It is my pleasure to be with all of you today for this meaningful event. Soon we will get down to the ground, or rather the mudflats, to plant 500 mangrove seedlings, marking the start of coastal mangrove rehabilitation in this area.
This is a collective effort of different organisations and individuals present here today. The Green Team under the Malaysian Dream Movement, and the NGO J.A.R.I.N.G are the co-organisers. But perhaps more encouraging is to see many of you volunteers, from Pontian as well as other parts of Johore, to join us here on this faithful morning.
You are all agents for change for a better Malaysia.
Malaysia is a country blessed with a long coastline and has always been steep in maritime culture. In Johor, many of us do not realize that we are living in a very special state with the longest coastline among all eleven states in Peninsula Malaysia. No other state can boast a coastline as long as 400km and surrounded by the Straits of Malacca in the west, the South China Sea in the east and the Straits of Johore in the south.
Johor is truly blessed with long coasts lined with lush mangroves. Not far from here, we have Tanjung Piai, Pulau Kukup and the Sungai Pulai mangroves which are recognized worldwide as unique ecosystems supporting diverse marine biodiversity. Lesser known mangrove wetlands, such as those around Rambah and the Pontian town, are no less important to the environment and local livelihoods.
Not only Mosquito and Mud
In the past, perhaps due partly to ignorance and misconceptions, many view mangroves and wetlands as nuisance. For some, these are just big patches of water-logged, muddy swamps full of mosquitoes. Swampy and unproductive land must be drained and transformed or else how could human beings settle and civilisation flourish. Forces of nature must be tamed, or so they say.
In the last 50 years, amidst the rapid development especially along the coastal plains in Malaysia, some 80% of mangrove forests were converted.
However, it is also during the past decades that we are increasingly informed about the functions of mangroves and how they form the bio-physical base to support marine resources and coastal fisheries. Without the mangroves, mudflats and the coastal wetlands, there will be no fish, no prawns and crabs, and no human settlements in Johor.
After the 2004 South Asian Tsunami, we learnt the lessons that that coastal mangroves save lives and protect communities from being swept away by tsunami waves.
It is, after all, not merely mosquitoes and mud.
Our presence here today for mangrove replanting is indeed a reminder to all of us that we must learn a smarter way to co-exist with nature, and instead of indiscriminately bulldoze the mangroves for so-called ‘development’, we have to assume the role of stewardship towards the environment on which our sustenance are dependent.
Lawlessness in Iskandar Malaysia – The case of Pulau Ubah
Let me take the opportunity here to highlight the ongoing “Pulau Ubah” scandal in Gelang Patah.
Where is Pulau Ubah? You won’t find it anywhere on the official maps published by the Malaysian authorities. For this is a newly reclaimed island off the coast of Tanjung Kupang, in Gelang Patah, Johor Bahru.
Since January this year, a humongous project started near Tanjung Kupang and the local fishermen in Pendas brought me there by boat twice. First on 15th February 2014 and then on 24th February 2014. It was shocking. The damages were beyond words.
I was told that this area, prior to reclamation, is where sea-grass flourish and marine lives thrive. Seahorses, in particular, breed here. So does dugong and so many other kinds of marine creatures. The entire area, extending to Pulau Merambong, are supposed to be designated as a marine protected area.
But instead, the sea was parcelled out by the State Government to developers for reclamation. According to documents that we have sighted, they wanted to reclaim as much as 2500 acres, leaving very little waters left for hundreds of fishermen who still ply the straits for their livelihood.
I am sure many of the local Pontian fishermen here knew about the project and have witnessed the damage it has inflicted upon the marine ecosystem. They suffer greatly from its detrimental impacts. Barely two months ago, cases of suspicious widespread fish death along the Straits, were widely reported.
We know the Straits of Malacca is just a narrow patch of water, not to mention the even smaller Straits of Johor. When you reclaim 2,500 acres or more, the waters are largely out of bounds for the fishermen. Could they possibly fish on reclaimed land?
Questions in Parliament
I raised this issue specifically in Parliament on 13th of March. I questioned the Minister of Environment – How could the reclamation start prior to any regulatory approval from his Ministry including the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)? I asked the Prime Minister, as the Co-Chairperson of Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA), to explain – why IRDA can approve such project without considering the fact that the reclaimed area is earmarked as ‘marine protected area’ in IRDA’s own 2011 Shoreline Management Blueprint?
The BN Government spent millions of taxpayers money to hire top-class consultants to produce development plans, to conduct studies and to compile blueprints, to make Iskandar Malaysia an economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable development region unmatched by any other in the world.
In those shiny plans and blueprints, Pulau Ubah never exist – there is no plan at all for reclamation there, it should be kept as mudflats, wetlands and marine protected areas.
What happen to the development plan and blueprints? I asked the Ministers. The Deputy Minister of Environment [The Minister, Palanivel, did not report to Parliament perhaps because he is too occupied to with the Giant Panda from China], James Dawos Mamit said “an EIA is not required. The reclaimed area is small, only 49 hectares”.
On the other hand, Wahid Omar, a Johorian, who is in-charge-of Economic Planning Unit in the PM’s Department, claimed the government will always follow the plans and blueprints in monitoring the development activities in Iskandar Malaysia.
What both of them have said in Parliament are incorrect. We have done our research properly and obtained documents and maps from none other than the government’s offices – the reclaimed area is far greater than 49 hectares.
In fact, not only off Tanjung Kupang, the coastal waters of Tanjung Piai in Pontian will also be subjected to large scale reclamation as large as several thousand hectares. All these have NEVER been a part of the Iskandar Malaysia Comprehensive Development Plan.
The facts and evidence are laid bare before our eyes. I will write to invite both Ministers to join me for a field trip to Tanjung Kupang to see for themselves the so-called 49 hectares reclamation which is supposed to be lawful and well planned.
Maritime Traffic Affected?
I would also ask the Federal Government to explain if indeed the ongoing reclamation would affect maritime transport, especially that of ships calling at the Port of Tanjung Pelepas (PTP). I was told that the Ministry of Transport have written to the Johor State Government, objecting on the grounds that their views are not consulted prior to the reclamation project which would inevitably affect maritime traffic and the PTP. The Federal and State Government must not hide facts here – if reclamation is allowed to proceed, will the seabed become so shallow that ships can no longer pass safely to the port and subsequently the economy will be affected?
A few words on the small fishermen
Let me come back to the issue of mangrove and local livelihood. I want to say a few things about our small coastal fishermen.
The Department of Fisheries statistics tells us that there are 2,438 fishermen in Pontian and western Johor Bahru combined. In Pontian alone, out of 1,825 fishermen, 1,201 are Malays, 616 Chinese and 8 Indians. 710 operates small fishing boats with outboard motors.
It tells us most of our Pontian fishermen are small coastal fishermen.
While fishing might not be the dream job for everyone, without them braving the waves and baking under the hot sun, there will be no fish and prawns as sources of affordable and nutritious food for all of us.
Fisheries contributes to about 1% of GDP for Malaysia. However, the contribution of coastal fishermen to our society, and their important role in shaping Malaysian culture and identity, cannot be assessed and valued based solely on the GDP numbers.
The plight of coastal fishermen amidst rapidly changing environment calls for the attention and genuine actions from the government. The Fisheries Development Board and the Department of Fisheries cannot blindly push for large aquaculture businesses and encourage ocean fishing by large companies but give no thoughts for the small and traditional coastal fishermen.
Handouts and subsidy payments that are few and far between, do very little to alleviate the fishermen from poverty and help them to move forward in the waves of national development.
The fishermen and the rakyat, are not needy patients, waiting only to be fed with cash handouts and goodies. We are agents of change, and as stakeholders, we should rightly demand that our voices, rights and values be taken into considerations in national development.
No longer can we accept arbitrary projects such as those that claim progress and development can be brought forward by bulldozing mangroves to build luxury condominiums. We know the values of our coastal mangroves now, it is not only patches of swamps full of mosquitoes.
The true goals of development as pursued by Malaysia since independence, for me, is to benefit all people, to allow all Malaysians regardless of race and religion, to live a better and fuller life with dignity. If we are lost in our way as the BN government did by pursuing mega projects blindly without considering local livelihoods and environmental factors, the people will remain oppressed and unfree.
Well, the tides wait for no one and we must get down now before the water rises again.
The 500 mangrove seedlings we plant today is from the species called Pokok Api-Api (note: named after the fireflies living on the tree). With persistence and care, I hope the seedlings would develop into trees and forests. I urge you to cultivate the small flame (api-api) of awareness on environmental justice into a beacon of fire and inspire more friends to join forces as the agents of change for Impian Malaysia.
(Speech at the planting of 500 mangrove seedlings by the Green Team jointly organised by The Malaysian Dream Initiative and NGO JARING movement in Pontian on Saturday, April 5, 2014)