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Environment

Malaysian women dream big, one tree at a time

An initiative between local women and international organisations along the Malaysian coastline seeks to improve management of the countries wetlands. And, it hopes to give local economies a boost too.

In a small coastal village in Terengganu, Malaysia, a group of housewives and their children are busy planting 400 young mangrove trees just outside their homes.

The group is known as PEWANIS, otherwise known as the Kampung Mangkok Setiu Women's Association. Established in 2007, PEWANIS is a part of a conservation and capacity building project between Nestlé in Malaysia and the World Wildlife Fund.

The project chose the housewives because of their central importance to the community.  Daria Matthew, from WWF Malaysia, told DW that women have an important role to play in long-term conservation work.

"They are the ones who interact most with their children so they can impart a lot of knowledge and tips into the community," she told DW.

Setiu Wetlands: The pulse of life

The Setiu Wetlands are a collection of forests, swamps, peatbogs, lagoons and beaches that stretch 23,000 hectares along Malaysia's east coast. For generations, fishing in both the lagoons and the sea here has been a major source of income for the villagers, while plants found in the area are used as raw material for construction and handicrafts.

But over the years, lack of environmental awareness among locals and unmonitored industrial development has affected the area negatively. For the women of PEWANIS replanting trees is just one of many conservation activities they are now undertaking in the area.

Rusnita Ngah, the chairwoman of the groups says their neighbors were skeptical at first. "At one stage people said 'hey look at those women doing crazy things planting mangrove trees' but we didn't care and just continued," she told DW.

Women from the organisation PEWANIS make banana chips by hand in Kampung Mangkuk, Setiu, Terengganu, Malaysia. 05.10.2012 (Photo: Subir Che Selia)

Making banana chips from local plantations is another PEWANIS project

A host of projects

In addition to planting trees, the women are trying to protect local wildlife too. The country is one of the last places left in southeast Asia where two kinds of the critically endangered painted terrapins still live: the saltwater-dwelling "Batagur borneonsis" and the freshwater "Batagur affinis." To help save the species, the women are campaigning against the consumption of their eggs.

Another industry which the women have ventured into is ecotourism. They offer packages where tourists learn to make traditional Malay kites, taste local foods, learn about village life and visit the Setiu Wetlands. The tourists can also try to plant mangrove and Nipah trees themselves.

Ngah says that the money raised by the tours is used to benefit the local community directly. "The fund is a way for us to contribute back to the community, for essential things like funeral services and rewarding excellent students."

Sustainability concerns

But, with tourists coming from as far away as Singapore and Hong Kong, there are questions about the pollution generated by this ecotourism initiative. Organisations in other countries are already aware of this.

Children play in mangrove areas in Kampung Mangkuk, Setiu, Terengganu, Malaysia. 05.10.2012 (Photo: Subir Che Selia)

Passing on environmental lessons to the area's young people is another one of PEWANIS' aims

"In theory, ecotourism is a very good concept, but in practice there is a huge contrast," says Sumesh Mangalassery from Kabani, an Indian organisation that examines tourism sustainability. "At present, we are looking for an alternative to ecotourism, because it is kind of an expansion to the consumer lifestyle."

But, Muhammad Allim of WWF Malaysia says the other aspects of the women's work are already having a positive impact on the community. For instance when it comes to protecting terrapins and their eggs.

"Previously, whenever I asked about around in the community about these animals, the answer would be 'oh yes they are delicious," Allim told DW.  "Now, when I ask the children in Kampung Mangkok, they always say, 'No! You can't eat them.'

"Hearing that sort of thing, just assures me that this whole project is worth doing."

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