July 14, 2022

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Jungle in heart of Malaysia’s capital hunts corporate cash to thrive

KUALA LUMPUR — Nature lovers visiting Malaysia’s Taman Tugu forest reserve can spot monkeys eating fruit in the trees, watch lizards darting across trails or listen to wild hens crowing among the lush vegetation — all against the backdrop of Kuala Lumpur’s skyline. 

While most Malaysian jungles are located on the biodiversity-rich island of Borneo, this 66-acre (27-hectare) forest acts as a green lung for the bustling capital city. 

Like many other conservation projects, this forest park — financed primarily by the country’s sovereign wealth fund — is ramping up efforts to attract additional backing from private businesses eager to bolster their green credentials. 

Originally earmarked for a theme park, Malaysia’s state investment arm Khazanah Nasional teamed up in 2016 with government agencies and community and conservation groups to protect and restore the forest under a national trust. 

Amirul Feisal Wan Zahir, managing director at Khazanah, said action needed to be taken to repair the damage done by climate change and help maintain the environment for future generations. 

“We saw the need and led the corporate social responsibility initiative to preserve, conserve and activate Taman Tugu,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

More than 1,000 trees on the site have now been identified and tagged for preservation — including many indigenous species that are 100 years old — with an additional 4,000 trees planted. 

Improving conservation and management of natural areas — from parks and forests to oceans — is seen as key to protecting the ecosystems on which humans depend, and the role of private finance in such efforts is likely to grow in the coming years. 

But forests worldwide are being felled at an alarming rate — often for palm oil, soybeans and beef — destroying biodiversity. 

Funding biodiversity protection and restoration is a challenge for both governments and companies, with global annual spending to protect and restore nature on land needing to triple to $350 billion by 2030, a United Nations report said last year. 

Cristianne Close, head of global markets at green group WWF International, helps businesses to develop nature-friendly policies and conservation partnerships. 

“Companies realize this is not just a CSR (corporate social responsibility) thing — this is a business-making thing,” Ms. Close said. “Nature is becoming as important as climate in the view of companies.” 

More firms are realizing how sustainability will help ensure their futures long-term and attract more consumers, she added. 

‘LAST GREEN SPACE’
During colonial rule, Taman Tugu was a wooded area with housing for British officials. 

After independence in 1957, the small homes — now derelict and decaying — were used to house Malaysian officials before they were abandoned and became an illegal dumping ground. 

The clean-up operation to save Kuala Lumpur’s “last green space” involved about 300 trucks removing rubbish and creating about 5 kilometers of trails before opening to the public in 2018, said Tracey Surin, head of fundraising at Taman Tugu

The forest reserve has since held Earth Day celebrations, regular yoga sessions, nature education programs for all ages and plant giveaways, while it teems with hikers on weekends. 

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was among them last year during a visit to Southeast Asia, lauding the park while highlighting a global pledge to halt deforestation by 2030. 

Maintaining Taman Tugu is “definitely not cheap,” according to Ms. Surin, who was unable to give a figure for its upkeep. 

The park is mainly funded by Khazanah but is increasingly reliant on individual and corporate finance, she added. 

Malaysia’s CIMB Islamic Bank has its logo on rest areas and educational programmes, while global brands such as Taiwanese computer maker Acer and Japan’s camera and printer giant Canon have adopted trails, trees and benches, or given sponsorship. 

Corporate funding currently covers about 20% of Taman Tugu’s operating costs, Ms. Surin said, adding that the aim is to ensure it is financially sustainable and does not rely on Khazanah alone. 

LOOKING BEYOND PROFIT
Tie-ups between nature conservation projects and big business have become more common during the last two years, biodiversity experts said, citing the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on supply chains, nature’s prominence at global climate summits and growing pressure from both consumers and investors. 

Previously, companies at the forefront of nature investments were usually in oil and gas and other extractive industries, said Gemma Cranston, director for business and nature at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership in Britain. 

Now, food, beverage and other goods manufacturing firms recognise the risks to their reputations and supply chains from the negative impacts of their operations on nature, she said. 

The head of Brazilian cosmetics maker Natura in 2020 said “we can’t run a business in a dead planet” soon after it rolled out a sustainability push — one of many major brands to do so. 

French fashion house Chanel has backed a climate adaptation fund that aims to raise $100 million by 2025, while palm-oil buyers Nestle and PepsiCo are supporting a scheme to invest $1 billion in forest conservation in Southeast Asia over 25 years. 

Furthermore, consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) teamed up with WWF and Malaysian conservation group MYCAT about 18 months ago to fund the creation of ecological corridors to help endangered tigers migrate across Malaysia. 

As a buyer of palm oil — which green groups say is a major driver of deforestation — P&G has funded reforestation efforts and employed indigenous people to tackle the poaching of tigers. 

“This is a very modest investment,” said Girish Deshpande, P&G’s sustainability director, who did not provide an amount. 

The project is “an important start” with the objective of creating a conservation programme of up to 30 years, he added. 

WWF’s Close called for executive bonuses to be linked to climate change and environmental goals — not just profits. 

“Being a profit-making machine for a company is no longer going to get them into the future,” she said. 

OPPORTUNITY AHEAD
While corporate conservation and restoration projects are mostly welcomed by green groups, they want policymakers to offer more incentives for businesses to invest in biodiversity and make the systematic changes to the global economy that will protect and restore nature. 

Such an opportunity may arise in December, when about 195 countries are set to finalize a deal to stem human harm to plants, animals and ecosystems — similar to the 2015 Paris climate agreement – at a United Nations summit, known as COP15. 

Eva Zabey, executive director at Business for Nature, a global coalition of firms seeking to go greener, urged COP15 negotiators to set mandatory requirements for businesses to assess and disclose their impact and dependence on biodiversity. 

Any global nature deal must also have a clear mission that all can align with — similar to the 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius warming limit in the Paris accord – such as halting and reversing nature loss by 2030, added Ms. Zabey. 

That would drive action and strategies, helping firms understand how they can contribute to the global push, she said. 

“All of our economies, societies rely on healthy ecosystems and nature — and that includes businesses,” Ms. Zabey said. 

“Protecting, restoring and managing our natural resources is no longer seen as a nice to have, but it’s fundamental … for all of our activities and everyone’s wellbeing.” — Michael Taylor/Thomson Reuters Foundation