The Hills and the Sea: Scant regard for ecosystem

The above is the short documentary film by Andrew Ng, which won a grant award from the Freedom Film Fest last year.

Talking about this film is guest contributor and research scientist Dr Kam Suan Pheng of Penang Forum:

I congratulate Andrew for this documentary that conveys a powerful message regarding the environmental impacts of development projects that encroach upon the hills of and the seas around Penang Island.

We often tend to focus on impacts that development has on people. We tend to be human-centric because we think we are the most important creatures on earth. The recent floods and landslides that occurred earlier this month (November 2017) and over the past couple of months indeed show the misery that humans (ie Penangites at large) can suffer from environmental impacts that accumulate from rapid development without proper planning.

But this film brings a fresh perspective in highlighting impacts on the inhabitants of the forest, represented here by the langur. Using the langur to depict the affected wildlife is appropriate. Naturally a shy and reclusive animal, it is not often seen and heard in the wild and is therefore conveniently ‘forgotten’ or ignored, together with hundreds and thousands of other forest species, when the drive to clear more land for development pushes further into the hills.

“So what if we lose a few monkeys,” it may be argued. “After all they are increasingly becoming a nuisance, getting into our brand new houses and gardens.”

Now, who is encroaching into whose territory? This film provides the monkey’s perspective.

It is emphasised in the film that the langur plays an important role in the ecology of the forest, including the dispersal of seeds that grow into trees that form the basic structure of the forest. Without this basic structure, none of the other forest denizens can live and survive. Within a well-balanced ecology of the forest, every living thing has its role to play besides reproducing to perpetuate its species. In technical language, this role is called ecosystem service.

The forest as a whole, with all its inhabitants, plays an overarching ecosystem service to us as humans. Those of us whose houses were invaded by mud-laden flood waters just three weeks ago or who were caught in massive traffic jams as the roads of George Town turned into rivers the colour of teh susu would have wondered – where did all this mud come from? It couldn’t have been from Typhoon Damrey which was blamed for bringing the torrential rains from Vietnam, overnight to Penang and Kedah.

The forest cover of natural hill slopes holds the soil in place – an important ecosystem service. When the forest is indiscriminately cleared and steep slopes are exposed to the elements, the soil gets easily dislodged and washed down with the gushing waters that overflow from bloated streams and rivers. So there is after all some connection between the langur and the floods of Penang.

The importance of ecosystem service hits home more starkly when we as humans consume the things that nature produces, and this includes fish (broadly covers crabs, prawns and other aquatic food). Turning to the ‘sea’ portion of this film, the focus is on the plight of the fisher communities along the north coast.

I will focus on the ecological aspects of such land reclamation projects. The ecology of the coastal waters is even less obvious to us because everything is underwater. So we don’t see the rampant destruction to the sea bed and the living creatures on it, in it, and in the column of water above it.

If actions similar to the scraping of the sea bed, the drilling to extract sand and the dumping of sand on another spot is done on land and is visible to all, people will be screaming “Rape of the land”. How about rape of the sea?

The most obvious consequence is of course less fish to catch, not to mention that these devastated underwater grounds are off-limits to the fisher communities who have been eking their livelihoods there for generations. They are expected to look for other fishing grounds further afield and, according to the detailed environmental impact assessment report of the Seri Tanjung Pinang phase two project, public institutions like USM and LKIM are supposed to find new fishing grounds for them. But where – when the coastal waters all around the peninsula are already fished and overfished?

The detailed EIA was also supposed to evaluate and estimate the costs of environmental impacts of the project. Not only was the marine biology sampling found to be inadequate, but the marine catch was grossly undervalued. For example the shrimp catch from these waters was valued at US$200/tonne. This converts to RM0.70/kg at prevailing forex rates at the time of the study (2014). In February 2014, medium-sized shrimps were sold in Penang at around US$20/kg, a hundred times the value estimated in the detailed EIA. And this valuation is done only on the direct use value (ie what humans would pay for the shrimp), not the ecosystem services value of the marine ecology.

This was among many other valid criticisms of the detailed EIA that were submitted to the Department of Environment, which nevertheless approved the DEIA rather promptly, thus giving the green light for the Seri Tanjung Pinang phase two project to proceed.

This goes to show how little people, especially developers, value the coastal waters ecosystem. Land reclamation in the shallow coastal waters is seen as a cheap way of making new land that is unencumbered for even more development of high-end property that is beyond the reach of most Penangites.

This piece was written in November 2017.

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