Fishermen protesting against the proposed land reclamation projects off Permatang Damar Laut, Teluk Kumbar, and Gertak Sanggul recently. They claim it will affect their livelihood. Bernama pic

AS a senior citizen, over the years, I have come across the disappearance (perhaps “extinction” is more appropriate) of our fishing communities as a result of land reclamation works (otherwise called “waterfront development”).

I have seen them happening in Johor (my home state), Malacca and Negri Sembilan (during the 1970s when I was in legal practice), and Kedah (after I moved up here some 20 years ago). I reckoned the same thing happened in other states as well except that I do not have knowledge of their exact locations.

Although these reclamation works were resisted by the affected fishing communities, nothing seems to be able to stop them. Sacrificing fishing communities at the altar of “development” seems to be the accepted norm.

In the latest incident, some 1,500 fishermen in Penang protested against the proposed land reclamation projects off Permatang Damar Laut, Teluk Kumbar, and Gertak Sanggul. The protesters claimed that if the reclamation works proceeded as planned, their livelihood would be affected.

Speaking on behalf of his fellow fishermen, Arshad Omar, 63, said the land reclamation would affect fish and shrimp hatcheries, as well as disturb marine life habitats in the area.

“There is a lot of land available. Why do they have to venture into the sea?” he asked.

“We are staging this demonstration to fight for our rights and to ensure that the sea and beaches are conserved,” he told reporters.

He also said the fishermen were not against development in the state, but that the proposed land reclamation work at this location in Penang would bring about irreversible damage to the fishing communities here.

Fisherman Yahya Che Lah, 63, who spoke on behalf of the Teluk Kumbar Fishermen’s Association, said the land reclamation would have a negative impact on the marine ecosystem.

“It would force us, small-scale fishermen, to go out to the open sea to catch fish.”

The recent protest in Penang reminded me of an earlier protest by the fishing communities in southern Johor.

Fishing communities and fish farm operators near Tanjung Kupang were unhappy at the reclamation works carried out off their coast. They alleged that mass fish deaths in the area were due to the reclamation works, but the developer denied it.

A news report in January this year stated that the massive RM600 billion mixed-development project, known as the Forest City project, would be scaled down. Initially planned to cover 1,978ha, the project was scaled down to about 610ha. A public hearing was held in September last year, where representatives of the fishing communities voiced out that this project would adversely affect their livelihood.

The Forest City project envisages four man-made islands built in the waters off Tanjung Kupang, between southwest of Johor and northwest of Singapore. This offshore mega project will forever change the landscape of these waters, as well as the lives of the old fishing communities in the area.

If you are a first-time visitor to Penang and you take a slow drive from Gurney Drive, westwards on the northern coastline of the island, towards Tanjung Tokong, Tanjung Bungah, Batu Ferringhi and onwards to Teluk Bahang, you will no longer see a fishing community in Tanjung Tokong.

I had been travelling to this part of the island since the late 1950s and have seen it slowly dying and finally ceasing to exist as the offshore development at this location took shape. What had happened to Tanjung Tokong may very well happen in other locations on the island.

History has the propensity to repeat itself when man refuses (fails) to learn from his past mistakes. I have read through a 12-page document titled “Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) Guidance Document for Coastal and Land Reclamation Activities” (http://www.doe.gov.my/eia/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Reclamation.pdf).

Whilst I am impressed by its content, I have no way of knowing whether what is stated there represents the reality on the ground.

I spent a short holiday in Penang recently and my friends there told me that land reclamation on the island is a well-known strategy for the state government to increase its land base, and this practice will continue. They also told me that the Department of Environment’s EIA guidelines on land reclamation had not been fully complied with, and many legal issues concerning land reclamation had not been resolved. They hope that an integrated coastal land reclamation policy and development control in all future land reclamation projects be formulated soon by the federal and state governments.

My friends told me that in the Tanjung Tokong land reclamation project, an area as large as 396.5ha (consisting of three islands) had been given to a private developer. After the first phase of the development was completed (a reclamation of 97ha), serious siltation occurred in Gurney Drive.

Only a preliminary EIA was submitted and approved, and there was no serious monitoring of the adverse impacts. Approval was given to the developer to reclaim two more islands measuring 280ha despite the adverse impacts of the first phase.

Land reclamation should be carried out by the state authorities, and not by private developers. Before any reclamation work is carried out, affected parties (such as fishing communities) should be consulted and their concerns looked into.

I am told that in other jurisdictions, government agencies carry out land reclamation works and when completed, these land parcels are auctioned off to the highest bidder. Before a decision is made to auction off these newly created
land parcels, the state authority must ensure that the public has access to the newly created coastline and beaches.

The writer formerly served at the
Attorney-General’s Chambers before he left for private practice, the corporate sector and then the academia

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