Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Letter to the Editor: Forest City Development Project DEIA is timely and necessary

Letter to the Editor:
Forest City Development Project DEIA is timely and necessary
(Pulau Merambong in 2008. Photo credits: Serina Rahman)
Environmentalists and civil society activists await the Forest City reclamation and development project DEIA report decision with a mixture of trepidation and hope.
Apart from concerns over the transboundary impact and strain on diplomatic ties between Malaysia and Singapore, it is important for the developers and Johor state government to recognise the adverse impact of the said project on the local community and environment.
Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) and its volunteers have carried out data collection and coastal cleanup projects at Pulau Merambong, Pendas, Sungai Pulai, Tanjung Piai, and Pulau Kukup in the past and can attest to the diversity of flora and fauna at the site of the proposed reclamation and development project. These ecologically-sensitive sites provide food and shelter for many organisms including seahorses and dugong, and are a nursery ground for commercially-important prawn and fish species, and thus contribute to local economic activity.
Over the years, however, coastal erosion and environmental degradation have adversely affected the water quality and marine biodiversity in the said sites. The seagrass meadows at the proposed development site are almost completely destroyed and depleted, despite their importance to the environment and local communities.
Seagrass meadows provide coastal zones with a number of ecosystem goods and ecosystem services, including stabilising the sea bottom, providing food and habitat for other marine organisms, maintaining water quality, supporting local fishing communities, wave protection, oxygen production and protection against coastal erosion. Seagrass meadows account for 15% of the ocean’s total carbon storage. It is estimated that per hectare, seagrass meadows hold twice as much carbon dioxide as rainforests. Yearly, seagrasses sequester about 27.4 million tons of carbon dioxide.
It has been observed by environmentalists that the coastal development projects along Johor's shoreline have not only affected marine biodiversity and water quality, but also disrupted bird migration patterns. Johor, Melaka and Negeri Sembilan form a major part of the flyway of migratory birds, including raptors such as the Oriental Honey-Buzzard and Black Baza, from East Asia to Australia. Birdwatching events and excursions are major ecotourism products in Malaysia, which makes the claim that the Forest City development project would be a 'tourism hub' even more outrageous. What is left for tourists to see and appreciate when seahorses, dugongs and other marine creatures are dead and bird populations have dwindled?
There are also concerns over the safety of the local communities and fishermen, who now have to travel further out to sea to avoid the areas undergoing reclamation, and have to cope with changing sea currents from the reclamation project and the risk of colliding into the project site at night due to a lack of lighting. The daily catch of the fishermen have decreased at an alarming rate, directly affecting their economic survival. The fact that some of the local villagers have accepted compensation from the developer is not a testimony of their consent to the reclamation project, but rather, their desperation in the face of grim economic challenges.
Further, the fact that the proposed development project includes an 80-room hotel raises serious concerns as to energy and freshwater use, and how and where the waste and wastewater generated will be treated and disposed of. The high density of the proposed development project would mean that it is prima facie unsustainable, especially when taking into consideration the fact that it would be on a man-made island in an ecologically sensitive marine zone.
The initial DEIA for the project contained many shortcomings and left many questions unanswered. In addition, there was no shortage of allegations that local communities, including the indigenous Orang Seletar community, fishermen and environmental organisations such as Malaysian Nature Society Johor and Save Our Seahorses Malaysia were not consulted. This naturally generated suspicion and misgivings against the developers. Such conflict could have been alleviated if all the relevant and affected parties had been consulted.
In the short term, it would appear that the development project has the potential to create jobs and attract investment. In the long term, however, this project would destroy the soul and identity of indigenous and local coastal communities, generate more waste and pollution than can be sustainably managed, destroy important fisheries and cause irreparable harm to the environment.
For all the above reasons, as a concerned citizen, I hope that the developer and State Government will reconsider the Forest City development project, or at least take concrete and lasting measures to mitigate the harm it would cause. Cities, hotels and business districts can be constructed and developed just about anywhere -- so why choose an environmentally sensitive site?
Petaling Jaya, Selangor

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