After Pulau Kukup, is another mangrove forest in danger?

Map showing part of Iskandar Puteri City Council area and Sungai Pulai. The golf course and resort are north of the red area in the middle of the map. (Screengrab from Johor Bahru and Kulai 2025 local district plan)

PETALING JAYA: Activists have raised the alarm over the opening of a golf course and hotel by a foreign company in what they claim is within the Sungai Pulai mangrove reserve in Gelang Patah, Johor.

Sources close to the issue told FMT that the project, which opened its doors to the public late last year and reportedly cost almost RM2 billion to build, encroached on the Sungai Pulai Ramsar site as well.

FMT is withholding the name of the company in question following its refusal to make a public comment on this.

This issue comes on the heels of the Pulau Kukup controversy which upset environmentalists and politicians over concerns of possible development following the island’s de-gazettement as a national park.

Like Pulau Kukup in Pontian, Sungai Pulai is a riverine mangrove system. Its mangroves are protected as a forest reserve under the law and managed under the Johor State Forestry Department.

The 9,216 hectares of Sungai Pulai mangroves bring socioeconomic balance to the nearby fishing communities and aid in shoreline protection and flood prevention, similar to Pulau Kukup.

The Sungai Pulai area with its mangrove reserve in yellow and the Sungai Pulai Ramsar site in blue. The golf course and hotel are indicated by the pin and the star. (Source pic)

In January 2003, Sungai Pulai was listed as a “wetland of international importance” under the Ramsar Convention 1971. It joins Pulau Kukup and five other wetlands as being the country’s only Ramsar sites.

But a source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, claimed that maps of Sungai Pulai showed that part of its land had been degazetted or excised to make way for the development of the project.

“If it has not been degazetted, then something is very wrong because you cannot have a golf course in a forest reserve,” he said.

A comparison of Sungai Pulai on the Johor National Parks’ website and on Google Earth, which was last updated on Oct 2, 2018, show that the golf course and hotel are located within the Ramsar site.

Meanwhile, the Johor Bahru and Kulai 2025 local district plan state that part of Sungai Pulai on which the project is on is still a forest reserve, which indicates no development can take place there.

A local district plan, which is a detailed interpretation of a state structural plan, is under the purview of the local council. Sungai Pulai is under the purview of the Iskandar Puteri City Council.

FMT has reached out to the city council, the developer of the project, the Johor forestry department, the Ramsar secretariat’s office and the water, land and natural resources ministry for comment.

Sources say a golf course and hotel have encroached on a wetland and mangrove reserve in Sungai Pulai in Johor. (Sungai Pulai Wellness Resort Facebook pic)

The company behind the project is also not listed in the local plan for tourism efforts for the district which was sighted by FMT.

Previously, The Diplomat reported that the “frantic pace of construction” by the company in question and its contractors could have dire consequences on the local ecosystems in Sungai Pulai.

The Diplomat also stated that the declassification of gazetted land for private purposes was becoming common news within the area, with “wide expanses of mangrove” near the Ramsar site being destroyed.

It said that the developer had extended a “causeway” into the sea, which was now cutting across the seagrass meadow, potentially altering currents and threatening the ecosystem’s rich biodiversity.

A second source claimed he had knowledge of the same, adding that the project was “cancelled” prior to its launch last year.

However, the hotel and golf course are in operations today.

Following media reports about Pulau Kukup’s de-gazettement by the Johor state government, Johor crown prince Tunku Ismail said Pulau Kukup would become Sultanate land in order to better protect it.

At the time, the move was heavily criticised by a Pakatan Harapan minister and environmentalists-cum-activists, which led to a war of words with Tunku Ismail and the new federal government.