by Yvonne Tan
In April 2021 a viral Google satellite image of a heavily deforested land located next to the Kuantan District Forest Department prompted the Pahang Forestry Department to hold a press conference to clarify the ownership of the land pictured. The Pahang Forestry Department Director Datuk Mohd. Hizamri Mohd. Yassin stated that the land was privately owned outside the Bukit Galing Forest Reserve and explained that mining activities have been put to a stop twice in 2016 and 2017.
Later in June, Malaysiakini reports on a company with links to the Pahang royal family plans to mine iron from the degazetted Som Forest reserve at Kuala Tembeling on top of a previous royalty-linked mining project near Tasik Chini in Pekan. Days later, several questioned this move on Tengku Hassanal Ibrahim Alam Shah’s Instagram video post of himself doing push-ups with the hashtag #pushUp4environment. Soon after this, he proposes mining activities to be stopped, ordered the former mining areas be reforested and for the expansion of the Tasik Chini forest reserve. This was also in conjunction with a Facebook post going viral which claimed a new mining site was allowed to open near Tasik Chini after March 2019. The State Land and Mines director’s office had to release a statement that no new mining leases nor exploration licenses have been issued since then.
Aside from Pahang, on 12 August the Selangor government had completed the legal process for the degazettement of Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve for mixed commercial development despite many online petitions and signatures objecting to the proposal since January. A week later, the Selangor state government decided to postpone the degazettement despite 54% of the 931.17 h.a. had already been degazetted and following more criticism decided to re-gazette Kuala Langat forest reserve.
The coalition “Pertahankan Hutan Simpan Kuala Langat Utara (PHSKLU)” [https://selamatkanhsklu.carrd.co/] encouraged sending pressure emails to the Selangor MB and protest on social media using the hashtags #HutanPergiMana #SelamatkanHSKLU #SaveKLNFR #RevokeTheDegazettement. Take for example, @iqtodabal’s Instagram reels where he spoke about the Kuala Langat Forest Reserve and those who would profit from their degazettement garnered over 59,000 views while a similar video on Tasik Chini got over 244,000 views at the time of writing. It is hard to pinpoint to a particular reason why both state governments have suddenly decided to listen to public outcry and the reality could be a mix of pressure from Orang Asli, NGOs and CSOs, media attention and social media outrage. PHSKLU in their latest press statement attributed media as one of the major contributing factors on the reversal of degazettement: “We also recognise the important role played by the local media in their extensive coverage of the issue over the past 18 months, including more than 200 articles and interviews in various languages”.
The RM 46 billion Penang South Reclamation (PSR) megaproject also got cancelled in early September due to public pressure. The proposed megaproject would include 3 islands the size of 4500 acres that would cause disruption to fishermen’s livelihoods, marine ecosystems and coastal habitats to not only Penang but also Perak where sand mining would take place. Although the Penang government may apply for judicial review against the Appeal Board under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), this move came hard-fought by Penang Fishermen’s Association (PenMutiara) who challenged the EIA assessment, environmental organisations, and social media campaigns with #PenangTolakTambak trending on Twitter in June. The volunteers of Penang Tolak Tambak, a coalition between PenMutiara and Penang Forum initiated the online campaign and Khoo Salma Naution, a member of Penang Forum stated “With the MCO, we can’t physically protest, so we’re trying to do things through social media. It’s really good to see a local environmental issue trending on Twitter, I don’t remember the last time that happened, especially since a lot of people will look at this as a Penang problem.”
There is clearly a pattern here. Although the cancellations of these projects that come after public pressure might seem like the government does listen, month after month might seem like the government does listen to demands of affected communities, the public, and environmental groups, it is not the case. Take for example, Shakila Zen who has been vocal against degazetting the Kuala Langat Reserve received an anonymous letter threatening an acid attack against her with a replica of a severed hand. Meanwhile, the fishermen associations have appealed against the Department of Environment’s approval of the PSR project since 2019 while many voiced their concerns since the approval of the project in 2015. Not to mention, Penang Tolak Tambak were also closely associated with Save Portuguese Community Action Committee (SPAC) in Malacca, Koalisi Selamatkan Teluk Jakarta, Kumpulan Indah Tanjung Aru (KTIA) in Sabah and Persatuan Aktivist Sahabat Alam (KUASA) in Perak in collectively resisting against land reclamation culminating in a joint statement “Stop Stealing our Seas, joint statement by Malaysia-Indonesia groups against reclamation” which has garnered almost 129,000 signatures.
If anything, the continual outrage and viralising of problematic development projects that would adversely affect communities and climate change reveal there is a clear awareness that powers that be stood to benefit most from the destruction of our environment. As a developing country that saw the rapid restructuring of our economy for the proliferation of white elephant projects under the guise of national development that came with Wawasan 2020 that is now behind us, maybe there is a shift in a Malaysia that we would like. Criticising callous development at the expense of the environment has now become the norm.
State governments have become private sector monopolies, where ownership and control have been legitimized via “decentralised” power made up of political elites. In the case of Pahang and Selangor, after public outcry, the state governments would quickly shift blame to the private companies to whom they have sold licenses to. However, there is persistent attention, both online and offline, on respective state management of the environment calling for more transparency and accountability. This does not discount the hard work of on-the-ground organisations and advocacy groups, but rather harking to the beginnings of maybe a wider climate movement in Malaysia, one which gives power to the communities most affected by climate change.