Monday, 18 May 2015

Earth Day Forest Cleanup Weekend

Sometime in late March or early April, it occurred to me that Green Living had nothing exceptional planned for Earth Day. We had accepted an invitation to give a talk on environmental responsibility at a private university on April 22 but there was nothing else planned for that weekend. 

I knew it wouldn't be much trouble for me to organise a cleanup at any forest reserve in the same state, and started work on creating a Facebook event for Earth Day weekend immediately. Response was reasonably good. Based on past experience, if 30 people indicated on Facebook that they would be attending an event, you can bet your ass that no more than 10 would turn up. 

Still, our Green Living subcommittee members and great friends of mine -- Liza, Illani, Zhang Hui and her Dad, Jack -- will be there and I would rather have the company of the four of them than the presence of a hundred others. Shyam said she would be swinging by with her Yellow House KL volunteers, since they live close by in Ampang, and when my friend Pui May said she would be coming to help out together with her mother and my old friend and fellow birder Yadz said she would be coming with her partner, I knew I had a conservationist's Dream Team already. 

It was for good reason that I suggested the Ampang Recreational Forest, and I am glad the committee was on board. I seriously couldn't get a better committee than these guys. The Ampang Forest is under threat of being destroyed and developed to make way for the EKVE highway, and it needs all the positive publicity it could get. The Ampang Forest is also within a bus ride's distance from the nearest LRT station, is convenient and accessible enough for everyone and yet doesn't receive the same level of attention that other forest reserves more popular with the hiking and hashing set do. And it is always, ALWAYS good to be out in nature and do something kind for Mother Earth. 

Based on our past experiences coordinating and participating in cleanup campaigns, I made the following preparations for the Ampang Recreational Forest Cleanup
1. Contacted the local authorities (MPAJ) and the Selangor State Forestry Department for permission to organise and hold the said activity; 
2. Purchased or collected rubbish bags, reusable cotton gardening gloves (we washed the ones from previous cleanup campaigns) and sturdy sacks for recyclables or sharp items (we used the large outer sacks of pet food bags); 
3. A First Aid Kit and natural mosquito repellent spray for all; 
4. A large bottle of drinking water for refilling everyone's water bottles with, and bananas and oranges for a waste-free breakfast. 

To create social media hype for the event and to encourage and reward participants, all participants are eligible to participate in a Facebook photo competition, in which prizes would be given for the following categories: 

i. Best Before and After Photo; 
ii. Best Cleanup Action Photo 
iii. Most Creative Photo; 
iv. Funniest Photo; 
v. Weirdest Item Found. 

The photo contest and zero-waste breakfast constituted the 'goodies' for our 15 cleanup participants in lieu of wasteful goodie bags and t-shirts, as everyone agreed that the focus should be on protecting the environment and reducing waste. 

 The night before the event was, well... Eventful. I had another run-in with the cops (long story, not tellin') and didn't reach my Bachelor Pad until close to 2 a.m. I thank Providence for the crazy fruit stalls in Bandar Utama that open till 1.00 a.m. that I was able to buy fruits for the breakfast I promised the volunteers. 

I arrived at the forest parking lot at exactly 9 a.m. although I should have arrived sooner. Shit. Shit. Shit. I found when I arrived that it wasn't too big a deal because my wonderful committee members were already there and our friend Christa from TrEES (Treat Every Environment Special) was briefing everyone on the expressway project and how exactly it would threaten the Selangor State Park, which includes the Ampang Forest. 

The signature campaign was completed and the volunteers were given button badges to wear proudly as they worked. I delivered a short but somewhat unnecessary safety briefing to the brave and cheerful volunteers who turned up and we slapped sunblock and mosquito repellent all over ourselves and pulled on our gloves. Yes, the same cotton gardening gloves I have been using for the past beach cleanups during our annual Turtle Volunteer Programme. Those things can seriously take a washing. Makes me wonder how many things that are marketed as disposable are actually reusable. 

The plan is to start cleaning the forest from the inside out. We would start at the deepest and most popular picnic spot and work our way out, rather than drag bags of rubbish into the forest and out again. 

Dee Lu of Corezone / Leave No Trace Malaysia  and her pug Mr. P joined us at this point and we were grateful for her help in transporting the rubbish out with her pickup truck. It was a cool and crisp morning and the trees and stream were breathtaking. 

(Photo credits: Eddie Yap)


Our hardworking volunteers removed litter chucked carelessly behind bushes, probably by the local council contractors who do not know any better. 
(Photo credits for the lower two photos: Yadz Harudin) 

The shallow parts of the stream were littered not with plastic, but with seed pods, unusual-looking inflorescence and pink jambu fruit. It was a good sign. 

The river and forest are still alive and well. Birdsong filled the air. 

This poor little guy swam up into a shallow sandbar and couldn't get out. I washed the sunblock off my hands, lifted him in my cupped hands gently and set him free in deeper waters, wherein he darted away with relief and joy. 

Annieson spotted a sarong in the stream. I hope this doesn't mean that someone went home naked. How could you forget a sarong? 
(Photo credits: Annieson Au) 

Herlinde of Yellow House KL found a bucket in perfect condition, as well as some plastic bags. 

Jon found a TV remote control in the stream. Did someone decide to take their TV along on a picnic?
(Photo credits: Eddie Yap) 

Our youngest participant, Zhang Hui, worked hard at removing cigarette butts and sweet wrappers using her steel tongs. 
(Photo credit: Yadz Harudin) 

Seven-year-old Zhang Hui is full of ideas, most of which came thick and fast as soon as the leeches turned up and more and more bizarre rubbish was found. 

"I know how to make leeches not want our blood", she declared. "They don't like salt, so we must eat as much junk food as possible before going into the forest for the next cleanup, and the leeches will stay away." 
I am convinced. 
Break out the potato chips and BBQ corn chips, everyone! It's for health and safety reasons. 

We were glad to have her with us, chucking long sticks up steep slopes to get styrofoam plates down. "How did the rubbish get up there?" queried Zhang Hui. "Did someone have a picnic and then -- UNNH!!" (Mimes flinging confetti in the air in the general direction of the slope) 

"I don't think that's the case", explained Pui May patiently. "I think there's a hiking trail up there, and people left their rubbish behind, and the wind blew it all halfway down the slope." 

"Then how do you explain this?" asked Zhang Hui again, pulling at a car radio half embedded in the soil. "Did they take their car radio up the hiking trail as well?" Pui May and I looked at each other and shrugged. 
"Some people are just plain crazy." 
"And selfish." 
"Just crazy selfish." 

By the end of 3 hours, the back of the pickup truck was full of bags of litter. I had labelled all the cat food sacks to differentiate recyclables and sharp objects from normal litter and it turned out to be a very helpful thing. It was amazing that the 15 of us could fill over 50 bags of rubbish on our own. We were proud of our efforts, but sad that there was so much litter to fill the bags with. How wonderful would it be if we never had to conduct a beach, river, trail or park cleanup again! 

A group photo for posterity. Never underestimate the power of small groups of committed and enthusiastic individuals in changing the world for the better! 

The most common litter we found were plastic drinking straws, plastic bags, styrofoam picnic ware, disposable diapers and sweet wrappers. This serves as an important lesson to all of us. Items such as straws and wrappers are so light that they are often carried away by wind and rainwater even after we have placed them in rubbish bins. We therefore hope that everyone will pledge to do the following, if this is not being done already: 
- To stop purchasing, using and accepting plastic drinking straws, Styrofoam packaging, and plastic bags; 
- To switch to cloth diapers if you have babies; 
- To reduce unnecessary purchases, especially of unnecessary items that come in non-biodegradable packaging, e.g. sweets and junk food. 
- To bring your own reusable food containers, cloth shopping bags and refillable water bottles whenever you leave the house. 
- To bring rubbish bags along on picnics and nature trails in order that you can clean up after yourselves and others and take your rubbish out with you. 

Following the cleanup session, I intend to contact the local council to discuss the issue of cleaning contractors dumping rubbish into the bushes, and the lack of macaque-proof rubbish bins in a recreational forest overrun by macaques. 

We could not unload our rubbish at the recycling bins at the forest parking lot because the macaques would make a mess of it in no time at all. We had to transport all the rubbish out to a nearby apartment complex for proper disposal, and the recyclables were later transported to a recycling centre. 

The breakfast fruits were duly handed out, and Green Living merchandise (booklets and stickers) distributed to volunteers upon request. I would like to thank all the dedicated volunteers who braved the heat, humidity, dirt, mosquitoes and leeches to clean up our little piece of the world. Little things done with great love can and do make a huge difference! 

I had offered to drive the Yellow House volunteers back to their hostel, as I was also curious about their hostel, having seen so many pictures of it on Facebook. I have been friends with Shyam for years, and I couldn't imagine why it took me so long to visit the hostel she manages and coordinates. 

It was a charming, unpretentious little place, filled with artwork and posters and dogs and a calico kitten. 

Plants and herbs grew out of upcycled beverage cartons and windchimes and decorative items made out of bottle caps and recyclables gave the hostel a welcoming and quirky feel. 

Jon and Herlinde gave me a tour of the hostel, with the dogs -- Fazer, Chocolate and Amber -- close at our heels. The Moon Seat and upcycled toilet bowls are perfect for drinking under the stars or a backyard cookout. 

A mud brick oven stood in a corner in the shade. Mud bricks were stacked by the fence as though waiting to be constructed into something useful and beautiful. I cleaned myself up in the outdoor shower and chatted with the volunteers as we waited for Shyam's return from her International Sign Language exams. 

The volunteers wanted to come with me to the SPCA shelter and I invited Shyam along. We piled into my car, clown-fashion, and trundled our merry way to the SPCA bungalow. I treated everyone to lunch at Studio 5 (remarkably filling, and remarkably cheap) before we walked up to the bungalow. We were asked to play with the guinea pigs to socialise them and get them used to being handled by humans to improve their chances of being adopted. 

I could not think of a more pleasing assignment. We held the guinea pigs (a first time for Shyam) and cooed and sang to them in the Guinea Pig room until I fell mysteriously asleep, exhausted no doubt by the whole week's shenanigans amd my lack of sleep the night before. The others left me napping there while they went out to help with the dogs and puppies. After my unplanned nap, I helped to Frontline the cats and kittens before I dropped the volunteers and Shyam off at their hostel and made my way home. 

Forest cleanup. Making new friends and being reunited with old ones. Volunteering. Lunch with new friends. Cuddling with guinea pigs. Helping out at the SPCA. What a great weekend it has been, and what a lucky person I am. Non est vivere sed valere vita est.

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