Xavier: Former Johor govt to blame for resort on protected land

A golf course and hotel project is reported to have encroached on a wetland and mangrove reserve in Sungai Pulai, Johor. (Facebook pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: A federal minister has pinned the blame on the former Barisan Nasional-run Johor state government for allowing part of the Sungai Pulai mangrove reserve and protected wetlands to be used for a golf course and hotel project.

Xavier Jayakumar, the minister for Water, Land and Natural Resources, said investigations by his ministry had shown that “nobody else” but the former state government was responsible.

“De-gazetting of land is (done on the orders of) only one authority, it’s the state,” he told FMT. “It’s nobody else.”

The resort project website shows that construction began in July 2017. At the time, the executive councillor for health, environment, education and information was Ayub Rahmat of Umno, then the assemblyman for Kemelah.

In February, he had denied knowledge of Sungai Pulai being de-gazetted and said he was not aware of such a project either.

“During my time as state exco for the environment, we did not receive any papers on this or discuss the matter,” he told FMT then. “We also did not hear any talk about the so-called de-gazettement there.”

However, Xavier said the matter “must be in the Exco minutes”.

He confirmed that his ministry’s investigations had ended. “The part that was de-gazetted is already developed for a golf course. It’s already built so the only thing now is that we don’t want anyone to do anything with the remaining two-thirds of the area.”

The first golf course and hotel project, reportedly built at a cost of RM2 billion, opened its doors to the public late last year.

Asked if Putrajaya had relayed their concerns to the developer of the golf course resort, Xavier said: “Johor is a very sensitive state and you know very well who is behind it. So they know exactly what happened and we have passed on our message.”

Xavier Jayakumar.

Activists recently raised the alarm over the opening of the first of three golf courses by a foreign company, which they claim lies within the Sungai Pulai mangrove reserve in Gelang Patah, a famous riverine mangrove system.

Xavier said no one should use their influence or any law to change the status of protected land, “especially so (for land) which we feel is important for the environment,” he said. “This area, of course, it was a huge land bank as far as the environment is concerned. It’s sad that a portion has already been taken out. By the time we found out about this, it was already de-gazetted”.

Altogether, 800 hectares would be used for the company’s three golf resorts. The company has repeatedly turned down FMT’s requests for comments.

Xavier said: “I can assure you that the rest of the land, another two-thirds of it, will remain gazetted as far as the ministry is concerned”.

However the matter would pose a challenge for his ministry as land matters are under the jurisdiction of the respective states. “But I think we are going to come up with a set of rules whereby we will advise the state governments – though they are not bound by any law to follow the guidelines that we will set.”

If the states did not abide by what Putrajaya advised, then the “people are the ones who will have to decide what to do next”.

New procedures for forests and “sensitive” lands were in the pipeline. “Whether the states want to follow the rules that we set, it is up to them. But we will publish these rules so that people know that this is what we want,” he said.

Sungai Pulai’s mangroves are protected as a forest reserve under the National Forestry Act 1984 and managed as sustainable use forestry under the Johor Forestry Department.

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

In January 2003, Sungai Pulai was listed as a “wetland of international importance” under the Ramsar Convention 1971, a global convention signed by most UN member-states on the protection of wetlands.