By Lim Mah Hui
Has Penang become greener? The antagonists in last week’s controversy involve not only the usual players – the DAP-led state government in Penang, on the one hand, and Barisan National parties on the other, but also a senior MP from DAP.
The controversy was sparked by Dr Tan Seng Giaw, a high-ranking member of DAP. He posted on his Facebook that the coastline of Penang has changed drastically and the green hills looked thinner. The comment was eagerly publicised by MCA.
As to be expected, the Penang chief minister took a pot shot at both MCA and Tan, accusing the latter for being incommunicado since the beginning of the year. Tan retorted that a reporter could contact him easily so “What is his problem?”
When interviewed, Teh Yee Chew, the Adun from Tanjong Bungah, qualified that the preservation of forest reserves is not the issue, but rather the significant clearing of hill greenery outside the forest reserves.
Another bigwig in DAP, Tony Pua, has since waded into the debate. Having seen a 360 degrees bird’s eye view of the island from Penang hill, he asserted categorically that Penang is now greener; not an inch of hill forest has been touched.
Who do you believe? Who is right? Is this a case of myopia, or an illusionists’ trick to mislead the eye to the one sizeable pristine spot on the island?
I assume that Pua walked round the Tree Top in Habitat to get his 360 degree view. But does he realise that one cannot see the whole island from that vantage point? Dr Kam Suan Pheng, a GIS specialist, produced a map (see below) that shows that all black areas are outside the visibility of someone standing on the Tree Top Walk. Only the coloured areas can be seen; and this does not include clearings like Botak Hill which lies south of the blue coloured area.
It is surprising that someone as well-educated as Pua could make such a sweeping statement, that Penang is greener. Is it the case of the blind man describing the entire elephant by just feeling its tail?
Perhaps this Petaling Jaya Utara MP should look out of his plane or car window the next time he comes to Penang. The exposed hills are plain to see.
After four years, the disaster of the infamous Botak Hill has not been mitigated. A wide road has already been constructed to the top of Botak Hill, and one wonders if high-end residential buildings will be popping up next. Directly across the bridge, two hillocks have been blighted by quarrying.
Pua should also drive around and speak to the disaffected residents in Sungai Ara, Paya Terubong, Tanjong Bungah, Balik Pulau and others on the mainland, or visit the Penang Hills Watch (PHW) website.
As Teh pointed out, the Penang state government has not interfered in the state’s forest reserves. But this alone does not make Penang greener and more ecologically sustainable.
First, unlike other states with large areas of forest reserves many times the size of Penang island, Penang’s gazetted forest reserves are tiny – only 5101 hectares or only 4.9% of Penang state. Most of this is on hill land – defined as being more than 250 feet above sea level or land on slopes of more than 25 degrees.
Secondly, the forest reserves on the island exist mainly to protect the water catchment, so the giving of logging licenses is out of the question.
Thirdly, steps taken by the state government to curb illegal clearing by farmers have been timid and unsatisfactory.
Fourthly, more and more forested hill lands are now being legally cleared for housing projects and roads.
Fifthly, despite repeated calls for the authorities to prosecute aggressively in cases of illegal hill clearing, only paltry fines instead of jail sentencing has been meted out as punishment. This sends a wrong message to potential offenders.
The PHW has reported citizens’ sightings of illegal clearing in one of the island’s gazetted forest reserves and a few other locations just meters away from gazetted reserves. Well documented through drone photographs, google map and reports from nature lovers and hikers, the devastation of many hill slopes in Penang has been linked to worsening soil erosion and recent floods.
What has been done? The state government set up a special committee to look into illegal hill clearing last year, soon after the problem was highlighted by the Star. PHW has presented reports and met twice with officials from the state and local government, who seem to appreciate PHW’s efforts. But apparently the chief minister has not kept himself well-briefed of the situation and the public has not been apprised about any follow up.
As for hill developments with legal approvals, the Sungai Ara’s residents case against a proposed massive housing project by Sunway in the Sungai Ara hills is an important one to watch. Sunway proposed to build over 600 high rise apartments, even though 43% of their land exceeds 25 degree gradient and qualifies as sensitive hill land.
This land was registered as hill land under the Land Conservation Act 1960. Having bought this land in 2010, Sunway applied in 2011 for the land to be excised from the hill land status. This was approved by the State Planning Committee (SPC) in December 2011 upon payment of RM1 million by the developer.
The gazetted Penang Structure Plan explicitly forbade development on sensitive hill land unless it is a “special project” approved by the state government. How a housing project could have been approved by MBPP under the rubric of “special project” is the subject of contention in this legal case.
Taking an objective view, one has to conclude that while the Penang state government has largely protected its very limited gazetted forest reserves, its policies have exposed the hills and shores of Penang to rapacious development.
This has led to a sad and serious decline in environmental sustainability, notwithstanding all the state’s nice slogananising about a cleaner and greener Penang.
Lim Mah Hui is a former councilor of Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang.
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