After mangroves cleared, Penang warned against letting off culprits with slap on wrist

A Google Maps picture shows the mangrove land in question at Batu Maung. It is the last mangrove forest surrounded by an industrial zone.

GEORGE TOWN: An environmentalist has asked if the culprits behind the disappearance of a piece of mangrove forest land in Penang recently would walk away paying a small fine, as was the case with similar offenders in the past.

A spokesman for the Malaysian Nature Society’s Penang branch said the state’s legal advisers had often been too soft in dealing with those who harm the environment.

He said offenders were usually charged under laws with least jail time or fine.

“These are not poor, innocent people. These are people who know the laws are there and have gone against it, purposely. And they get away scot-free or merely a slap on the wrist,” MNS Penang adviser, D Kanda Kumar told FMT.

The Penang state government recently launched an investigation into the clearing of a mangrove land from a site at Batu Maung.

Batu Maung assemblyman Halim Hussain told FMT that the size of the cleared land could be as big as a football field.

Kanda said the act of clearing the land was illegal under federal and state laws, and urged public prosecutors to use the full extent of such laws as a deterrence to others.

He questioned why illegal forest clearing was often charged under the Street, Drainage and Building Act, which had “puny” penalties such as a RM50,000 fine.

“First you do not have a permit to clear the land. Then you destroy the environment. There are three to five laws applicable for such an offence, but the state does not want to.

“If the Penang government is serious about protecting the environment, apply the rule of law on them sincerely, not just window dressing,” he said.

He said the small patch of what’s left of the mangrove land was a reminder of activists’ campaign in the 1970s to save mangrove forests.

Kanda cited protests over the construction of the 1,400-acre Free Trade Zone (FTZ), which used to be a mangrove area.

He said the whole coast of Jelutong to Batu Maung used to be filled with mangroves and was a site for bird-watching.

Kanda said while the entire east coast of the island was now “gone”, mangrove lands on the west coast were largely intact.

But he said the lands were yet to be gazetted despite promises by the Penang government to do so.

Kanda said it was the same case on mainland Seberang Perai, from Telok Ayer Tawar in Butterworth to the state’s border in Kuala Muda, where lands were cleared for aquaculture, among the activities that environmentalists say are harmful to the ecosystem.

Kanda said mangrove lands were cheap and as such were highly sought after by aquaculture businesses or fish farms.

“They think mangrove lands are useless, and call them ‘swamps’, when in reality they are our most precious natural resource.”

He said mangroves not only act as a buffer from tsunami, but also protect food security in the form of fishes.

He said fish eggs were swept into the mangrove coasts where they could grow better due to nutrition found there. He added that schooling fishes and crabs would later swim back to the sea.

Kanda said it would take at least 10 years for mangroves to grow back.

“That’s the beauty of mangroves, you clear the land, let sea water come in, it will regrow again.”