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Reclamation: Penang government will do only what’s best for the people, says ExCo member

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The state government does not merely reclaim land for the sake of reclaiming. Instead, it is part of a much larger goal, says Afif Bahardin.

This article is a reply to a piece written by Ravinder Singh titled “A former fisherman advising other fishermen to follow him…” published in Aliran on 15 October 2019.

I take note of the great offence that Ravinder took upon the analogy of a “parent” and “child” at a recent talk organised by Anak Pinang. If I am not mistaken, it was uttered by a former fisherman who supported the project.

Though I understand and recognise Ravinder’s disagreement with the metaphor, allow me to digress a little on his criticism, where he wrote:

“They do not give or make things for their children that would harm them physically, mentally, emotionally or in any other way.” By “they”, I believe he meant the state government.

I want to assure Ravinder and Aliran readers that the Penang state government is very clear on our goal and agenda in promoting economic growth and ensuring long-term prosperity to most residents in Penang.

We try to achieve this while ensuring that minority groups, those who will bear the brunt of such a trade-off – in this case, the fishermen – are protected.

From fisher folk who are worried about their livelihoods, concerns from civil society groups … and of course, having to deal with political elements who are spinning this into a racial issue by playing the “Melayu-hilang-tanah” (Malays-losing-their-land) card … we are very much aware of the challenges we will have to face.

Nevertheless, there are times where we must make difficult decisions in deciding trade-offs to gain benefits for the longer term. The state government does not merely reclaim land for the sake of reclaiming.

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Instead, it is part of a much larger goal of building a comprehensive transport network and industrial infrastructure for Penang.

Of course, we are aware that these fishermen will be the group that will bear the brunt of this trade-off. Thus, it is our policy to ensure that they will be not left out from this development – whether in terms of ensuring sustainability of their fishing grounds or providing a better future for them by proposing an alternative means of making a living, apart from just fishing.

While it is great for us to romanticise their work, data shows that the monthly catch of that area (southern Penang shoreline) has been declining for the past ten years.

A social impact assessment study conducted at the affected area in 2016 showed that less than 8% of fishers today bring in a monthly catch of more than 200kg, a whopping 58% drop from 10 years ago. This clearly shows that the decline is independent of the reclamation effects.

The study also points out that only one-fifth of the fishers have their children inheriting their livelihood or at least are part of their fishing operation – which points out the difference between romanticising a fishermen’s work and the reluctance of the younger generation to become fishermen.

I would like to point out Ravider’s simplistic insinuation that the Ministry of Agriculture stated that this project would ultimately destroy the fishing habitat of the area. I find this misleading because, based on the actual statement by the minister, the word menjejaskan was used, which means affected.

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We also took note of the minister’s recommendations for us to undertake several mitigating measures to balance the effects on the fishing ecosystem while at the same time pushing for compensation to those who are affected.

First and foremost, we must understand that less than 20% of fishing boats currently operate within the area of the reclamation footprint.

As a measure of making sure these fishers can continue their activities, a buffer zone of 250m from the shoreline is to be gazetted as a navigation channel, followed by dredging work (deepening of the channel) so that their boats will have easier access to the open sea.

Additionally, four floating jetties are to be built throughout the channel, which is an upgrade from the current fishing infrastructure.

In addressing the concerns of the impact on the fishing ecosystem, we will undertake various ecological offset programs to address these issues. From the installation of artificial reefs in Pulau Rimau and Pulau Kendi, the setting up of eco-engineering sea walls throughout the southern Penang shoreline to mangrove reforestation projects in Tanjung Tempoyak and Pulau Betong.

Meanwhile, to contain the ecological impact of the reclamation work, a ring of containment bund is to be built around the dredging area followed by a silt curtain to contain sediment from spreading out of the reclamation zone.

Finally, while Ravinder pushes for the “board of directors” analogy in describing the Penang State Government, personally, I would still prefer to stick to parent metaphor – not because we get to dictate on things.

Rather, as parents there will be times when we have to make tough decisions, riddled with risks and uncertainties, to ensure the long-term prosperity of our family. Of course, it usually comes without a shortage of critics who may disagree with us.

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We are aware that sometimes the right decisions are also unpopular ones. Nevertheless, we must persevere and balance between the needs of everyone in the state, regardless of race, religion, whether of those on the island or mainland and even, well, especially fishers.

Polling sentiments do not determine our decision-making; it is the wellbeing of all Penangites that guides our decisions. I hope this clears the air.

Dr Afif Bahardin, a Penang state executive councillor, is also the state assembly member for Seberang Jaya.

Aliran reproduces here an extract of a Sun news report on Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Minister Salahuddin Ayub’s remarks in July 2019. We leave it to readers to gauge the extent of the damage caused by the land reclamation:

KUALA LUMPUR: The Penang South Reclamation (PSR) project will have grave, lasting impact on the fishery industry in Penang, affecting an estimated RM555 million in potential annual income for fishermen.

Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry Minister Datuk Salahuddin Ayub said that the Fisheries Department had previously noted that the project would drastically affect marine life and the livelihood of the fishermen.

He explained that this was due to permanent damage and residual impact caused to the mudflat ecosystem and fishing ground, affects the prawn population due to loss of a migration route, and because the project is expected to only be completed in 15 years time.

“The implementation of the project will affect 4,996 fishermen in Penang, 1,422 of which are traditional fishermen,” he told the Dewan Rakyat, here today.

“It is estimated that 51,184 metric tonnes of marine captures in Penang worth RM555 million a year will be affected due to this permanent destruction.

“The PSR project will also affect some 511 aquaculture breeders with production of 45,742 metric tonnes valued at RM1.67 billion,” he added.

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