Saturday, 23 February 2019

Letter to the Editor: Bauxite Mining Still Poses Clear and Present Danger

LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
BAUXITE-MINING STILL POSES CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER 

(Photo credits: Fuziah Salleh)

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Selangor is disappointed that the Ministry of Water, Land, and Natural Resources has made the decision to lift the moratorium on the extraction and export of bauxite in Pahang (18 Feb). 

The primary motivation for the decision appears to be the high market demand for bauxite and the economic gains to be made from it. The environment and public health and safety are merely secondary considerations. 

Although the Minister has indicated that there will be new standard operating procedures (SOPs) and tighter regulations in place, the public has yet to be informed of what these SOPs are and how they compare with previous and existing safeguards, and how transparent and effective the monitoring and enforcement measures will be. 

Even as far back as 2016, SOPs such as requiring bauxite to be transferred via safer pakamatic lorries, rerouting lorries to avoid heavily populated areas and setting up a designated bauxite stockpiling centre failed to stop industry players and enforcement agencies from flouting the regulations with impunity. What assurance is there that this time the same industry players and monitoring and enforcement agencies will not put personal interest and profits before the environment and people? 

Further, the proposed fine of RM500,000 and three months’ imprisonment under the Pahang State Mineral Enactment 2001 appears to be too lenient for such a lucrative industry. There appears to be no prerogative afforded to the enforcement bodies to shut down and ban industry players found to be flouting the SOPs. 

We must not lose sight of the reasons why the moratorium was imposed in the first place. Intensive bauxite mining and processing activities caused major contamination of water sources, air and soil pollution, and an increase in health complaints, particularly respiratory-related, from the local residents. The environmental and scientific community had also reported that bauxite mining and processing had resulted in the leaching of toxic heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and chromium into river systems, poisoning fish and aquatic life and posing a danger to the fishing and coastal communities. 

The public has so far not been informed of how wastewater and other waste materials from the bauxite mining and processing activities will be treated and disposed of, and from where the water for bauxite washing will be sourced. This raises concerns that there will be a growth in illegal dumping grounds for the waste generated from the resumption of bauxite mining and export activities. 

News reports indicate that the Pahang Mineral Operators Association would be regulating its own members and activities. This again will raise the question of how objective, neutral and effective they will be, considering that they have not demonstrated exemplary commitment to environmental protection and public health and safety in 2015 and 2016 prior to the moratorium. There must be greater opportunity and space for neutral civil society groups and environmental organisations to participate in the monitoring and reporting process, and independent environmental auditors must be engaged to inspect and report on the bauxite mining and exporting activities without fear or favour. 

MNS Selangor is not against development or state governments managing their natural resources to maintain economic growth. We are, however, in favour of the responsible management of natural resources and greater transparency and accountability. Economic growth cannot be sustainable or legitimate if it comes at the expense of the environment and public health and safety. 

WONG EE LYNN 
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY (MNS) SELANGOR

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Letter to the Editor: Orang Asal Communities Deserve Greater Voice and Representation

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: 
ORANG ASAL COMMUNITIES DESERVE GREATER VOICE AND REPRESENTATION


Pakatan Harapan candidate M. Manogaran’s statement that the Malay community “would not even buy kuih from the Orang Asal, let alone vote for an Orang Asal candidate”, may be tactless and distasteful, but is less of a denunciation of the Orang Asal communities than an attestation that our society has unequivocally failed Orang Asal communities. 

That a significant percentage of mainstream society would not vote for an Orang Asal candidate is not a sign that the candidate is unqualified or incapable, but a sign that we as a society have so systemically marginalised and ‘othered’ the Orang Asal that we mistake injustice and a denial of rights for protection and concern. We have normalised paternalism and oppression, and passed it off as safety and stability. 

That a significant percentage of mainstream society “would not even buy kuih from the Orang A(sal)” is not a sign that the Orang Asal are not capable of running their own businesses, but a symptom of the pervasive religious indoctrination that depicts non-believers as unclean and uncivilised infidels. 

That Pakatan Harapan senator Bob Manolan Mohamad’s threat to stop the payment of stipends to the Tok Batin of Orang Asal communities had sparked public indignation is not a sign that the Orang Asal communities are unable to survive without governmental handouts and public donations, but a sign that the government has denied the Orang Asal self-determination and self-sufficiency and offered them handouts as a miserable compensation for the same. It is a sign that protectionist laws, policies and government agencies have disenfranchised the Orang Asal and given them welfare in the place of rights. Land and property laws and policies have demoted the Orang Asal from the position of stewards and guardians of their customary land to the position of squatters and tenants-at-will, to be evicted by property developers and state governments and displaced and relocated at the convenience of the authorities. 

Our Orang Asal are not living museum pieces to be objectified and ogled at by tourists and anthropologists, or passive recipients of government handouts. Orang Asal communities do not need our condescension, interference, religious proselytisation or cast-off clothing and toys. They need representation, the right to be heard and the right to control their own destiny. They cannot continue to be patronised and treated as wards of the government and mainstream society, but must instead have the opportunity to exercise their autonomy, structure their own solutions and make decisions related to their land rights, political rights and the fate of their communities. 

Our Orang Asal are not a homogenous cultural group but consist of many different ethnic subgroups with distinct languages and cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Therefore, what is needed is more Orang Asal representatives to bridge the divide between Orang Asal communities and government decision-makers, and more Orang Asal activists speaking up for each community and their specific needs. What Orang Asal communities need and deserve are representatives in parliament, governmental agencies and non-governmental organisations who can advocate for their communities and make decisions without fear or favour and without being coerced into converting their religion or becoming sycophants for political parties. 

Fielding and voting in more Orang Asal candidates would create opportunities for the Orang Asal communities to participate in decisions that would affect their rights, lives and fates. If there were actual and adequate representation and autonomy for Orang Asal communities, they would not have to resort to measures such as blockades and petitions just to get their voices heard. Nobody enjoys having to participate in blockades and marches to Parliament – farms, families and villages have to be left unattended when Orang Asal activists are away and income is lost. Fielding just one Orang Asal candidate does not make us an inclusive and diverse society any more than giving handouts to Tok Batins of Orang Asal communities make us a caring and compassionate society. That we are not fielding more Orang Asal candidates is not an indication that the Orang Asal communities are uninterested in politics or that there are insufficient qualified candidates, but an indication that we as a society have been deaf and blind to the rights, needs and concerns of the Orang Asal for too long. 

The first step to recognising the rights of the Orang Asal for us as a society is to prioritise the security and control of the Orang Asal over their native customary lands, and to include and consult the Orang Asal in any discussions on land use and any development and education processes and policies that affect them. We need to implement and enforce laws to ensure Orang Asal land rights are protected. We need to recognise the Orang Asal communities’ role in conservation and learn from them. Until we have more Orang Asal voices in positions of leadership, the fielding of token Orang Asal candidates by political parties and coalitions amount to nothing more than insincere and empty gestures. 

WONG EE LYNN 
PETALING JAYA, SELANGOR

Monday, 31 December 2018

Letter to the Editor: Much Still Needs To be Done To Protect Environment

LETTER TO THE EDITOR 
MUCH STILL NEEDS TO BE DONE TO PROTECT ENVIRONMENT 


The Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Selangor Branch would like to congratulate the Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change YB Yeo Bee Yin on being recognised as one of Nature Journal’s top ten people who made a difference to the environment in 2018 (The Star, 20 Dec 2018). 

MNS Selangor along with other local environmental organisations have long lobbied the Malaysian government for better energy, water, land and waste management policies, and stronger laws against single-use plastics. While we are heartened by YB Yeo’s pledge to phase out single-use plastics in Malaysia, we are concerned that the 12-year timeline is simply too long to be effective in dealing with an issue as urgent as marine plastic pollution. Kenya took drastic action to ban plastic bags over a year ago, while Bali is set to ban plastic bags and other single-use plastics by next year. 

Malaysia should not be lagging behind our neighbours in taking decisive action to cut down on the manufacturing, consumption, use, distribution and disposal of single-use plastics. This is especially so after we have witnessed how inadequate our recycling and waste management systems are in dealing with the world’s plastic waste that was foisted on Banting, Klang and other Malaysian towns following China’s refusal to accept any more plastic waste from developed nations for recycling. 

A 5-year roadmap would be a better testimony of the government’s seriousness and sincerity in dealing with the issue of single-use plastics and plastic pollution. 

Much more needs to be done to conserve Malaysia’s environment, biodiversity, wildlife and natural resources, and unfortunately we have not seen very much concrete action or moral courage on the part of the relevant authorities, enforcement agencies and government ministries. 

The Ministry of Housing and Local Government, Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC), Ministry of Works and Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources have been conspicuously and alarmingly silent, for instance, on the issue of hill slope development in Penang, the encroachment into native customary lands by plantation companies, and the clearing of green lungs for development projects in Taman Bukit Kiara and Bukit Lagong, among others. 

The issues of the degazettement of forest reserves, deforestation and development and infrastructure projects in previously forested areas should not fall within the purview of State governments or the Ministry of Federal Territories alone. It is not enough to say that a particular piece of land is under state ownership and management, and the public or other government ministries and agencies are therefore not authorised to discuss, question or challenge any development plans in green lungs and forest reserves. It is not enough to claim that the cost of cancellation or need for housing are too high, and therefore environmental protection must be relegated to the back burner. It is not enough to argue that the issue of deforestation and degazettement of forest reserves fall within the purview of the Forestry Department and the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources, as deforestation has an impact on climate change and should therefore be inconsistent with MESTECC’s climate change mitigation policies. 

Deforestation and development projects in forested areas, especially ecologically sensitive areas with high biodiversity and high conservation value, affect more than just the value of neighbouring properties. Increased disasters such as landslides, flash floods, and drought, and increased air, water, noise and light pollution, will have an adverse impact on climate and environmental quality, and will affect human and animal quality of life and a particular community and ecosystem’s ability to sustain itself. Wildlife populations may end up unable to breed, find food, or avoid conflict with humans. Highway and development projects may end up bisecting or fragmenting wildlife habitats and lead to an increase in wildlife roadkills. New roads and highways may create access for illegal loggers and poachers where there was none before. 

The degazettement of forest reserves and destruction of the natural environment are taking place on the watch of those entrusted to protect the environment. Those of us in environmental organisations are fully aware of the need to balance environmental protection with economic needs. However, in many instances, there is no actual pressing social or economic need resulting in a genuine conflict, and there should be no compromise on environmental protection. 

For far too long, the Malaysian authorities have been defending environmentally destructive projects that benefit only a selected few with economic and political leverage. Environmental organisations and citizens’ action groups with no ulterior motives or hidden agendas other than to speak up for the natural environment are treated as adversaries, instead of as valuable and impartial allies. 

Hill slope development is clearly dangerous, unsustainable and indefensible especially after so many disasters and loss of lives, yet hill slope development projects continue to be approved. The continued destruction and acquisition of native customary lands and the oppression of indigenous communities by corporations, developers and plantation owners cannot be allowed to proceed unchecked. The gazettement of forest reserves becomes meaningless if degazettement and forest-clearing can take place at any time with impunity. 

All of us have only a small window of time to help protect natural spaces and vanishing species. Politicians’ windows of time are even smaller. While praise and credit must be given where it is due, we must remember that environmental conservation in Malaysia is an uphill battle and many issues are not afforded the urgency and importance they deserve. We need to prioritise the environmental challenges with the highest stakes and greatest potential for lasting and irreversible damage. 

Environmental organisations are always ready to meet with the government to discuss solutions. Environmental organisations are not trying to win a popularity contest against governmental agencies, we are racing against time to prevent the annihilation of the natural world. 

It is wonderful that Malaysia has a Minister acknowledged by a prestigious science journal to be a champion for the environment. It would be more wonderful still if we could have all the relevant government ministries work together with each other and with environmental organisations and citizens’ action groups to expeditiously and courageously take action to protect Malaysia’s natural environment and deliver environmental justice. 

WONG EE LYNN 
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY 
SELANGOR BRANCH

Friday, 23 November 2018

Letter to the Editor: No Development Should Take Place In Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: NO DEVELOPMENT SHOULD TAKE PLACE IN BUKIT LAGONG FOREST RESERVE 


It is with alarm that environmentalists and concerned citizens learned today of the proposed degazettement and development of parts of the Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve in Gombak. 

Bukit Lagong provides more than just recreational and ecotourism value to the Selangor State Government, residents and visitors. Forests such as the Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve provide multiple ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, flood protection, air quality improvement and water purification. Healthy trees absorb solar energy and release water vapour, thus regulating climate and temperature. Intact forests safeguard biodiversity, protect human health, and mitigate climate change. There is irrefutable data, including from various studies conducted by the World Bank, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Wetlands International, to support the assertion that forests are worth much more intact than when depleted, logged or converted into plantations. The economic returns of forest clearing for logging or development are short lived and can sustain only 1-2 generations at most. 

While the Selangor State Government’s action of calling for feedback and opening the proposed development for public inspection is an encouraging indication of greater transparency and participatory democracy, it must be emphasised that the opinion of the citizens, engineering professionals and the scientific and conservation community must also be taken into account, whether or not they have locus standi to object to the proposed development. Further, the feedback and objections from the public must be thoroughly considered, addressed and acted upon, not merely collected and then filed away to create the impression of civic participation. 

Any proposed development in an ecologically sensitive area with high conservation and high biodiversity value will adversely affect more than just people living in the immediate vicinity of the site. The clearing of forests for roads and construction will increase air and water pollution and the risk of soil erosion and landslides. The destruction of watershed areas will affect the entire state’s water supply and water quality. The opening up of access roads will create access not only for the construction vehicles, but also illegal loggers, poachers and wildlife traffickers. The construction of roads will fragment and bisect wildlife habitats, and the increase in traffic will result in wildlife deaths and wildlife-human conflict. The increase in motor vehicles and fossil fuel use in the area will contaminate the soil and groundwater with fuel runoffs. The clearing of trees will raise carbon dioxide emissions and reduce air quality. All these actions will affect more than just local residents. The damage to the environment will be irreversible, and yet those most severely affected by the destruction – namely, the trees and wildlife – have no suffrage and are unable to put in their written objections. 

The state government and developers have a duty of care not only to the local residents, but to all the living beings present and future who will foreseeably be harmed by the proposed development project. The well-being of the local human residents is interconnected with that of the local flora and fauna and even entities such as rivers and forests. 

The most preposterous thing about this proposed housing development project in Bukit Lagong is the fact that it is so patently wasteful and unnecessary. There is no shortage of viable housing development sites in Selangor. A study in June 2018 found that there are over 34,532 unsold completed residential units in Malaysia. Abandoned projects and lacklustre existing housing projects can be revived, improved and put back on the market. The advantage to reviving abandoned housing projects in urban and suburban areas is that there will often already be existing transportation, waste management and drainage infrastructure and systems, thus reducing the environmental and economic cost of providing housing. 

The proposed housing development project in Bukit Lagong is clearly not designed to meet the housing needs of the poorest and neediest, but to create an exclusive enclave for homebuyers who can afford the luxury of having a home in the heart of nature. The unfortunate cost of the privilege of living next to a forest reserve is that roads, sewage systems and waste management systems will have to be put in where there were none before, thus creating an additional burden on an already strained natural space. If the goals of proposed housing projects were to improve human quality of life, then such projects would be focused in urban areas close to amenities and infrastructures. The question of balancing environmental conservation and meeting human needs for adequate housing does not arise in this situation at all. 

The proposed Bukit Lagong development project must be immediately and irrevocably scrapped. It can benefit only an elite few but will harm a great many in the long run. I urge all concerned members of the public, whether or not you are residing in the vicinity of Bukit Lagong, to write in to the Director of the Selangor Forestry Department at Level 3, Bangunan Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah, 40660 Shah Alam, Selangor, to politely and firmly state your objections to this irresponsible and indefensible proposal to degazette and develop the Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve.

WONG EE LYNN 
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Letter to the Editor: Hill Slope Development Comes With Many Environmental Risks

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: 
HILL SLOPE DEVELOPMENT COMES WITH MANY ENVIRONMENTAL RISKS 

 The Bukit Kukus landslide tragedy is a grim reminder that hill slope development comes with many environmental and safety risks. Hill slope development causes erosion, habitat loss and air, water and noise pollution. It threatens wildlife, forests, water security, and soil integrity and stability. 

The Malaysian Cabinet had already drawn up a set of guidelines in 2009 prohibiting development on, inter alia, slopes exceeding 35 degrees, and slopes between 15-35 degrees showing signs of soil instability, erosion or other vulnerabilities. The Bukit Kukus tragedy involved an elevated road on a hill slope with a gradient reported to be 60-90 degrees. 

 The authorities are not unaware of the risks arising from, or the laws and guidelines in place in relation to, hill slope development. The guidelines include the National Slope Master Plan 2009 – 2023 issued by the Public Works Department, while the laws include the Land Conservation Act 1960, Environmental Quality Act 1974, Town and Country Planning Act 1976, and Street, Drainage and Building Act 1974. This clearly shows that there is no shortage of studies, guidelines, regulations and laws in Malaysia pertaining to hill slope development. What is lacking is the political will to enforce these laws and guidelines and to ensure the safety of people and the environment or the sustainability of the project. 

Blaming a massive landslide on rainy weather is irresponsible. Clearly the tragedy is not caused by merely rain and gravity, but corruption, apathy, irresponsibility and a willingness to cut corners and create wiggle room where there should be none. Intact land does not just spontaneously break off and descend on homes and roads when saturated with rainwater. If that were the case, then entire mountain ranges would be flattened annually during the monsoon season. 

Fatal landslides in Malaysia keep recurring because local and state authorities are willing to approve development projects on hill slopes, especially when given the assurance that mitigation measures, no matter how minimal and negligible, would be taken. However, no retaining wall or terrace can mitigate the adverse effects of deforestation, destruction of watershed areas, overdevelopment and mining, quarrying and construction activities near slopes. 

The Highland Towers collapse in 1993, Bukit Antarabangsa landslide in 2008, Hulu Langat landslide in 2011 and Tanjung Bungah landslide in 2017 all precede this latest incident, but decision-makers responded with words of regret and sympathy when strong policies and strict enforcement would have been more effective and would have prevented further tragedies. A prohibition on hill slope development on slopes exceeding a certain gradient should be treated as such, and not merely as a temporary freeze on hill slope development until public outrage simmers down. 

No development or construction activity should ever take place at a site in which the state and local authorities are unable to guarantee full compliance with safety guidelines or criteria. The profits to be gained from authorizing hill slope development work are paid for by construction workers and local residents with their safety and lives. Wildlife, rivers, forests and other natural entities pay the price with their existence. 

There must be a nationwide moratorium on all hill slope development. Existing projects must be reviewed, mitigation measures carried out and laws strictly and transparently enforced. The parties responsible for this fatal landslide must be held to account. Previously forested areas that had been cleared for hill slope development must be rehabilitated. The cost of hill slope development on the environment and communities is simply too high to be justified any longer. 

WONG EE LYNN 
COORDINATOR, 
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP, 
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Letter to the Editor: Illegal Plastic Recycling Factories Highlight Need for Real Solutions

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: ILLEGAL PLASTIC RECYCLING FACTORIES HIGHLIGHT NEED FOR REAL SOLUTIONS 

New Zealand news portal RadioNZ’s recent exposé of the illegal plastic recycling industry in Jenjarom and other plantation hinterlands in Malaysia to deal with plastic waste imported from New Zealand and the UK highlights the fact that most of the world, including developed nations with ostensibly clear waste management and recycling legislation, are ill-equipped to deal with plastic waste. 

 The irony of this fact (i.e. the import and processing of plastic waste in Malaysia) is not lost on environmentally-aware Malaysians who applauded Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change Minister Yeo Bee Yin’s latest announcement on Sept 14 that Malaysia would be phasing out and eventually banning single-use plastics. All our efforts to reduce plastic waste and microplastic pollution would translate into very low environmental and health returns if plastic recyclers – mostly unlicensed and unregulated – are allowed to carry out operations and continue processing plastic waste that had entered Malaysia prior to the Minister’s Sept 1 announcement of a restriction on plastic waste imports. 

The plastics manufacturing industry tries to convince the public that littering, ignorance about recycling and lack of recycling facilities – and not the production of plastics per se – are the problem.  

But the real problem is that we are using a lot more plastics and generating a lot more waste as the world is becoming more industrialised. The World Economic Forum reports that we use 20 times as much plastics as we did 50 years ago. Businesses create more and more single-use plastics to meet consumers’ expectations for convenience, and most of these plastics can never be recycled. 

Plastic recycling is a labour-intensive process. Plastic waste has to be broken down, cleaned, separated by grade and made into pellets. This means that manufacturing plastic from scratch is always more economically rewarding than recycling plastics, even with subsidies and recycling-related legislation in place. Developed nations often believe that legislating and incentivizing recycling and collecting plastics for recycling is the same thing as ensuring that plastics are being properly recycled. What the general public often is not aware of is that developed nations take the easy option of exporting plastic waste to developing nations --- the very same developing nations whose rivers are identified as the source of 90% of marine plastics, the very same developing nations lacking sufficient infrastructure to manage their own plastic waste. 

It could take years for Britain, USA and European nations to increase their domestic recycling capacities. Even so, existing recycling technology isn’t good enough, largely because of limitations in how plastics can be sorted by chemical composition and cleaned of additives. Most plastics that are recycled are shredded and reprocessed into lower-value plastics, such as polyester carpet fibre. Only 2% are recycled into products of the same quality. 

In the meantime, more and more plastic products will continue to be produced, used and discarded, and many countries will resort to burning plastics for energy recovery or landfilling plastic waste. However, burning plastic creates harmful dioxins, and if incinerators are inefficient, these dioxins leak into the environment. Burning plastic for energy generation is also very carbon-intensive and contribute to increased carbon emissions. Burying plastic waste in landfills may appear to be safer but this is a really inefficient use of land, and studies have found that the degradation of plastic waste in oceans and landfills actually produce methane and ethylene, both potent greenhouse gases. 

The solution to the problem of plastic waste doesn’t lie in recycling more, or replacing plastics with other types of disposable packaging. Biodegradable packaging is linked to other environmental problems, which include increased carbon and methane emissions in landfills, deforestation, higher water and land use, and higher fuel use due to the fact that paper and plant fibre products weigh more than plastics. 

The solution to the problem of plastic waste lies not in setting up yet more licensed and legal plastic recycling plants in Malaysia and other developing nations, as there will always be unrecyclable and contaminated plastic waste and toxic byproducts to deal with. The solution does not lie in individual countries banning the import of plastic waste in order to protect their own population from reduced air quality and other environmental hazards, as there will be other developing nations and impoverished societies desperate enough to accept imports of plastic waste. 

The solution lies in creating a circular economy that does not rely on shipping materials across oceans to be reused, but keeps resources in use for as long as possible in the economic cycle. The solution to the problems of plastic waste lie in reducing dependency on all single-use and disposable items, creating more closed loop and low-waste systems, creating and sustaining a bigger market for reusables, and making zero waste stores and products available, accessible and affordable to all, not just to higher income, urban, educated and expatriate communities. 

The Malaysian Government is taking a step in the right direction by raising awareness, phasing out single-use plastics, enforcing laws against open burning, banning the import of plastic waste and regulating the plastics recycling industry. What we need now is for the Malaysian public to stop treating environmental issues as political or economic issues, and to instead understand that environmental and human health are interconnected. What we need now is to stop seeing the problem of plastic waste management as the fault of high-consuming, affluent developed nations, or the fault of developing nations with high corruption levels and flawed waste management systems – and to start seeing it as a shared responsibility. 

WONG EE LYNN 
COORDINATOR, 
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP, 
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY 

Monday, 27 August 2018

Letter to the Editor: ECRL Cancellation Financially and Environmentally the Right Move

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: 
ECRL CANCELLATION FINANCIALLY AND ENVIRONMENTALLY THE RIGHT MOVE 

 The Prime Minister’s decision to cancel the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and gas pipeline projects makes economic and environmental sense. For the sake of Malaysia’s natural environment, it is hoped that none of these projects would be revived even when it becomes financially viable to proceed with them at a later stage. 

 The ECRL, had the construction works proceeded, would have bisected the Rantau Panjang Forest Reserve (RPFR) into two separate forest areas. This would have effectively fragmented over 230 hectares of the RPFR, cut off any possible safe wildlife corridors and increased the risk of human-wildlife conflicts and wildlife deaths. 

 The plans for the proposed ECRL rail alignment also showed that it was to cut through a section of mangrove forest as it approached Port Klang. This would have grave consequences on the health of the mangrove ecosystem in the area, which as we all know, plays an important role in erosion prevention, flood mitigation, water quality regulation, and as nurseries for fish and other marine life. Not only that, the project would have also been detrimental to the livelihood, agricultural and fishing activities and water supply of the local coastal communities. The project is said to be capable of creating business and employment opportunities, but it is foreseeable that it would also affect the livelihood and quality of life of rural communities. It is hoped that all future infrastructure projects will take these factors into consideration before proposing activities that will alter the landscape of mangrove forests. 

 The ECRL project, had it proceeded, would affect up to 12 forest reserves, including the Central Forest Spine (CFS), 5 major rivers in Kelantan, 16 rivers in Terengganu, 5 rivers in Pahang and 1 river in Selangor. The environmental cost of the project is simply too high for a rail link that most Malaysians perceive to be an expensive convenience that may be nice to have but is inessential and unnecessary. 

 Although the ECRL project team and the previous Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment had in 2017 attempted to reassure environmental organisations that the project would reduce forest loss and wildlife deaths through the use of an estimated 45 tunnels and 29 wildlife viaducts, it cannot be denied that wildlife populations, air and water quality and forested areas would still be adversely affected by the project, both during the construction process and after the completion of the project. Tunnels, fences and wildlife viaducts and crossings may not always provide a solution and may indeed create fresh problems for wildlife populations. Fences erected to prevent wildlife from encroaching onto railway tracks could further fragment habitats and limit a species’ natural range and breeding opportunities. A study conducted by wildlife researchers with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) from 2011-2013 on the effectiveness and usefulness of wildlife viaducts found that the viaducts studied were only effective crossing structures for only a few species, and that some species took a longer time to adapt to new crossing structures (Source: The Star, 22 Sept 2014). In the meantime, more wildlife lives would be lost to traffic and human-wildlife conflict, including hunting and illegal poaching. The same study also recorded the presence of hunters and campers at the viaducts, thus highlighting the fact that one cannot just construct a wildlife viaduct and expect it to mitigate wildlife deaths by the mere fact of its existence. Wildlife viaducts and crossings need constant maintenance and monitoring, and in spite of this may still not register the desired level of effectiveness. The best option is always to divert and realign any proposed infrastructures away from environmentally-sensitive areas. Opening up forested areas for road, highway and railway construction has almost invariably led to an increase in illegal logging, poaching, and hunting and the conversion of forests into land for human activity. 

 Now that the project has been cancelled and construction sites and cleared forests will be left behind, I support and commend Ketari assemblywoman Young Shefura Othman’s recommendation that the abandoned project sites be restored and replanted with trees without delay to prevent greater environmental damage, landslides, flash floods and the encroachment of poachers, loggers and illegal settlers. 

 The viability of all existing and future infrastructure projects should not merely be based on the availability of funds and the projected return on investment. It should always prioritise the environment and consider factors such as how it would affect ecologically sensitive areas, watersheds, hill slopes. wildlife and bird habitats, water and air quality, and rural and indigenous communities. Financial debts can be paid off over time, but environmental damage and biodiversity loss can be almost impossible to rectify. 

 WONG EE LYNN 
COORDINATOR, 
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP, 
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY