Monday, 31 December 2018

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.