ON June 1, 2007, Langkawi, a group of 99 islands in Kedah, was accorded National Geopark status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). It is the first geopark in Southeast Asia and the 52nd in the UNESCO Global Network of National Geoparks.
The concept of geoparks is in line with the 1991 Digne Declaration of the Rights of the Memory of the Earth, which called on national and international authorities to protect the unique and inseparable cultural and geological heritage of Earth, whose origins are our origins, whose history is our history, and whose future will be our future for generations to come. Langkawi has been studied since 1975, initially from the aspect of its geological formation. When the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development (Lestari) was established in 1996, research in the biodiversity of the flora and fauna in the permanent forests as well as the rich cultural heritage was intensified.Aware of the need to preserve our cultural and natural heritage, and recognising the unique association among rock formations, soil, landscapes and biodiversity, researchers from the multidisciplinary Lestari partnered colleagues from the Malaysian Geological Heritage Group and the Forestry Department, Peninsular Malaysia, to carry out expeditions and build a geoforest park concept for Langkawi.
The researchers had absolute support from the Langkawi Development Authority whose chairman, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, then Prime Minister, was the source of ideas, driver and inspiration for the path to the geopark status and ecotourism, and remains to this day its chief champion.
With the international attraction of a geopark, Langkawi has emerged as a premier tourist destination in Peninsular Malaysia.
Mahathir also approved the establishment of the UKM Langkawi Research Station at Pantai Kok, Mukim Padang Matsirat. When completed, it will not only house research and postgraduate facilities but also training programmes to promote ecotourism.Over the years, the researchers have compiled extensive knowledge of Langkawi, describing the beauty and charm of its islands of various shapes and sizes, pristine forests and mangroves flanking the waterways, spectacular mountain ranges, sandy beaches and shoreline beautifully carved with black slate and gravel of all hues, enriched by the historical and cultural heritage such as the legends of Mahsuri, Machinchang Range and the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden. Langkawi has one of the oldest rock formations in Malaysia, from the early Cambrian period, or about 550 million years ago.
From these ancient rocks called the Machinchang Formation, complex geological processes over the ages gave rise to other rock formations of Peninsular Malaysia. Upon the spectrum of sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks, with their minerals, fossils and geological structures, forests took root and creatures thrived.Geoforests comprise geological and biological resources of intrinsic aesthetic, cultural, scientific and recreational value. These natural hanging gardens are amazingly diverse: tree-carpeted hills with soaring eagles, bat-shrouded caves, crevices with gnarled roots, emerald lakes, dramatic cliffs, arches through which thunderous waves crash and razor-sharp pinnacles.
With the international attraction of a geopark, it is no wonder that Langkawi has emerged as a premier tourist destination in Peninsular Malaysia, with arrivals reaching 2,303,157 in 2008 and 2,461,455 in 2009. The local impact has been an improving quality of life of the people through various economic activities related to tourism.The meticulous research has been passionately captured in the book Geoforest Parks: The Hanging Gardens of Langkawi, which also commemorates the 50th year of the reign of the Sultan of Kedah Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah. As Deputy King of Malaysia, the Sultan launched the book on Feb 12 at UKM, witnessed by Tun Dr Mahathir, Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Azizan Abdul Razak and the Royal Patron of Langkawi Geopark Tunku Panglima Besar Tunku Puteri Intan Safinaz.
Out of the book came another idea to use the Internet and communications technology to make Langkawi more widely known and accessible to tourists.
The application Malaysia Knowledge Tours can be downloaded from www.MyKTours.com to mobile devices and can be used as a tour guide.The Langkawi Geopark initiative is an example of a university's contribution to the development of a region through teaching and research. Apart from training human capital and generating scientific and technological innovations, universities, according to a study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, are increasingly being called upon to become active agents in business innovation, socio-cultural promotion and environmental development.
Although such activities are more difficult to quantify than inventions, publications and patents for wealth creation, it is imperative to value them for the positive impact that they have on local communities. We need to become better at devising incentives, indicators and methods for assessing and monitoring the impact universities have on a region's economy and social well-being.Nothing could be more satisfying than the words penned by the Sultan of Kedah in the book: "We celebrate not only knowledge gained from painstaking research, but also the beauty and mystery of God's creation. Sculpted and planted by Mother Nature, they are a wonder of the world, to be treasured, highly regarded, and cared for as an invaluable part of our past, present and future.
"The writer is vice-chancellor of UKM. - NST