Thursday, 11 June 2009

Lossing our mangrove

Losing our mangroves

Various development projects in Johor have carved up pristine mangroves.

IN 1980, a special report to the then Science, Technology and Environment Ministry recommended a conservation strategy through rationale use of Sungai Pulai mangrove forests in Johor. It called for a Mangrove National Park because the area is important for fisheries and is a food production zone under the National Agriculture Policy.

Some forms of conservation efforts were implemented when the Johor government in 2003 nominated Tanjung Piai, Pulau Kukup and Sungai Pulai in south-west Johor for the Ramsar list – a global initiative to conserve wetlands of international importance.

Once a sleepy hollow, south-west Johor is seeing the development of a modern township and is poised to be the jewel of the Iskandar Development Region, one of five economic regions unveiled by the Government last year.

But what is one of the country’s most productive and pristine riverine mangrove ecosystems is now being carved up for a port, power plant and soon, two petrochemical hubs. In the late 1990s, vast tracts of land on the west bank of Sungai Pulai was cleared for the Port of Tanjung Pelepas (PTP), followed by reclamation of 400ha of mangroves for the Tanjung Bin coal-fired power plant on the opposite bank. Public-listed Malaysian Mining Corp (MMC) holds a 70% equity in PTP and operates the power plant through its sister company Malakoff Bhd.

The latest development is an integrated petrochemical facility on 40.5ha of reclaimed island at the estuary by Asia Petroleum Hub. When it opens next year, it expects 2,000 vessel calls and will handle annually 60 million tonnes of petroleum products – industrial and marine fuel oils, diesel, jet fuel and biodiesel.

MMC, through its subsidiary Seaport Worldwide, will clear a further 902ha of mangroves for a petrochemical and maritime centre on the east bank.

The comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project was approved last July. But critics, who said that there was no public comment and expert panel review, urged for a detailed EIA, given the project size and the area being a Rank 1 “environmentally sensitive area”. Such a ranking allows only low-impact nature tourism, research and education, not development, agriculture or logging.

A fishing jetty in one of the tributaries of Sungai Pulai in south-west Johor. The reclamation of 902ha of mangrove forests along the river for a petrochemical hub is likely to affect the livelihoods of at least six riverine communities that have for the longest time enjoyed the bounty of the rich ecosystem. In the background are high tension wires that transmit electricity from the Tanjung Bin coal-fired power plant.


Johor executive councillor for environment Tan Kok Hong points out that the area is designated for petrochemical industries under the Pontian District Structural Plan (2002-2015) and PTP had acquired the land in 2001. He says the project proponent is required to replant cleared mangroves and a task force will ensure that development is carried out in a sustainable manner as the Iskandar Develop ment Region is envisioned as a green city.

PTP chairman Datuk Mohd Sidik Shaik Osman, speaking on behalf of Seaport, says the comprehensive EIA approval came with 62 conditions to safeguard the environment.

“We recognise the area has certain ecological sensitivities and we have to fulfil the conditions. Half of the land is sacrificed as a buffer between the project site and the Ramsar area, villages and rivers. As a master developer, we’ll develop the land responsibly. The individual companies will have to prepare detailed EIAs,” he says, stressing that all legal requirements are being observed.

Sidik, a director of MMC, explains that growth is imminent due to the huge demand for industrial land in the vicinity of PTP, owing to its strategic location in a busy international shipping lane.

Inaccurate claims

Criticising the EIA report, Save Our Seahorses (SOS) co-ordinator Choo Chee Kuang says the document misidentified species and lacked mitigation measures.

He says the sole seahorse species found in Sungai Pulai – the spotted seahorse (Hippocampus kuda) – was misidentified as the pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus denise). And instead of Rhizophora apiculataand R. macronata, the dominant mangrove tree species was named theAvicennia lanata.

EIA consultancy Hijau Sekitar refused comment, citing client confidentiality.

Choo argues that further disturbance in the estuary could lead to local extinction of endangered species such as the seahorse and dugong.

“The type of heavy industries proposed could cause irreversible damage to the Sungai Pulai ecosystem that harbours the country’s most extensive seagrass bed, the densest seahorse population, productive fish and shellfish nursery grounds.

“The consultant’s estimation of loss at RM4mil over 99 years has severely under-estimated the economic value of the mangrove forest. According to the United Nations Development Programme, the output of mangroves in terms of fisheries alone would amount to US$215,000 per hectare per year. That is RM200mil per year from the area earmarked to be cleared. Will the country experience more loss than gains in the long run?” he asks.

Aerial view of the Port of Tanjung Pelepas in Johor (file photo). In the late 1990s, vast tracts of land on the west bank of Sungai Pulai was cleared to build the port.

In the picture

While SOS is petitioning against further large-scale development in the area, another conservation group is collaborating with PTP. The Johor branch of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) has received RM60,000 to document the natural and cultural heritage of Sungai Pulai in a coffee-table book.

It will also work with researchers from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia to analyse water samples and map the Merambong seagrass meadow and its biodiversity.

MNS president Anthony Sebastian says the partnership compels PTP to protect Sungai Pulai and the seagrass bed: “Through engagement, the MNS is part of the process and hopes to make things better, as opposed to choosing not to participate.”

PTP’s Sidik says: “We agreed to fund research for the seagrass bed although it isn’t within our port limit. The coffee-table book is to kick-start the collaboration that will inc lude other research and awareness activities.

“We want our business to grow but we’re also willing to sit down with concerned parties to mitigate the impacts – as a responsible corporate citizen way of approaching development,” he adds.


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