Many of us would think that the concern about hill-slope degradation in Penang and warnings of climate change are a fairly new development which began in the 1980s and 1990s.
Wrong. James Richardson Logan – the man who coined the name ‘Indonesia’ and who is honoured at the Logan Memorial outside the Penang High Court and buried in the nearby Protestant Cemetery – expressed such concern in the mid-19th century in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, which he edited. The brilliant Logan, who was ahead of his time, was a member of the Asiatic Society, corresponding member of the Ethnological Society of London and of the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences.
Here are some excerpts from the Journal Vol II, printed in 1848:
It was remarked that the whole of the eastern front of the range [of a mountain in Pinang] has within a few years been denuded of its forest…. In Singapore the present zealous Governor has, in an enlightened spirit … absolutely prohibited the further destruction of forests on the summits of hills…. Climate concerns the whole community and its protection from injury is one of the duties of Government….
It is not necessary to cite Humboldt or Boussingalt to prove the great influence in tropical regions of forests, and especially of mountain forests, in attracting and condensing clouds, diminishing local temperature, and increasing humidity. But if the forests had no other effect other than to protect the clay soil of the mountain from the action of the sun’s rays, this alone should be sufficient to ensure their careful preservation. It is in this soil that the waters which supply the streams of the island, and which percolate downward to the lower lands, are enclosed. In ordinary seasons, when there is a considerable fall of rain, the importance of preventing the contents of these reservoirs from being dissipated may not be so obvious. But it may now be considered as a well established fact that the eastern Archipelago is subject to periodical droughts, although the laws of their recurrence are not yet ascertained. That such droughts will again and again happen, and are in fact in the settled course of nature admits of no question….
Unless government will reserve at least the steeper mountain tracts, which are not adapted for permanent culture, there is nothing voluntary in the apprehension, for it has been realized in other localities, that in some prolonged drought after the naked sides of the hills have been exposed for a few weeks to the direct heat of the sun, every stream in the island will be dried up, and universal aridity ensue. The great extent to which the plain of the mainland of Pinang has been shorn of its forest would of itself produce an urgent necessity for a stop being at once put to a war with nature, which must entail severe calamaties on the future. In those mountains of Greece which have been deprived of their forests, the springs have disappeared. In other parts of the globe, the same consequence has followed. The sultry atmosphere and dreadful droughts of the Cape de Verde Islands are owing to the destruction of forests….
We are informed that the destruction of jungles on the mountains of Pinang has been allowed to proceed unchecked for the last 2 years. If any of the residents will bring it to the notice of the Governor we are sure from our knowledge of his opinions, with respect to the necessity of preserving hill jungle, that he will not only make an order on the subject, but what is essential, provide means for carrying it into effect.*
* Sounds like a diplomatic way of putting pressure on the authorities to take action against hill-slope degradation!