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4. Human habitation and traditional uses of the mangrove ecosystem in peninsular Malaysia

H. T. Chan

The mangrove ecosystem in Peninsular Malaysia has played a vital role in the economic and social well-being of the traditional coastal communities. A range of products can be harvested which provide the livelihood of the people living in or near the mangroves. Products include wood for making charcoal, domestic fuel, and construction materials. Locally important industries such as the manufacture of atap (nipa "shingles"), nipa cigarette wrappers, and slaked lime are also based on mangrove resources and provide rural employment. Other products harvested from mangrove areas include crustaceans, molluscs, and fin fish.

In recent years, extensive areas of mangroves have been converted for other land uses. Such exploitative conversions often diminish the value of the mangrove ecosystem. The aim of this paper is to document the various types of traditional human habitation in the mangroves and the dependence of their occupational activities on the continued viability of the mangrove ecosystem.

Traditional Human Habitation

Three major types of communities in or associated with the mangrove forests of Peninsular Malaysia can be distinguished: Chinese fishing villages, Malay fishing villages, and other coastal Malay villages. The location of these villages in relation to the Matang mangroves in Perak state (fig. 1) can be taken as representative of their distribution elsewhere in the country.

Chinese Fishing Villages

The Chinese fishing villages (began) are located within the mangrove forests, often scattered along the banks of mainland or island mangrove estuaries (fig. 2). With the exception of a few well-established mainland villages that are accessible by motorable roads, most of these villages are remotely located and accessible only by river. They vary in size, the larger ones (such as Pulau Ketam in Selangor) having populations of several thousand inhabitants.

FIG. 1. The location of various types of communities within and along the fringes of the Matang mangroves, Perak, Malaysia

A conspicuous characteristic of these villages is the dense conglomeration of the houses, built on wooden platforms raised on concrete or nibong-palm (Oncosperma filamentosa) piles. Adjoining the river-front houses, extensions of the platforms serve as communal jetties, often thickly surrounded with scores of fishing boats. Most of the houses are made from sawn timbers with zinc roofs. Communication within the village is by means of a network of wooden walkways raised on mangrove stilts.

Public electricity and water supplies are lacking; communal generators provide electrical power, while potable water is derived from rain-water collected from roof-tops into large concrete or metal tanks. During prolonged droughts, water has to be purchased from the mainland. Villagers rely on the often turbid, brackish river water for washing and bathing. Charcoal and firewood from the mangroves remain an important source of domestic fuel.

Many of the well established accessible mainland villages, such as Kuala Sepetang and Teluk Kertang in Perak, are almost self-sustaining and possess most of the amenities of towns, such as shops, community halls, temples, medical clinics, workshops, and schools. Electricity and water supply are readily available, and many of the houses have been rebuilt using concrete.

The majority of the inhabitants of these villages are full-time commercial fishers. They usually fish in waters several kilometres off the mangroves, using a variety of commercial fishing gear. During unfavourable weather, they revert to fishing in the mangrove-fringed rivers and estuaries using traditional fishing gear, or spend their time repairing their boats and nets. To ensure additional income, some fishers engage in cage culture of fish or crabs. In some villages in Perak, Penang, and Selangor, the culture and harvesting of cockles (Anadara granosa) is an important traditional activity.

Malay Fishing Villages

The Malay fishing villages (kampong nelayan) are usually found upstream along the banks of mangrove-fringed tidal rivers. The houses are more widely spaced than in the Chinese fishing villages, each having a sizeable compound. They are raised on wooden beams and made from sawn timber. Atap is commonly used as a roofing material; and, to increase living space, the kitchens are often extended to the rear with atap shingles. In villages located some distance from the rivers, raised boardwalks lead to the jetties where the fishing boats are docked.

The occupants of these villages are mainly traditional fishers who confine their fishing activities to mangrove-fringed estuaries. Each fisherman normally operates two or more types of gear that can be used in different localities and weather conditions. To supplement their income, some of them also engage in part-time logging activities in nearby forests.

Coastal Malay Villages

Other Malay villages (kampong) are found along coastal roads at the iandward fringes of mangroves, with easy access to coastal towns. There is also a cluster of Malay villages, established in the 1930s, remotely located in the middle of Pulau Lumut, a mangrove island in Selangor accessible only by ferry.

The physical structure of these villages is similar to that of the Malay fishing villages except that the houses are surrounded by plantations of cash crops such as coconuts, oil palms, coffee, and cocoa. The villagers are mainly farmers, whose livelihood depends on these agricultural products. Nipa palms (Nypa fruticans) commonly grow in the vicinity, and the making of atap shingles is an important occupation.

Traditional Forest Resources

Nipa Industries

Atap Making

The manufacture of atap "shingles" from the leaves of the nipa palm is a traditional part-time cottage industry (Burkill 1935) which remains important among the coastal Malay villagers. Despite the present trend towards replacing timber with concrete houses in the coastal villages, there is still enough demand for atap for thatching roofs and constructing walls and partitions to sustain the industry. The main consumers now are largely charcoal manufacturers and poultry farmers, who still use nipa shingles for roofing their sheds.

The atap maker cuts nipa fronds in the forest with a machete and ties the severed leaflets into bundles, each of which can be made into about 30 shingles. It is common practice to leave the first pair of young fronds on a plant to ensure its recovery from defoliation. The plants are usually harvested on a rotation of four to five months. Occasionally the atap maker employs workers to harvest the fronds, paying them about US$0.80 per bundle of leaflets. A worker can usually collect up to eight bundles a day, thus earning up to US$6.40.

Nipa or coconut (Cocos nucifera) leaf stalks, cut into 1.5 m lengths and spliced into five or six divisions, are used as ribs on which the shingles are fabricated. Groups of two or three leaflets are folded approximately midway over the rib and stitched in place with a strip of peel from the leaf stalks of either nipa or Donax arundastrum, a common plant forming dense thickets along the banks of tidal rivers (fig. 3). Freshly collected leaflets are preferred, as they are more pliable and easier to manipulate. The fabrication is usually done by the women of the household, working beneath their stilt houses or under specially constructed atap sheds. It takes about three or four minutes to complete a shingle, and a worker can make up to fifty or sixty a day. Occasionally the workers are employed. In Matang an atap maker pays US$0.10 for ten shingles, or US$0.50 - $0.60 a day.

The completed shingles are spread in rows to dry in the sun, usually for about seven to ten days, after which they are tied into stacks of 25 pieces for sale.

The shingles are sold to consumers at about US$7 per hundred. An atap manufacturer can produce up to 2,000 shingles per month, giving a gross monthly income of about US$140. If he employs labour for leaf collection and fabrication, the net monthly income is reduced to about US$70.

The durability of nipa shingles for roof thatching depends largely on the angle of pitch and degree of overlapping. A high-pitched roof with closely stacked shingles can last up to five years without major repairs.

Cigarette-Wrapper Manufacture

The manufacture of cigarette wrappers from young, unfolded nipa leaf sheaths (Doscas 1972) is a flourishing industry in Peninsular Malaysia, particulary in the districts of lower Perak and northern Selangor. There are essentially two groups of people involved: Malay villagers, who collect, prepare, and dry the leaflets, and Chinese entrepreneurs, who are responsible for bleaching, cutting, and packing and the distribution of the final product.

Young nipa leaf sheaths that have attained a length of about 1.5-2 m are cut by the local villagers. One worker can usually cut and convey to his depot about 100 sheaths per day. The leaflets are then severed from the stalks with a machete, each cut removing a pair of leaflets just above the point of attachment. About 60 to 80 leaflets, representing about 300 grams of prepared material, can be obtained from a single sheath. The younger leaflets at the tip of the sheath are usually discarded because they are too small and tender. The leaflets are then tied into bundles.

The next process is the removal of cuticle from the leaf blades (fig. 4). This requires special skill and is usually done by women. The worker takes a leaflet and strips one of the blades from the mid-rib with a swift tearing motion. Beginning from the basal edge, she then separates the cuticle sufficiently with her teeth to allow the introduction of a finger, which she quickly forces along the point of attachment, thus completely skinning the blade. The remaining blade with the adhering mid-rib is treated similarly, removing the cuticle and mid-rib together.

The skinned blades are then dried in the sun for a day. The compound used for drying is covered with either defoliated leaf stalks or discarded cuticles, and the blades are placed on top of them in neat rows. During the drying, the material curls slightly, emitting a distinct crackling sound. The dried blades are tied into bundles to be sold to the entrepreneur at about US$53 per 100 kg. The monthly production per household is only about 200 kg.

Most of the dried material is transported to Teluk Intan in Perak, which is the centre for the nipa cigarettewrapper industry. Here, the bundles or blades are graded and bleached. The bleaching is done with sulphur dioxide produced by burning sulphur granules in specially constructed gas chambers. The process takes two to three hours, and is essential in order to make the blades more pliable and easier to roll into cigarettes. The treated materials are subsequently cut into lengths suitable for smoking, and sold in small bundles or packets.

The consumers of nipa cigarette wrappers are mainly paddy farmers in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia. The prefer them to ordinary paper-wrapped cigarettes because they resist a certain amount of wetting, a condition that is inevitable during paddy farming operations.

Wood Production

Thinning for Poles

Intermediate felling (thinning) for poles has been carried out in the Matang mangroves since 1930 in forest stands 15 and 20 years of age (Noakes 1952). A one-third thinning of 25-year-old stands, prescribed earlier, was omitted in the present Working Plan (1980 - 1989), since it led to overcutting and degradation of the residual stand during final felling for either charcoal or firewood production. There are presently about 75 registered pole contractors in the Matang mangroves, and the area to be thinned has been estimated to be about 2,349 ha per year (Heron 1981).

Normally a contractor is allocated two forest areas a year, of about 16 ha each - one for the first thinning (at 15 years) and one for the second thinning (at 20 years). On average, about 3,000- 4,000 poles are obtained from the first-thinning area and 1,000 - 2,000 from the second-thinning area. It has been estimated that about 3,400 trees are left standing per hectare after the first thinning and 1,600 after the second thinning (Heron 1981).

For each area, the contractor employs three or four workers to fell and extract the poles, usually appointing one of them as a foreman to ensure systematic felling and a fair allocation of individual working areas.

The felling is done with axes, starting usually from a selected river bank and working inwards. The process involves selecting a well-formed tree (usually of a Phizophora sp.), and using a stick to describe a circle within which straight trees are to be felled. The stick length is 1.2 m for the first thinning and 1.8 m for the second. The process is then repeated. The felled trees (usually 7.6-12.7 cm dbh) are chopped into suitable lengths (usually 4.9, 5.5, and 6.1 m), using the axe as a measuring tool.

The workers then carry the poles on their shoulders individually to the river bank and stack them to await boat transport to the jetty. Often, walkways are constructed by laying poles two or three at a time end to end, forming a rough track for carrying out the poles. The workers are paid on the basis of the number of poles stacked at the river bank. For trees near the river, they are paid about US$0.40 per pole, and the rate increases progressively to US$0.60 per pole for inland trees. It is common to find inland areas inadequately thinned, particularly where shoulder carrying becomes increasingly tedious, or where the poles have to be transported along creeks in a small boat to the main stacking area. The additional work of loading and unloading often deters workers from working in such areas even though the felling of such inland trees fetches higher wages.

A worker can cut and transport about 30 to 40 poles per day. He normally works for only 15 to 20 days a month since the transport boat is only able to dock at the stacking site during periods of high water. For nearby felling areas, the workers commute daily, while for distant areas, they have to seek accommodation in temporary shelters at the logging site.

When enough poles have been collected, they are transported to the jetty by boats (tangkang) with a loading capacity of 200-300 poles. The boatman, who is employed by the contractor, is paid US$0.10 for each pole transported. At the jetty the poles are sold to consumers at a price of US $0.70-$ 1.50 each, depending on the length and size. With rapid housing development, there is now a good demand for mangrove poles for pilings.

Exploitation for Charcoal

The exploitation of mangrove timber for charcoal production in the Matang mangroves was started in 1930 with the introduction of the charcoal kilns. Since then, it has become the most important form of mangrove utilization (Noakes 1950). There are at present 55 charcoal contractors in Matang, with a total allocation of about 9,000 ha of charcoal coupes.

The contractors are usually given felling areas of about 10-20 ha annually. The felling and extraction of trees are done by a team of usually four or five workers, employed by the contractor. The contractor rarely exercises direct supervision in the working area, though he may occasionally visit it. The work is entrusted to a foreman (kepala), who is responsible for the erection of a barrack and proper division of working areas among the workers.

The barrack is usually a temporary shelter of mangrove poles and atap, with cooking facilities and sleeping accommodation. It is often located beside a creek so that creek water can be used for washing and bathing. Potable water is obtained from rainfall channelled from wooden troughs on the roof into tanks. During the dry season, however, it is necessary for potable water to be brought in by boat.

When the barrack is completed, each worker prepares a stacking platform at a spot on the river bank within his working area where the transport boat (tongkang) can come alongside at high tide. The next step is to construct extraction tracks by laying billets (cut to the right length for charcoal manufacture) parallel to each other at regular intervals, with sawn planks on top to form the track.

The worker then begins the actual felling, using a chain saw and starting with the trees beside the track. When enough trees have been felled (usually ten a day), they are cut into billets 1.6 m long. The bark is removed from the billets, using a wooden mallet made from a Rhizophora prop root. The debarked billets are carried to the stacking platform by wheelbarrow. To assist in lifting and balancing the loaded wheelbarrow, the worker uses a woven rattan strap placed over his neck, with its end loops fixed to the wheelbarrow handles. Normally, a worker takes two days to load a tongkang (with a capacity of 150 pieces), and for this he is paid US$60. He works only for about two weeks a month and can earn about US$420 in that time.

The charcoal kilns are usually constructed in batteries close to a river bank where the tongkang can dock. The batteries are built of sawn timber, mangrove poles, and nipa shingles, and each houses a row of about ten or twelve kilns (fig. 5). The type of kiln presently used is the Siamese beehive kiln, which was introduced to Matang in 1930 by charcoal manufacturers from southern Thailand (Robertson 1940). It is a dome-shaped structure made of bricks, sand, and clay. There are four vents in the vertical wall, and a door for access. it now costs about US$400 to construct a kiln. The average life of a kiln is about 7-10 years if it is constructed on firm ground and regularly used.

On arrival of the tongkang at the battery site, the wood is unloaded and stacked. If the billets have not been debarked in the forest, the charcoal makers employ workers (often women) to debark them at a cost of about US$0.04 each. Billets of less than 10 cm diameter are not debarked. Debarked wood apparently yields a better rate of conversion. The billets are then loaded into the base of the kiln, which is filled by vertical close packing; the dome is left empty. The bottom of each billet is supported on single bricks to ensure complete carbonization. When the kiln is loaded, the entrance door is partially sealed to form the firing aperture during the burn. Normally, smalldiameter mangrove billets are used for firing, but because of the increasing difficulty of obtaining an adequate supply, some operators have shifted to using rubberwood or timber offcuts. The firing schedule includes the "big burn," "small burn," and cooling-down periods, and the whole process usually takes 26 to 30 days. The timing of each step is determined by a headman on the basis of the colour and odour of the smoke emitted from the vents.

Each kiln (usually 6.7 m in diameter) requires a charge of about 40 metric tons of green wood per burn. They are normally fired nine times a year. This would mean that each kiln requires 2.8 ha of forest area each year for full operation (Heron 1981). From the 40 tons of green wood about 10 tons of charcoal can be obtained. The present market value of highgrade charcoal is about US$150 per ton.

Exploitation for Firewood

Firewood is harvested in essentially the same way as wood for charcoal, except that the billets are cut into 1.5 m lengths and do not need to be debarked. After the billets are unloaded at the jetty, they are split into two or four sections before being sold. The wood is sold at about US$25 per ton.

Lime Manufacture

Another traditional industry, the manufacture of slaked lime by burning shell fragments (Watson 1928), is still practiced in the coastal areas of Nibong Tebal in Penang. The shell fragments are collected by villagers from mangrove areas where they are washed up in large quantities by waves and are sold to the lime manufacturers at about US$6 per ton.

At the factory, the shells are mixed with charcoal fragments in a proportion of 2:1. The kiln is a shallow, open structure made of bricks, clay, and cement, ventilated at the bottom by a layer of perforated bricks forming a cavity connected to dieselpowered bellows. Dried coconut or nipa fronds are laid over the perforated floor of the kiln, which is then half filled with the mixture of shells and charcoal, with fronds placed vertically at certain spots to protrude through the mixture. The fronds are fit from above, and, as the fire spreads, the bellows are brought into action. When the mixture begins to glow, more is added until the kiln is filled. The burning process requires about seven or eight hours, and is usually done at night. The resulting lime is slaked (disintegrated by adding water) and put into bags each weighing about 9 kg. The factory workers are paid US$0.18 for every bag of lime produced, and the bags are sold at US$0.60 each.

The slaked lime produced from shells is used mainly by the housing industry as a cheap form of emulsion paint, and by farmers for liming their soils. It is also used as an ingredient for chewing with betel leaves.

Traditional Fishery Practices

Fishing with Nets

Gill Nets

The use of gill nets (pukat hanyut or rantau) is a popular fishing technique in the mangroves, normally carried out in coastal or estuarine waters (fig. 6). In Matang, the majority of the fishing community in Teluk Kertang is engaged in gillnet fishing.

A gill net consists essentially of a vertical wall of netting which is set so that fish swimming into it become gilled, or entangled by the individual meshes, unless they are small enough to swim through or too large to enter beyond return. The size of fish that can be cauught is naturally determined by the size of the mesh used, which may vary from 5 to 18 cm. The catch consists mainly of mullet and also includes pomfret and penaeid prawns. The operation is carried out daily by a team of two people, usually in the early morning or in the evening. Fishers using gill nets to catch mullet and pomfret can earn an average of US$16 per trip, while those catching prawns can earn about US$20 per trip.

Recently, gill-net operators along the coast of Perak have improvised a three-layered gill net that operates along the same principles as a trammel net. Fish are caught by a central sheet of netting that has an outer armouring of large meshes on both sides. Those fishers who use the threelayered net claim that it is more efficient, yielding a significantly better catch than does the traditional singlelayered type.

Casting Nets

Casting nets (jala), being simple and versatile, are widely used in mangrove waterways. The net is normally made of cotton or nylon and has a retaining line at the centre. The margin is weighted by a chain of cast-lead rings. The technique of operation is to fling the net out in such a way as to form a shallow bell shape (fig. 7). Fishing with casting nets is mainly on a subsistence level, and the catch usually consists of prawns (especially Macrobrachium rosenburgii) and mullet.

Prawn Push Nets

The prawn push net (rawa) is a triangular net supported by two light, crossed poles, with a pair of wooden shoes fixed to the ends of the poles to enable the net to be pushed along under the mud (fig. 8). The operator pushes the net for some distance and then shakes the catch into the bag-like end of the net, from which it can be easily transferred into baskets. This technique is used to catch small mysid shrimp, mainly at the seaward edge of the mangroves as the tide rises. The shrimp caught are used primarily for making shrimp paste (belacan), a popular condiment among Malaysians.

Fishing with Lines

Baited Lines

Long lines (rawai umpan) with baited hooks are used to catch fish in mangrove-fringed rivers. About 300 hooks are attached at regular intervals to a line some 400 m long, whose ends are fixed to stakes with markers. Prawns and trash fish are commonly used as bait. Fish are caught by this method during periods of low tidal range, and fishers often stay out three or four nights per trip.

Unbaited Lines

Unbaited long lines (rawai tiada umpan) are used mainly for catching scaleless fish such as rays by foul-hooking them. The fishers usually use more than ten lines, each line carrying about 280 short snoods with sharp barbless Lshaped hooks. The lines are set out at dusk, adjoining each other, with weights at the joining points so that they form a low curtain of hooks just above the sea bed. One end is attached to a buoy and the other is retained on the boat. The lines are hauled in at dawn the next day.

Other Forms of Trapping and Collecting

Catching Crabs

Baited traps. Catching crabs with baited traps is an important activity among the traditional Malay fishing people, normally undertaken along the banks of mangrove-fringed rivers and estuaries. Two types of trap are used, the lift net and the collapsible net. The lift-net trap (tangkul ketam) consists of a small square piece of netting stretched out by two diagonally crossed pieces of rattan or split bamboo with sinkers attached, and a wire bait-holder and a rope carrying a float fixed at the junction of the cross-pieces. The collapsible-net trap (bubu ketam) has entrances at both ends, and is stretched by six galvanized-iron hoops. Baits used are chopped pieces of shark, eel, catfish, and ray meat.

The traps can be handled by one person, but the fishers tend to go out in groups. The operation is usually undertaken on a rising tide and ceases when the tide turns, a practice apparently based on the feeding habits of the crabs. A fisher may use as many as 30 or 40 traps, setting them at intervals of several metres and then going back to each in turn and hauling it up quickly to catch any crabs feeding on the bait. The catch consists primarily of Scylla serrate.

Crab hooks. Individuals also catch Scylla serrate in the mangrove forest with crab hooks. The person scouts around the forest to find crab holes, then simply pushes the hook into the hole to catch the crab and pull it out. Usually there is only one crab in each hole.

Gathering Cockles

Gathering cockles (Anadara granola) from either natural or cultured beds is an important activity in the Chinese fishing communities in Penang, Perak, and Selangor. The greatest development of this industry is in Perak, where about 1,200 ha of the foreshore are under cockle culture (Pathansali and Soong 1958). Harvesting begins when the cockles have attained a marketable size of 24-30 mm. The gear used is a long-handled close-set wire scoop, usually operated by one person, who stands in a boat, extends the scoop as far as his reach allows, and draws it through the mud with a gentle, rocking motion, trapping the cockles, which are then deposited in the boat (fig. 9). One person working for five or six hours can harvest about 10 to 12 bags of cockles, each weighing about 65-70 kg. The collector is usually paid US$1.80 per bag by the fishmonger, who sells it for about US$5.00.

Collecting Other Edible Molluscs

In most mangrove areas, it is not uncommon to find groups of local residents scouting the forest for edible molluscs such as Cerithidia obtuse (belitong), Telescopium telescopium, and T. mauritsii. Most of the molluscs are gathered by hand, though for some burrowing species digging is essential. A collector in Matang can collect about 710 kg of belitong per day, which are sold to a middleman at US$0.40 per kilogram.

Along mangrove-fringed coastal mud flats such as those near Kuala Lelangor in Selangor, the collection of bivalves such as Anadara granola, Orbicularia arbiculata, and Donax spp. during low tide is a common activity. The molluscs are caught by sweeping a wire hand scoop (tanggok tangan) through the mud. To move about the often soft and deep mud flats, villagers have devised an ingenious technique of using light, flat-bottomed troughs, which are manoeuvred by placing one knee on the trough and pushing through the soft mud with the other leg (fig. 10).


It is evident that mangrove ecosystems in Malaysia have been, and are still, used for the extraction of a variety of plant and animal products by traditional methods for the benefit of local people. Continuation of these activities requires that the remaining mangrove areas should be conserved and managed in ways that will ensure their productivity. The mangroves of Malaysia are of both ecological and socioeconomic value, and the role they play in traditional cultures should be acknowledged by those concerned with the planning and future development of the Malaysian coastline.


Burkill, l. H. 1935. A dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsula. Crown Agents for the Colonies, London.

Doscas, A. E. C. 1972. "The preparation of cigarette wrappers from nipah palm." Malayan Agricutural Journal, 15: 85 86.

Haron Hj. Abu Hassan. 1981. A working plan for the Matang mangroves, Perak, 1980-1989. Perak State Forest Department Publication.

Noakes, D. S. P. 1950. "The mangrove charcoal industry in Matang." Malayan Forester, 13: 80 83.
- 1952. A working plan for the Matang mangrove forests. Perak State Forest Department Publication.

Pathansali, D., and M. K. Soong. 1958. "Some aspects of cockle (Andara granosa L.) culture in Malaya." Proceedings of the IndoPacific Fisheries Council, 8: 26-31.

Robertson, E. D. 1940. "Charcoal kilos in the Matang mangrove forest." Malayan Forester, 9: 178 183.

Watson, J. G. 1928. Mangrove forests of the Malay Peninsula. Malayan Forest Records, no. 6.

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