The green warrior fighting to save our forests

by Gan Pei Ling, 18 Jan 2018 © The Malaysian Insight

ARRESTED, stonewalled by state agencies and politely shunned by friends and politicians, outspoken environmentalist Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil has colourful tales to tell of her thankless role as a defender of the forest.

Since setting up the Association for the Protection of Malaysia’s Natural Heritage (Peka) in 2010, Shariffa Sabrina has waged “war” against deforestation in Kelantan, Pahang, Johor, Selangor and Penang.

But it’s a lonely battle that she and very few like her are fighting.

“When we meet the Forestry Department, they always say their hands are tied. When we meet the federal government, they say forests are under the state governments.

“We’re often treated like ping-pongs,” she told The Malaysian Insight.

In late 2016, the 55-year-old and her assistant Norhayati Shahrom were arrested and remanded for allegedly making insulting remarks against the Johor ruler.

“We were thrown in a lock-up and treated like criminals just because we asked why the last permanent forest reserve in Mersing is being degazetted to plant oil palm,” she said.

“Our forests are like ATM machines for some people. They think logging is a fast way to make money. Once the forests are cleared up, how are you going to make money?

“And what do you get from logging? Can you make the rakyat rich? (The) Pahang (government) is still in debt. The Kelantan people are still poor.”

Lonely fight

Over the years, the owner of the award-winning Tanah Aina Resorts in Pahang said she has tried in vain to pitch to state governments the idea of adopting eco-tourism as a means of sustainable development over logging.

Peka’s success in halting logging activities around Fraser’s Hill in Pahang last year is one of the environmental watchdog’s rare victories in its struggle for nature conservation.

“Eco-tourism is sustainable even though it takes a longer time to develop. You also provide long-term jobs for the locals as tour guides and hospitality staff,” said Shariffa Sabrina, citing Taman Negara as one of the successful examples of eco-tourism.

When asked whether some of her friends from wealthy and influential backgrounds have backed her environmental campaigns, Shariffa Sabrina’s answer was in the negative.

“They just say what I’m doing is good. Full stop. They won’t go beyond.”

Instead, she said, the answer to halting unrestrained deforestation lies in the power of the people.

“The only solutions I can find are the voices from the rakyat. Society, residents of the kampung should come out and go against destruction of green lungs like (the those in Taman Tun Dr Ismail did for) Bukit Kiara.

“If we’re strong together to go against deforestation, the government will think twice (before cutting down forests).”

The certified patisserie chef and fitness instructor draws motivation to fight the unpopular battle against environmental wrongdoings from her love for the forests.

“I look at things differently… My parents divorced when I was four years old. I never had a mother’s love. My mother left me.

“Two things made me happy (growing up): playing sports and trekking in the forests.

“When you go back to nature, it makes you feel very serene, peaceful and happy,” said the feisty Penangite wistfully.

“It gives us so much of benefit, why are we destroying it?”

More KL folk take on City Hall to save suburbs from development

by Gan Pei Ling, 18 Nov 2017 © The Malaysian Insight

RETIRED civil engineer Frank Yeh and other residents in the newly set up Protect Taman Desa Coalition have never been activists in their lives.

But plans for new projects in their Kuala Lumpur suburb of Taman Desa — 13 new developments in all, including high-density condominiums — made them decide to step up last year.

“It’s too much, way too much. The roads are already congested and the water pressure is low. This is not sustainable development. The authorities should improve the local infrastructure before they approve more development projects,” Yeh told The Malaysian Insight.

The coalition is backing a suit filed by 11 residents against Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) for approving a project of three condominium blocks – The Address, on Tenaga Nasional Bhd reserve land.

The suit was filed in March and the court will hear on November 29 the developer’s application to be made a party to the suit.

“We’re not against development per se. We are against overdevelopment. The existing infrastructure in Taman Desa is inadequate to support these new projects.

“Since 1977, there has only been one bus route servicing Taman Desa. The main water pipes are old and rusted. Existing roads also need to be re-tarred,” said Yeh.

He said current public amenities such as a small community hall and a few fields in the neighbourhood were insufficient to cater to the needs of the existing population of 38,000 people.

The Address — to comprise 649 units in three blocks between 34 and 42 storeys high — is to be built on a site marked for utilities and not for development. Furthermore, according to the KL Draft City Plan 2020, the site was supposed to be gazetted as a green lung.

If built, the condominium would increase the area’s population density from 60 people per acre to 650 per acre.

The other dozen projects in the pipeline for Taman Desa will add more than 7,000 affordable homes and condominium units, 48 shoplots and 168 office units to the neighbourhood.

“This is not just Taman Desa’s problem. Overdevelopment is happening all around us,” said another Taman Desa resident M. Gunasekar.

He was shocked to find out recently that a 52-storey high condominium will be built on a 1.3 acre plot of land, previously a playground, behind his home at Armada Villa, Danau Desa.

The Protect Taman Desa Coalition is holding a press conference to voice their concerns about the project today.

“I’ve been trying to help solve other people’s problems all my life. Now, I’m a victim. I couldn’t protect my own backyard,” said the businessman, who helped gather nearly 1,000 residents to submit their individual objections to DBKL against The Address last year.

No paradise in suburbia

The Protect Taman Desa Coalition is not the first suburban community in the Klang Valley to speak up against development that threatens their quality of life. As developers seek new spaces in already congested areas for more projects, residents have begun to fight back.

Residents in the affluent Taman Tun Dr Ismail housing suburb have become increasingly vocal in opposing projects they fear will congest the neighbourhood further and encroach on the only two green lungs in their area: Taman Rimba Kiara and Bukit Kiara.

The residents took DBKL and the mayor to court this year for approving a high-rise housing project in Taman Rimba Kiara. The Kuala Lumpur High Court granted the residents’ leave for judicial review in August 2017.

In 2015, Petaling Jaya residents foiled the Selangor State Development Corporation’s (PKNS) plan to develop a field and sports complex it owned in Kelana Jaya into a sports city.

The Petaling Jaya City Council had came under fire for altering the field’s status from recreational to commercial without going through due process in 2011, and eventually cancelled the developer’s application in 2015.

In 2011, Subang Jaya residents defeated Sime Darby Properties’ bid to build a 350-unit condominium and extend its medical centre on 7.7ha of the 29.39ha Subang Ria Park.

The Selangor Town and Country Planning Department Appeals Board rejected Sime Darby’s application for planning permission on the ground that the park was gazetted in Subang Jaya’s local draft plan for recreational use.

Philip Phang, a retired accountant and another spokesperson of the Protect Taman Desa Coalition, said DBKL should have consulted the residents before approving the development projects and altering recreational land for commercial purposes.

The residents had to find out about the development projects through their own research and are funding the campaign to rally and inform other residents out of their own pockets.

“Have they (DBKL) taken into account the wellbeing of the people they are entrusted to protect before approving these projects? The development process was not transparent. The residents are also being deprived of amenities they rightfully deserve,” said Phang.

He has lived there for more than four decades and has watched Taman Desa transform from a green neighbourhood, with fresh air and morning mist, to its now congested state, with high-rise condominiums being built and traffic jams to no end.

“We know this is going to be a long battle. We’re going up against an institution (DBKL) and, indirectly, the developers, but somebody has to do it for the sake of future generation of Malaysians as a whole,” said Phang.

“Nothing is safe if this goes on. You may think you’re buying a house next to a green lung, but 10 years down the road it may turn into a condominium.

“We want to warn potential buyers to think twice,” said Yeh.

He said another group of residents from the Taman Desa Residents’ Association are also running a campaign against the development projects, in collaboration with DAP’s Seputeh MP Teresa Kok.

“We decided to set up our own group and run our own campaign as we want to remain independent and non-partisan,” he said.

Learning from green movements in the US and China

by Gan Pei Ling / 18 February 2013 © The Nut Graph

A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet, a documentary chronicling the rise of US environmental movements, was released in 2012. The film tells inspiring stories of citizens rallying against dams at the Grand Canyon and battling against toxic waste dumped in their backyard.

In the US, newspaper advertisements were used to raise massive public support against the dams at Grand Canyon

Another 2011 feature film, Waking the Green Tiger, documents Chinese activists and journalists’ triumphant campaign to stop a dam at the Tiger Leaping Gorge.  The government-backed mega project at the upper Yangtze River would have displaced some 100,000 people.

After watching the two films recently, and given the on-going campaigns in Malaysia against environmentally-destructive projects, I think there are lessons that local environmental groups, and our state and federal governments, can draw from the US and China.

Love Canal: The signature fight against pollution

Film posterThe Love Canal tragedy is now a well-known environmental disaster in the US. An elementary school and homes were built atop a dumpsite of 20,000 tonnes of hazardous chemical waste in upstate New York. Women living there recorded an unusually high level of miscarriages and birth defects among their children.

But in the 1970s, the working class neighbourhood organised several protests, and even took two federal officials from the Environmental Protection Agency hostage, to pressure the government to investigate the extent of the disaster.

Lois Gibbs, one of the leaders, recounted the residents’ disappointment in the film when they submitted their health survey results to the government: “The Health Department literally threw the health study on the floor…and said it’s useless housewife data, collected by people who have a vested interest in the outcome.”

Back here, Barisan Nasional politicians have also intially rubbished claims of health problems by villagers living near a gold mine in Raub, Pahang. The Raub Australian Gold Mining Sdn Bhd began operations in early 2009. Residents have protested over the use of cyanide in the extraction process.

However in July 2012, the Health Ministry finally formed a health study team to find out the source of ailments. The ministry accepted two out of five experts nominated by the citizen-led Ban Cyanide Action Committee. It rejected the nomination of toxicologist cum PAS lawmaker Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad as well as cardiologist and PSM parliamentarian Dr Michael Jeyakumar on the basis of their political affiliations. Most puzzling though, is the ministry’s rejection of renowned US mining expert Dr Glenn Miller on the grounds of lengthy bureaucratic approvals needed to secure his work permit.

Regardless, the Bukit Koman residents have at last made some headway in their struggle. Meanwhile, indigenous villagers next to an aluminium smelting plant in Balingian, Sarawak are still living with air pollution in silence.

The convergence of environmental, class and political struggle

In the US, African Americans often bear the brunt of environmental pollution. Dr Robert Bullard, a leading campaigner against environmental racism, notes in the documentary that most dumpsites and incinerators are located next to predominantly Black neighbourhoods. These are usually working class communities that do not have a voice in mainstream politics. It took two decades but their struggle gave rise to the environmental justice movement.

Environmental issues are inevitably linked to politics and economic distribution. Some local conservationists tend to shun politics but if we do not elect environmentally-conscious politicians into power, who will speak out for communities affected by pollution and deforestation in state assemblies and the Parliament? Who will we lobby to enact and enforce laws that ensure companies and industries adhere to the highest environmental standards?

Waking the Green TigerIn China, the enactment of an environmental law that mandates public consultation was instrumental in the anti-dam campaign’s success. It created unprecedented democratic space for citizens to speak out against the project at the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Chinese government listened and scrapped the project.

These stories give us pause to re-think the assertion that environmental causes should not be ‘hijacked’ by politicians. As unpalatable as it may be to some, such occassions give citizens the opportunity to hold elected representatives accountable long after ballots have been cast and the business of ruling and governing begins.

Democratic reforms, though hard and slow to push through, will eventually lead to better environmental governance. Successful environmentalists must be able to see the big picture and work together with others, be it political or indigenous activists, to achieve common goals.

Environmentalist and author Pawl Hawken mentioned in the US documentary that some of us tend to look for leadership in the wrong places. Most of us look to our political leaders for the initiative to change. We have forgotten that in democracies, people are the bosses. It is the citizens who are leading and must continue to lead the struggle for a healthier, cleaner, happier planet.

Dr Robert Bullard said in the film that if you breathe air, drink water and eat food, you are an environmentalist even if you don’t know it! For one needs a clean environment to have access to clean air, water and wholesome food. Gan Pei Ling can’t agree more.

Green voters hunting for green reps

by Gan Pei Ling / 22 August 2011 © The Nut Graph

green-votersRUMOURS have been rife since late 2010 that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak might call for the 13th general election by this year before the economy takes a worse turn. As such, not just political parties but civil society has been gearing up for an impending election.

Among the civil society groups are a group of environmentalists, who set up Green Voters in July 2011 to mainstream and highlight environmental issues at the upcoming elections. The collective has yet to finalise its action plan but the idea is to focus candidates and political parties’ attention on environmental issues.

It would be amazing if all contesting candidates in the next general election were posed key questions on the environment in their respective constituencies à la The Nut Graph’s MP Watch project.

It is difficult to narrow down the key environmental questions, considering the many environmental issues Malaysia needs to tackle, but here are the questions I would ask candidates standing in my constituency:

1. What’s your stand on nuclear power? Do you agree or disagree that Malaysia needs to go nuclear? Why?

Reactor Unit 3 (right) and Reactor Unit 4 (left) of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant (source: Wiki Commons)

Reactor Unit 3 (right) and Reactor Unit 4 (left) of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant (source: Wiki Commons)

The federal government’s 2010 announcement to build two nuclear power plants in Malaysia by 2021 has received mixed public reactions. The Fukushimameltdown in March 2011 has caused a further negative dip in public perception towards nuclear power.

Germany plans to shut down its nuclear reactor by 2022 but China is going ahead with its plan to build 36 reactors within the decade while our Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said nuclear remains an “option” for Malaysia.

Regardless whether a candidate supports or objects to nuclear power, I’m more interested in the reasons for their stand.

2. Would you support an amendment to make public consultation compulsory before a forest reserve can be de-gazetted? Why?

Currently, forests, including those that have been gazetted as reserves can be cleared in the name of development for, say, highway construction without public inquiry except in one state. Selangor made history in April 2011 when it passed an amendment to the state’s Forestry Act to ensure a public inquiry must be held before a forest reserve can be excised. However, other states have yet to emulate Selangor’s move.

Our elected representatives should understand that sustainable development is crucial if we want to ensure tragedies such as the 21 May 2011 Hulu Langat landslide, 2008 Bukit Antarabangsa landslide and 1993 Highland Towers collapse do not recur. We need to protect ecologically-sensitive areas not just for conservation purposes but also for our own sake.

Damage caused by the Bukit Antarabangsa landslide of 6 Dec 2008 (Pic courtesy of Raj Kumar)

A properly implemented public consultation process would not only serve to promote transparency and accountability but also encourage participatory democracy among our citizens.

3. Would you support tax rebates for developers and property owners that incorporate eco-friendly designs such as rainwater harvesting systems and solar panels? Why?

This question was inspired by the Petaling Jaya City Council’s initiative to introduce a tax rebate scheme for “green” houses in the city, which is expected to be finalised by the city council by the end of 2011.

The tax rebate scheme would also complement the federal government’s feed-in-tariff system which would allow individuals to sell electricity produced from renewable energy back to Tenaga Nasional Berhad.

4. Would you work with the local council(s) to promote recycling and set up more recycling centres in your constituency?

Ideally, such initiatives should be done by local councillors but local government elections have yet to be restored. So it would not be too much to ask of our Member of Parliament and state assemblyperson to work with the appointed local councillors in their constituencies to promote recycling, would it?

There are other important questions that are more localised. For example, if I were a voter in Pahang, I would ask the contesting candidates on their stand on the Lynas rare earth refinery. If I were a voter in Sarawak, I would ask the candidates whether all the dams the state is constructing are really necessary.

For too long election issues have been determined by politicians and political parties, often centred on race, ethnicity and religion. If elections were to truly reflect the people’s will, then the rakyat needs to take the initiative to determine the agenda of an election instead of allowing politicians to steer public discourse along populist and often divisive and unhelpful lines.

Disclosure: Gan Pei Ling was invited by forest conservationist Lim Teck Wyn to join Green Voters but has remained mostly a dormant member. Still, she is always inspired by citizens’ initiative to reclaim democratic processes, especially the elections, and thinks it’s definitely worth highlighting.