Global Network of National Geoparks

A Walk in the `Birthplace of the Region'

Source : Source: New Straits Times Published :August 12, 2008

AN environmental awareness study tour of Langkawi gave secondary students insights into its geological treasure trove, writes AHMAD FAIRUZ OTHMAN.

Geology may be a subject which is touched sparingly in a secondary schooler's syllabus. A student may need to refer to books or depend on programmes on the Discovery or National Geographic channels to get more information on the subject.

However 60 secondary students from all over Malaysia recently had first-hand experience learning about geology in a place researchers refer to as "the birthplace of the region".

Many of the students knew Langkawi as a vacation paradise which is famous for sun, sea and shopping.

But thanks to the recent Matang Mangrove Forest and Langkawi Geopark study tour under the Environmental Awareness Programme 2008, the students discovered a whole new side to this tourist destination.

SMK Bandar Tun Hussein Onn, Cheras, Kuala Lumpur student Mohd Fahmi Maslan had vacationed in Langkawi before, but was unaware of its significance in the world's natural history.

"I was shocked to learn that Langkawi has such unique natural spots. I had visited Langkawi with my family two years ago. I never knew all this existed.

"I got to see mangrove forests and learn about the flora and fauna here. I learned a lot about the Earth's surface of Langkawi," said the Form Four student whose only exposure to geology was through books and television.

Another Fourth Former Sarah Renduan Kagawa finally got a taste of what she had previously seen on Discovery Channel.

"It was a great experience! Through the facilitators' explanations, I learned in detail about the history and science of the landscape in Langkawi.

"Before, I could only see it on Discovery Channel. Now I know how fossils were formed hundreds of years ago," said Sarah, who is from SMK Lutong in Miri, Sarawak.

For decades, researchers have known about Langkawi's status as a geological treasure trove. But it was only recently that Langkawi's developers started promoting this aspect of the island.

UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, officially declared the island a geopark on June 1, 2007.

It is the 52nd geopark in Unesco's global network, and the first geopark in Southeast Asia. It has the distinction of being the world's only geopark made up of an archipelago of 99 islands.

For two days, the students discovered Langkawi's geopark trail, including the 550 million-year-old Mat Chinchang mountain range, which is accessible by a breathtaking cable car ride.

The group stepped on centuries-old rocks, rode on boats and trekked into Gua Kelawar at Kilim Geoforest Park, which is located on Langkawi's northeastern shore.

Lecturers from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's (UKM) Institute For Environment and Development (Lestari) acted as facilitators and guided students throughout their learning experience.

Lestari UKM fellow Tanot Unjah was amazed at the students' enthusiasm for geology.

"They were a curious and lively bunch. They were eager to know about the geology on their doorstep, and were actively involved in the excursion."

Many students displayed their strong grasp of current issues by asking Tanot about the region's Earth movements.

"Some students asked questions about earthquakes which had happened throughout the world. Some asked me about the Pacific Ring of Fire," she said, referring to the hot spots of earthquakes which encircle the Pacific Ocean.

On the geopark, Tanot said Langkawi is an ideal learning ground for those who care for the environment.

"Langkawi is the only place in Southeast Asia with fossils dating back to the Paleozoic era, which is 550 million years ago.

"It is the only place in Malaysia where one could find traces of the sea level changes from prehistoric times. And researchers are using this evidence to study global warming patterns.

"Based on the fossils' age, the sea level was 23m above the current sea level 7,000 years ago.

"That means that a high sea level happened in this region. This evidence cannot be found in any other place in the country."

Tanot stressed that Langkawi's geopark concept was not merely a nature park. It includes an overall development blueprint, which covers economic plans that will benefit the island's residents.

The Langkawi Development Authority outlines the geopark's growth in three aspects: conservation, overall development and development for the people.

"The geopark is not merely a park but a form of development for a particular area. This includes the conservation of the environment," said Tanot.

Imparting skills on environmental protection was on the minds of organisers of the Environmental Awareness Programme 2008.

Programme coordinator Dr Zulkifli Yusop hoped that the students would become environmental cadets at their respective schools.

"My personal aim is for them to spread environmental awareness to their fellow schoolmates," said Zulkifli, who is director of the Institute of Environmental and Water Resources at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (IPASA-UTM).

In its third year, the programme this time was focused on exposing students to the interrelationship between the environment and human race.

Last year's programme was conducted at Mulu National Park, while the previous one in 2005 was held at Endau-Rompin National Park.

The event was jointly organised by the Education Ministry, IPASA- UTM, Lestari, Drainage and Irrigation Department, Forestry Department, Malaysian National Commission for UNESCO and Langkawi Development Authority, among others.

The study tour module in Langkawi included students visiting geopark sites, completing a scrapbook on their experiences and presenting their findings to fellow participants.

Participants were selected based on various criteria, among them being leadership skills and interest in environmental matters.

Most of the student are members of their school's UNESCO Club, which often deals with environmental issues.

Some teachers chose students with good grades and a strong command of English when selecting participants for the programme. Coincidentally, most advisers for the UNESCO Clubs are English teachers.

Whatever the method of selection, each school was required to choose up to two students and one accompanying teacher for the week- long study tour.

That one week was enough to leave a strong impact on both teachers and students.

Fourth Former Nurul Izzati Aqilah Lokman Hakim admitted to being a litter bug before joining the programme.

But her experience clearing debris at Teluk Mempelam beach in Langkawi was enough to give the 16-year-old a rude awakening.

"I was a litterbug. But after picking up trash from a beach in Langkawi, I know that each of us play a role in caring for the environment.

"I am shocked at the amount of trash that Malaysians throw away. It has made me aware of the need to promote cleanliness for the sake of the environment."

The Sekolah Menengah Sains Muzaffar Syah student from Ayer Keroh, Malacca spent more than an hour picking up plastic bottles, styrofoam food containers and even a 21-inch television set on the tranquil camping ground at Telum Mempelam beach.

"I never thought much about how rubbish could affect the environment. I always take it for granted that the school cleaners would clear up the garbage in school.

"I am now fully conscious of the scale of pollution in our country," said Nurul Izzati, who is raring to start an environment awareness drive at her school.

SMK Luntong Miri English teacher Valerie Undi said the study tour was an adventure with her students.

"We did all the activities together, including picking up litter at the beach and riding speed boats at the geoforest park.

"It is not just the students who learned something, but the teachers as well."

Mohd Redzuan Hashim, an SMK Bongawan student from Beaufort, Sabah plans to initiate more tree-planting programmes, which his school has pursued before.

"My school held flower and fruit tree planting projects. They were fun."

Though his school does not have a UNESCO club, the Form Four student does his bit to preserve Mother Nature through his participation in the school's Nature Society.

Mohd Redzuan describes his school as a rural institution with a cool location: it is only 2km away from the beach.