact on the environment. “Being unsustainable will destroy the business you have created,” he says. “It can be caused by the over-exploitation of a resource that you depend on, destroying the soil you use to grow your crops, or due to the public not believing in your product because its environmental impact has become too great.”

“By taking steps towards reducing that impact, you’re showing the public how responsible you are, and people will catch on to that and want to support you. And those who are reluctant will eventually lose their market edge to those who want to make a difference.”

See more honourees from the Sustainability category of the Gen.T List 2020.


Trailblazers A Climate For Change Sustainability Environment Climate Change Dzaeman Dzulkifli Malaysia Deforestation Restoration Tech Tropical Rainforest Conservation & Research Centre


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