Thursday, 30 April 2015

Letter to the Editor: Trading In Coral Reef Products Will Cause Irreparable Harm


It is with alarm that Malaysians learned of the Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industries' plan to increase the export of coral reefs (Bernama News, April 24, 2015). The fact that there is "high interest abroad" for Malaysian coral reef is all the more reason for us to protect our coral reefs against poaching, plundering and destruction. The very suggestion that the Ministry wishes to exploit and trade in our local coral reefs for profit is tantamount to a breach of duty by those tasked with the responsibility of protecting our marine resources. 

It has often been said that coral reefs are the rainforests of the oceans. Coral reefs cover less than 0.1% of the Earth's surface, yet over 25% of all marine life exists in coral ecosystems. Coral reefs provide a variety of ecosystem services, including as a nursery ground and source of food and shelter to fish and invertebrates. Coral reefs also act as natural wave breakers that protect coasts from wave erosion. 

From an anthropocentric and economic point of view, coral reefs have more value intact than degraded and destroyed for trade. Scientific estimates put the value of coral reefs at USD115,740 per hectare annually. This means that Malaysia’s coral reefs, with a cover of approximately 4,000 square kilometres, would be valued at RM145 billion per year. Coral reefs form the foundation of a significant percentage of Malaysia’s tourism industry and are a more sustainable source of income for locals if protected and kept intact, than if traded and exported. 

 Properly-managed coral reefs can yield an average of 15 tonnes of fish and other seafood per square kilometre each year. It is estimated that coral reef-related businesses in Malaysia, namely, food, fisheries, tourism and pharmaceuticals, is worth approximately USD365 million annually. 

A World Resources Institute report in 2012 found that over 85% of the coral reefs in the ‘Coral Triangle’ (which includes Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) are threatened by both natural phenomena and human activity. This is substantially more than the global average of 60%. 

According to Reef Check Malaysia, coastal development, destructive fishing practices, overexploitation of resources for fishing, increasing coastal populations, poor land use practices, runoff of pollutants, sediments, disease outbreaks associated with poor water quality and pollutants, coral bleaching associated with rising sea temperatures and the destruction of coastal mangrove forests have caused grave degradation and damage to our coral reefs. 

Just because Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam control most of the world's coral reef exports does not mean that this is a race Malaysia has to participate in. It would be foolhardy and naive to believe that once trade in coral reefs and organisms is opened up, it could be efficiently and adequately regulated and monitored. Malaysia already has a global reputation as a hub for the illegal wildlife trade. Opening up trade in corals would only reinforce this reputation. 

With so much effort being poured into protecting coral reefs and banning or restricting the sale of corals by the international conservation community, exporting and trading in corals would only fuel demand, both for legally farmed and illegally harvested corals. DNA markers can only be used to trace where the corals originate from if there is sufficient documented data. This requires a lot of work and research funds. A successful coral farm would first have to be established and a database created for all cultured coral, and all such corals can then be certified farmed and sustainable. However, the question that remains is whether the importers and purchasers care enough to implement such measures and seek certification. This technology is expensive, not easily available and not a legal requirement by most importing and exporting countries. It stands to reason that those in the aquarium trade would not voluntarily opt to have the DNA testing performed. Most of the people in Southeast Asia who harvest corals are the poor in coastal communities who do not have the capital or knowledge to set up a sustainable coral farm, while those who purchase corals from the poor are unlikely to be concerned about sustainability. 

Like many concerned Malaysians, I would like to know if a feasibility study has been conducted on this coral farming and exporting venture. Coral farming is often a difficult, long and unsuccessful process, and it could take decades before there is any return on investment. The rate of coral growth depends on the species. Even acropora coral, which is recognised to be a fast-growing species, grows at most only one inch a year. Coral breeding has proven unsuccessful in many countries and most corals would not grow on artificial reefs. In order to start a coral farming programme, one still has to break off live coral to use as starters, and this causes damage to existing reefs and marine ecosystems.  

The claims that coral farming is profitable and sustainable are usually made only by those involved in the coral trade, rarely ever by conservation groups and scientific bodies. It is almost impossible to succeed in the coral trade by coral farming alone, and most traders end up harvesting and poaching corals from the wild to satisfy consumer demand. A significant percentage of the corals used in the aquarium trade are inaccurately passed off as farmed or sustainably harvested. 

It seems strange that the Malaysian government, which has expressed its fears that foreign researchers would conduct bioprospecting on and patent Malaysia’s natural resources, would want to leave our corals vulnerable to the same by exporting them and opening the doors wide to bioprospectors. There is a very real risk that once our corals are freely traded and available all over the world, bioprospectors would develop and commercialise products based on our corals and we would lose the intellectual property rights to the same. 

Enforcement-wise, the weak knowledge of our customs officers of corals and the lack of political will means that regulation and enforcement exists only on paper. There are too many loopholes in our laws, and based on observation of the current state of Malaysian coral reefs and the wildlife trade, our customs and enforcement agencies are not prepared for the duty of protecting coral reefs from overharvesting and exploitation. 

The coral reef and aquarium trade appears superficially lucrative, but it remains unclear what economic benefit flows to the exporting country. In Fiji, the economic benefits of the coral and aquarium fish trades were limited to a few villages, while the rest of the local fishing community suffered losses due to the decline in fisheries. Mozambique had to finally impose a complete ban on the export of coral and coral fishes in 1999 due to the destruction wreaked on coral reefs, despite the existence of a licensing and enforcement system. Caribbean coral reefs are now in danger of disappearing altogether within the next 20 years due to overfishing, pollution and fish and coral trade and exports. 

It is not too late for the Malaysian government to reconsider this project, which has unclear beneficiaries and which would lead to irreparable damage to marine ecosystems. Instead of spending RM2.7 million of taxpayers' money on such a dubious venture, the government should instead invest in gazetting more sensitive and biologically-diverse marine areas and improving the current management of reefs and marine parks. 


Thursday, 16 April 2015

In A Penang State of Mind

I have travelled to Penang for work and family matters 3 times already this year, and it's only April. Much as I appreciate the opportunity to travel to new places and try new experiences, the carbon guilt is killing me. A roundtrip flight generates approximately 0.2 tonnes of CO2, so I have my work cut out planting trees. Thankfully, my second trip was by train, one of the most fuel-efficient forms of transport available.

The funny thing about Penang is that people just don't move at the pace we do in KL. Penangites don't seem to spazz out over traffic jams, deadlines, schedules and appointments the way we do in the city.

As if to prove this point, the day after I threw the Holi party, when I was in Penang for a court matter, I received a call from our lawyer to inform us that the court called off our case -- a mere 4 hours before the case was to proceed. Sheesh. You could have told us a day in advance to save us the time, expense and carbon emissions, Your Honour! So now the case was adjourned to another month and I would have to idle away the next 8 hours in Penang while waiting for my flight home. Bravo.    

It wasn't a wasted day, however. I stayed at the Penang Cititel and service was commendable.

After breakfast, I took a cab over to Island Park to visit my good friend Hamish, who was thrilled to see me again. (Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos taken with him this time because of poor indoor lighting).

I brought a gift of cakes from Maxim's Gelato up the street from my hotel and chatted with Hamish and his mother for close to 2 hours before leaving them to have their lunch.  

I did take a photo of this "tropical sakura" tree across the street from his house, though. I think this is a Tabebuia tree.  

Trying to hail a cab back to the hotel was a nightmare. A schoolbus finally stopped for me, but the driver decided to take a 20-minute cigarette break mid-route. As I said, Penangites don't seem to have much of a sense of urgency. Maybe their brains are on a permanent beach vacation. The island and its people are simply beautiful, but their lack of a sense of urgency is alarming to me.  

Upon checking out of the hotel, I asked a hotel staff member about the tourist spots within walking distance, and she pointed me in the direction of Muntri Lane, where there are heritage buildings and street art. It was a worthy recommendation, as there were many interesting sights along the same road.

A huge mural on the wall across the road from Cititel. I think this is another one of Ernest Zacharevic's pieces.

Spot the dog in the trishaw!


My first stop was the Chocolate and Coffee Museum, housed in a lovely old colonial bungalow. Unfortunately, it wasn't much of a museum. There was a small dingy room on the side with illustrations painted on the walls informing visitors how chocolate and coffee came to be produced and consumed, and a row of sad-looking exhibits including a conching machine in the centre of the room.

This somehow qualified for a museum. Welcome to Barnum's Circus, step right this way ladies and gentlemen, this way to the Egress!  

The rest of the building was just a big, plastic-packaged "Gallery" selling locally produced chocolates, which I had to politely decline because they all contain palm oil and the cocoa was not Fair Trade (although they are locally grown, so there isn't the level of exploitation and poverty associated with these the way it does in Madagascar, Ghana and the Ivory Coast). The coffee for sale is locally grown as well, so I finally bought a packet of coffee for my assistant at work just to be able to get out of there. Museum, forsooth. It was just a big shop with girls trying to make you taste all the chocolate samples so that you would feel beholden to buy something. It was a hot day, and I had a scoop of durian ice-cream outside the chocolate emporium place.

Check out this sterling specimen of Art Deco!

A short walk down the same street brought these colonial buildings into view. I love the neoclassical and Art Nouveau architectural features and plaster mouldings!  

Before long, I arrived at the doorstep of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, and my heart gave a little leap of joy because I had missed this on my last visit to Penang in December 2013.  

I signed up for the 3.00 p.m. guided tour and learned many things about the history of the mansion, Chinese immigration to Malaysia and the early days of Penang as a trading hub.   

I had dinner at Nasi Kandar Line Clear and sorbet at Maxim's Gelato before taking my flight back home.  

The second trip to Penang was by train to Butterworth, which I enjoyed immensely. I ended up in a 3-hour conversation about the environment, renewable energy, oil palm, local government, feminism, gender policing, sports, vegetarian cooking and edible gardening with the lady sitting next to me, who turned out to be the first female mayor of Nedlands in Australia. Must be a delightful town to have such an awesome mayor.  

While in Butterworth for Qing Ming prayers with my parents, we stayed at the intriguingly-named Aroma Hotel.   This is the view from my room. I had swapped my room with my parents, so that they would not have to deal with the noise from the nightlife below. I kinda liked the noise and lights and general craziness. I took my parents out to breakfast at a dim sum restaurant and dessert at a frozen yoghurt place in this street and it really was a pretty happening place.   It was a slow weekend, and I like the fact that I got to spend time with family that I haven't seen in a decade, and paid respects to my departed grandparents and relatives. I'm just sorry it took me so long to come and visit my grandmother's grave.  

My cousin took group photos of us outside a fancy new Taoist temple.  

I was back in Penang the following week for another court matter, and stayed at Cititel again. I hope I won't have to travel by flight again for a long time. At the same time, I have to admit that I liked the hotel breakfast so much that I woke up pretty early for it.

I like the stately old-world charm of the courthouse.  

I had lunch at Western Spices and enjoyed the colonial apppeal of this warm and inviting little restaurant.   Upon checking out from my hotel, I took a bus (RapidPenang bus no. 204) to Penang Hill to play at being tourist for the afternoon. There are many advantages to being a solo traveller who travels light. All I had with me was a small backpack.

I took the bus from the bus stop in front of this place, which I later learned to be the Town Hall and Municipal Fountain.  

I've never been to Penang Hill and have been curious about riding the funicular train.

It sort of juddered a bit in the beginning, and then it just sped up the steep hill without stopping. I could feel my eardrums popping.   I'm glad I made up my mind to check it out. It was a really enjoyable and memorable experience. You'd think someone who commutes daily would be tired of trains and buses by now, but everything feels special when you are in a place new to you. The anticipation of seeing and trying new things takes away all your fatigue and ennui.  

There is an open recreational area with observation decks and cafes at the top of the hill. There's also an ostensible 'Owl Museum', but like the 'Chocolate Museum', it's just a big rip-off that doesn't teach you about natural history. It's just a collection of owl-themed artworks and tchotchke.

The tourism authorities really need to be a whole lot more circumspect about letting profiteers describe their shops as 'museums'. I am sure there are objective criteria to what may or may not constitute a museum. Needless to say, I didn't purchase a ticket to visit the said 'museum'.  

There is a walkway above the recreational square, the railings of which were covered in what appeared from afar to be red, pink and white inflorescence of some strange plant. I went closer to investigate and found that the objects were, in fact, 'love locks'. This set my Tackiness Meter alarm bells ringing. If you need to put a padlock on a public structure to assure yourself of your partner's love, your relationship is definitely in trouble, pal.


I was fascinated by this old-fashioned 'kacang putih' kiosk, and purchased some steamed chickpeas for myself, and a large jar of murruku and chips for my co-workers.  

I saw an elderly Tamil lady selling these whimsical folksy grasshoppers woven out of green coconut fronds, and purchased one, thinking it would be a great non-toxic, non-wasteful toy to amuse my cats with.  

This is the closest I got to taking a selfie. You can actually see part of my hand in the photo. Ha!  

My little grasshopper buddy seemed to enjoy posing with plants. As is natural to those of his persuasion. I like it that we are both green and herbivorous.

Riding the train back with my grasshopper friend.

Sadly, I lost my little grasshopper friend at the airport when I was rushing through the baggage scan. I hope a child has found him and has fun playing with him.  

It will be some time before I visit Penang again, and I am gratified I got to spend time with family and friends on my visits there, as well as see places I have never been to before. Penang's economy is booming at a rate inconsistent with that of the rest of the country, and it is easy to see how good leadership has brought the state forward.

Adieu and see you again soon, Pearl of the Orient, and thank you for making my stay here so pleasant!