Property magnates are profiting from a spate of lucrative land reclamation projects around the country – but in Penang, a body representing the concerns of fisherfolk are concerned about the effects of land reclamation, pollution, siltation and erosion in coastal areas and rivers.
Forbes has just carried a feature: ‘Malaysia’s newest billionaire mints money from reclaiming land and selling dreams’ in Johor.
Others like him have followed the same path, their firms acquiring land reclamation rights on the cheap and profiting immensely from the building of multi-million ringgit waterfront homes and condos. I am told some waterfront homes are now going for as much as RM15m!
Not surprisingly, some of these firms are laughing their way to the bank.
But not everyone is a winner.
Fisherfolk in Penang, for instance, are increasingly concerned about the effects of land reclamation on their livelihoods and the fisheries sector.
A couple of colleagues and I met up with representatives of the Persatuan Nelayan Pantai Pulau Pinang (Penang Inland Fishermen’s Association or Pifwa) over the weekend to listen to their concerns.
We met at the Pifwa premises in the semi-rural town of Sungai Acheh on mainland Penang – a place which reminded me of Balik Pulau about 20 years ago. Green paddy fields, coconut trees, children playing badminton outside their kampong houses.
We were warmly welcomed by Pifwa chairman, Ilyas Shafie, a soft-spoken middle-aged man with a short crop of white hair and a bushy moustache, and a few of his fellow committee members, a couple of whom had weather-beaten features, skin tanned by the sun, evidence of a lifetime’s hard work at sea or along inland rivers.
Ilyas told us Penang is home to some 10000 fisherfolk, including about 4000-5000 regular full-timers.
These fisherfolk are increasingly experiencing tough times.
He listed several concerns felt by the fishing communities on the island and the mainland.
More and more, land reclamation is jeopardising or destroying breeding grounds for fish in the coastal waters of Penang.
As a result, more fisherfolk face the loss of productive fishing areas. The effects of these shrinking waters for fishing are being felt in areas far away from the actual land reclamation site – for example, along the coastal stretch at Bagan Ajam on the mainland all the way north to Penaga.
Land reclamation is also changing coastal tidal patterns and currents, claimed Ilyas. This has affected coastal stretches, causing erosion and siltation.
One of the Pifwa commmitte members claimed that the siltation at Changkat Sungai Jawi had reduced the depth of the river from 15 feet to just five feet, stretching out both his arms horizontally to illustrate the depth. This siltation, he felt, could be due to the impact of the construction of the second Penang Bridge. He claimed that when the bridge was being constructed, the wrong target groups of “fishermen” were initially consulted – those fisherfolk whose fishing areas were further away (Juru?) or part-timers who did not rely heavily on coastal fishing for their livelihoods.
The fisherfolk also complained about pollution of the rivers and seas as a result of industrial pollution, household waste and sewage. The state government may have come up with a No Plastic Bags policy, but the waters around Pulau Jerejak, for instance, are choked with plastic bags.
“Each time a taman is built, a lot of untreated water – household waste, detergents and other chemicals – then flow into drains which then discharge the untreated water into the rivers,” complained a Pifwa office-bearer.
As a result of all these factors, fish catches have shrunk. Not only has this resulted in loss of income for the fisherfolk, fish prices have soared. “People think of the higher fish prices, but they don’t realise our fish catch has dwindled,” one of them said.
So it is not just the fisherfolk who are the losers, the public too are losers as they are forced to buy fish at rocketing prices from waters that are polluted and compromised, say the fisher folks’ reps.
The Pifwa reps say Penang now had to import the bulk of its fish requirements from Thailand – though they believe some of the imported fish from Thailand actually originates from countries such as India, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
We should do more to improve our food security, for there might come a time when other countries might be reluctant to export fish to us.
The supreme irony is that Penang is surrounded by sea water and has one of the largest patches of sea grass in the peninsula – a fertile breeding ground for fish. There is thus absolutely no reason for Penang not to be self-sufficient in fish.
Perhaps the fisheries sector is not seen as ‘glamorous’ enough in the minds of our economic planners and strategists – even though fish is an essential food item that is beneficial for health. And when it comes to a toss up between the interests of the fisherfolk and those of Big Business, it is a no-brainer whose interests will carry the day.
And then we continue to wonder why fish prices are soaring?!