The hills of Penang not only play important ecological roles as water catchment areas and for biodiversity conservation but also have strong cultural and heritage values recognised by Penangites to be at par with the heritage significance of George Town.
Regrettably, there have been increasing cases of illegal land clearing on the hills of Penang over the past years which must be checked. The most daring and visible of recent illegal hill land clearing has happened on Bukit Relau at the location that is now popularly known as Botak Hill1.
The Penang Forum has been informed that mitigation work is being carried out as part of the effort to restore Botak Hill.
It should be pointed out that mitigation and restoration are different, although these two terms are sometimes loosely used interchangeably. We need to be clear that any illegal hill cutting, earthwork, construction and road building should be restored to its original condition. Mitigation work for drainage and soil erosion prevention should be a temporary activity and removed when restoration and rehabilitation work is completed.
The EU defines mitigation as ‘measures to avoid, reduce and, if possible, remedy significant adverse effects’ (European Union, 1985).
Typically, it is used in project planning and also during project implementation. However, after the project, and when the adverse impacts are evident, these are measures to reduce impacts and ensure safety.
In hill slope projects, mitigation is often an engineering approach that seeks to prevent further adverse projects such as soil erosion and landslides. However, mitigation measures are for legal and approved projects. In the case of illegal construction, such as the extensive hill cutting on Bukit Relau or more popularly known as Botak Hill, mitigation by itself is not enough.
Mitigation measures, as a first step to reduce soil erosion of the illegally cleared land and to address safety concerns, must be limited and be environmentally sensitive and must not lead to a greater scale of clearing and destruction than is necessary.
Mitigation measures should not be a prelude for residential development housing projects on hill slopes higher than 250 feet above sea level, in the expectation that there may be changes in hill development policy and that residential development would be permitted on hills.
Restoration of damaged ecosystems
Restoration of a degraded ecosystem involves taking measures to return the ecosystem to its original natural state. It would require more time, effort and expertise to replant the vegetation that had been destroyed.
There is now a well-accepted methodology for restoration of cleared and degraded land based on a sub-discipline in ecological science called restoration ecology and it is now practised in many countries for hilly areas. In Asia, it is widely practised in China and the Philippines. Japan prohibits the clearing of forests especially on hill slopes, which hence do not need restoration.
Restoration of Botak Hill
Since Bukit Relau was illegally cleared and there had been no permission to turn the whole area for residential development, the damaged area must be restored to its original condition. The current engineering mitigation measures should be a temporary measure and the aim would be a restoration of the forest in the hills.
There are consultancy companies, mainly based in Kuala Lumpur, that can undertake restoration projects with the involvement of foresters and forest ecologists. In 2013, when the issue of illegal land clearing on Botak Hill received public attention, the Penang Forum did suggest bringing in a forest ecologist from the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) to provide advice on restoring the cleared area – but did not get a response from the then MPPP (now MBPP).
Penang Forum maintains that measures to rehabilitate the ecosystem to its original condition should be the requirement for all illegal hill cutting, unapproved earthworks and deforestation. It reiterates that, specifically for Botak Hill, restoration measures must be carried out under advice and guidance of restoration ecology experts.
Penang Forum steering committee
26 January 2016