GEORGE TOWN: The sight of sand pouring into the sea off Penang island’s southern coast for a RM8.5 billion reclamation project left a bitter taste for fishing community leader Zakaria Ismail.
Watching a video of the reclamation job posted by chief minister Chow Kon Yeow, the 66-year-old fisherman remarked: “Let them eat sand”, challenging state officials to think about the consequences of their decisions when seafood resources dwindle.
Two years ago, Zakaria was hailed a hero when his appeal to the department of environment (DoE) led to the cancellation of approval for the project.
However, the department later gave the go ahead after the state government filed a fresh application, saying the project was sound and that all environmental risks would be mitigated.
“I am frustrated,” Zakaria said. “For me, the government does not care for those who have sacrificed their lives to ensure food security for all. Penang has lived off protein from the seas. We will see how they will survive without seafood and just sand on their plates,” Zakaria said.
Fisherfolk like him on the island’s southern coast have long claimed that Penang’s best prawns and fish comes from the area where the reclamation is taking place.
The state government, however, has asserted that the site is a shallow, muddy area rather than a rich breeding ground.
The reclamation project, which will lead to the creation of a 930-hectare artificial island, dubbed “Silicon Island”, was given the final technical approval by the DoE on July 21.
Civil society groups had previously called on the state to not begin work as the fishing community had filed a fresh appeal against the project through an internal board within the DoE. The board, chaired by a sessions court judge, had turned down the project in 2021.
For environmental campaigner Meenakshi Raman, the state government’s decision to proceed has left her and other civil society groups at their wit’s end.
The public interest lawyer, who heads Sahabat Alam Malaysia, has been fighting the fishermen’s case for nearly a decade. She said it was upsetting that approval had been given despite the DoE’s own past objections.
“The previous director-general of environment had said the reclamation is about to take place in an area that is irreplaceable. But despite saying it was irreplaceable and that the damage would be permanent, they have gone ahead and approved it,” she said.
“An alternative area for the expansion of industrial land should be on the mainland,” she said.
She said the project was mainly for the benefit of developers. “They will say whatever they want, calling it sustainable when the premise of having the project is absolutely unjustifiable.”
The state government has insisted that the reclamation was being carried out in accordance with the law. Officials have urged affected fishermen to register for the Social Impact Management Plan so they can be considered for ex-gratia compensation.
State executive councillor Zairil Khir Johari said fishermen from the nine fishing units in the affected area can do so immediately. He said the state government had honoured all protocols and kept the public informed at every stage.
“This project is crucial for Penang’s future economic prosperity,” he said, accusing “some factions” of opposing the project without presenting “viable alternative plans for the betterment of the people”.
The state government had previously claimed that the project would affect just 115 fishermen from Permatang Tepi Laut.