Monday, May 17, 2010

Like heritage buildings, old trees need protection, too

THE maker of concrete products next to our condo killed the neighbourhood banyan tree recently. The tree, which had provided shade to his workers when he first started business was removed to create more space for him to sun the concrete slabs, V-drains and culverts he was churning out.

I first noticed the tree that stood a stone's throw away on the western side of our condo when we first moved in more than a decade ago.

No one knew when the tree was planted. Some said it was there as long as they could remember. It could be over 20 years old then, judging from the circumference of the trunk being about 10 men's arms' length.

The tree was listing towards our condo at the time.

A few residents suggested that the tree be removed, lest it was uprooted during a thunderstorm and damaged our common property.

Fortunately, no one took the suggestion seriously.

The tree must have heard them, for in the years that followed, the air roots that hung closest to the ground on the listing side planted themselves and turned into small trunks.

Eventually they joined the main trunk, propped up the foliage, and made the tree even sturdier.

But the old banyan was no match for the tree cutters and within a few weeks, all evidence of its existence was gone.

A crane was used to haul the tree cutters up to the treetop. Armed with chainsaws, they cut their way down. And when they reached the trunk and the chainsaws failed, they doused the living trunk with petrol and burned it from the top.

Finally when the tree was no longer there, some residents began to mourn their loss -- not of the tree, ironically, but of the shade its foliage provided in the afternoons for their cars.

One man asked me if it was legal to cut a tree of that size. I said I didn't know.

A friend living in Australia who wanted to build a medical complex in Brisbane a couple of years ago could not do so because of an old tree on his land. The building plan involved trimming part of the tree's surface roots. The authorities refused to approve the plan until the tree was relocated. Unharmed.

My friend spent thousands of dollars to get a specialist to dig up the old tree and move it to a safe location.

Only after the site inspector was satisfied that the tree was growing again was the plan approved. I wonder if our local authorities would do the same.

Last year, when Jalan Genting Kelang and Jalan Gombak were widened, rows of angsana trees were cut.

These trees were planted more than a decade ago during a beautification plan.

Now that the road widening is almost done, I wonder when the new trees will be planted -- and if the planners have thought about giving enough space to the trees so that when they need to widen the roads again in 10 years, they will be spared.

Old-timers would remember the giant raintrees of Jalan Ampang back in the 70s or the flame of the forest (or Semarak Api) trees along Jalan Gurney and some parts of Sentul.

How many of them are still around today? I wonder where the city's oldest tree is today.

I know that the rubber trees that once lined Jalan Ampang are now gone -- save for a couple along Jalan Hulu Kelang that were probably spared because the city's tour guides needed them for their "rubber plantation" tour to show how rubber is tapped.

Heritage Acts protect old buildings from being demolished but do we have laws that keep old trees from being destroyed?

And if there is any such law, perhaps it should be enforced.

Unlike losing old buildings, when we lose an old tree, we lose more than just our heritage.

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