KOTA BARU: She recognises jungle tree species on sight, drives a lorry delivering jungle tree saplings nationwide and even grew one that, 33 years later, became the planks and beams to build her dream home.

Cik Noriah Cik Wil, 48, has the rare privilege of calling herself a “lady forester”.

She grows jungle trees for a living in Tanah Merah, Kelantan, and estimates that she has grown about a million of them, all replanted in Malaysian jungles.

“I learnt from my father. Since I was a child, I followed him around and learnt how to look for tree seedlings in the jungle, take them out and grow them,” she said.

When she was 21, the Pahang government needed jungle trees to restore them in an illegally cleared jungle tract.

“Pahang wanted lots of sentang (of the mahogany family) and jati (teakwood). It took my father and me four years to find and grow a few hundred thousand tree saplings for Pahang.

“Back then, there were only a few lorry transport services in Kelantan, so I had to get a lorry driving licence and buy one to deliver the tree saplings myself. I am still using that lorry till today,” she recalled fondly.

She said in Kelantan and Terengganu, there were only 15 to 20 foresters that the government and licensed loggers depend on to grow jungle tree saplings.

A mother tree, she explained, would release tens of thousands of seeds every season, carried for kilometres around by the wind.

“The seeds take up to two months to germinate. They are small and hard to find, so what we look for instead are seedlings of about 20cm in height,” she said.

These seedlings are carefully dug out and sent to Cik Noriah’s plant nursery, where she grows them till they are about one metre tall.

She said she sells the saplings for RM2.50 to RM5.

And this year, she experienced the financial value of one such tree herself.

When she was 15, she planted a merawan siput jantan sapling – also called ironwood – on her family land.

When she wanted to build a new house on their land this year, her uncle suggested that she harvest the tree.

“My 33-year-old tree gave us 3.7 tonnes of planks and beams and saved us about RM40,000 in construction cost. We still have leftover planks,” she said, adding that the tree stump was still alive and she was waiting for it to grow new shoots.

Cik Noriah said she hoped the Federal Government would give more resources to protect mother trees.

“In legal logging compartments, mother trees are specially tagged and the Forestry Department forbids licensed loggers from harvesting them.

“But we haven’t found the seedlings of merbau (Malaysia’s national hardwood tree), sentang or jati for four years. It is possible that some mother trees deep in the jungle were illegally felled,” she said.

The saplings Cik Noriah grows are also replanted in Kedah’s jungles.

In Alor Setar, Kedah Timber Association (KTA) president Amin Mokhtar said since 2020, a budget of about RM70mil a year to replant jungle trees had sparked off a forestry sub-sector.

“All over Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak are jungle tree nurseries.

“Rural folk with jungle knowledge are growing precious trees by the thousands for replanting.

“We want the government to know that the annual budget given since 2020 is bearing fruit, so more funds need to be allotted to the Forestry Department to scale this up,” he said.

He said this sustainability effort ensured that developed countries such as the European Union and Japan would approve Malaysian timber.

Amin explained that jungle tree replanting happened in three ways.

“Licensed loggers must replant 30 saplings per hectare after harvesting allowed trees,” he said, adding that trees which produce food for wildlife were never cut down and only permitted species of specific trunk circumferences could be harvested.

The other two instances of jungle tree replanting, he said, were done by the Forestry Department.

“When a jungle is illegally cleared, the Forestry Department is tasked with repairing the damage by planting as many as 660 trees per hectare.

“The third way, also done by the department, is called enrichment planting, where trees that produce food for wildlife are planted,” he said.

Amin also urged the government to give tax incentives to loggers to use special cranes called log-fishers.

“Imagine a giant fishing rod, reel and line. The crane allows loggers to pull out felled trees without needing to clear a path so we can keep the jungle as intact as possible.

“But it is a large capital expenditure to buy a log-fisher, which is patented Japanese technology, so tax incentives will encourage more loggers to adopt it,” he said.

Malaysian timber exports are ranked third in 2020 despite the Covid-19 pandemic, raking in RM22bil, after palm oil and rubber.