Did you know that swiftlet breeders, eyeing the lucrative edible nests market, have taken over 8.3 per cent of some 3,500 pre-war buildings in George Town?
Photos show the interior of a converted house, the installation of a compressor and the bricked up windows at the rear of the building
One concerned George Town resident expresses alarm. This letter was sent to The Star in response to a report but was not published:
I read with interest the article ‘Swiftly growing’ and what Association of Swiftlet Nest Industry(ASNI) president, Carole Loh, had to say about swiftlet farming. It is a very lucrative business indeed but I strongly believe it is best suited to areas where the birds naturally feed, over agricultural or forest areas, or in combination with agriculture, in areas of low population. Ms Loh is totally correct when she says that it is a risky business with an 80 per cent failure rate but the business is becoming much more about technique (than she says) to attract the birds in the first place. There are really no secrets anymore. All the information you need to start a brand new swiftlet breeding house is readily available on the internet, as are the tapes and tunes needed to attract or detract the birds to/from your artificial cave.
In the heritage area of George Town the “booming” industry is indeed taking over the Unesco World Heritage site and now should be viewed as a danger to the human population. The fact that it is called “swiftlet farming” gives you the first clue that you are breeding and farming, like chickens, a huge number of birds in a confined area right within a living, working, eating local population. The reason the heritage buildings are so popular is that the investment needed to turn these lovely old buildings into damp, dank caves is much less that that required to build a custom-designed swift house in the more appropriate agricultural zone. Here it will cost you between RM800,000 to RM1 million to complete a customised four-storey birdhouse. In the heritage houses all the breeders need do is rip out original windows and doors, block up the openings, rip out internal walls, set up a sprinkler system and buckets of water, put up the planks with grooves for the birds to cling to, set up the very loud noise- polluting tapes and finally, ‘restore’ very prettily, the frontage of the heritage house. A little make-up hides a multitude of sins.
The bird’s nests are “believed” to keep you young, give you clear skin, and a whole host of promises. A lot depends on how the nests are treated as often they are treated with chemicals “believed” (by some) to cause cancer. To give credit, Malaysian bird nests are more sought after because up to now, they apparently use less chemicals in the cleaning treatment than their Indonesian competitors.
The bird’s are certainly becoming a potential health hazard just because of their sheer numbers. This bird aerodramus fucihagus (although it may be in fact a sub species of the same – this has yet to be confirmed because of lack of scientific research into the various species) is naturally a cave dweller and listed as ‘endangered’. Certainly as I was growing up, it was. As a result, the product itself needs licences to be exported. In theory a licence is required even if you are a tourist buying it and taking it out of the country. Breeders require licences from Perhilitan and are supposed to take a course with the Veterinary Services Department. The bird numbers started to increase as artificial breeding and the desire to stay young helped promote this product as a business. The business has certainly been here in George Town within a very limited number of buildings, for quite a number of years. However, in the last 10 years or so the increase in population has certainly taken it out of being endangered and into the realms of being a pest. The tsunami that struck Sumatra so badly boosted numbers here in Malaysia because apparently the birds hated the instability and seismic activity over the water and fled here. After the tsunami, opportune breeders set up in large numbers along the coast from Pantai Remis, Lumut, Setiawan and into Teluk Intan and again, it has exploded here in George Town.
According to Ms Loh “at least 8.3 per cent of 3,500 prewar buildings have been restored by breeders”. This is very interesting. This means at least 290.5 houses within the core and buffer heritage zone of George Town have been taken over by bird houses. With 82 streets in this same zone, this means if we spread it all evenly, we in George Town live with 3.5 houses farming birds, per street. We all know swifts are birds, but if we had 3.5 houses breeding thousands of chickens per street, the Health and Safety Department would not let us do it. A bird is a bird after all.
These figures are also interesting because according to Council, breeders need licences and permits. According to the Licensing Department, only 29 houses have permits or permits pending. The last State Government decided to stop issuing permits in 2005 (perhaps it could foresee a potential health threat to its people?) and announced that the swift breeders would be moved out by end 2008. In the meantime, there are about 150 bird houses recorded with no permits, just in the core zone. According to Ms Loh’s calculations there are in fact about 261.5 bird houses with no permits. It would be great if Ms Loh could clarify if in fact when she said “it is not justified to focus on a few errant swiftlet breeders” she meant to say “it is not justified to focus on the few swiftlet breeders WITH permits or permits pending”. With the figures offered it would seem that the ASNI is in fact encouraging the de-population and destruction of heritage buildings, forcing the intangible culture of George Town (its people) out of the heritage zone and risking the Unesco heritage listing of George Town. George Town is not just about pretty frontages on buildings and noisy little birds flying overhead. What has happened to the human loving pairs and sound asleep babies originally living in these very many swift houses?
Dr Christopher Lim, a noted swiftlet authority, disagrees with Ms Loh. He is quoted in The Star Online 23 August 2009, regarding regulations, as saying, “Other rules apply like using only non-residential areas and not using heritage buildings.” He is a doctor and perhaps he just follows a moral code of conduct?
With the news that the swift houses would be relocated out of the heritage zone at the end of 2008, and believing in the integrity of the then State Government we, as a family, decided to invest in a wonderful property to restore and make our home. We felt our investment was protected as we assumed that the swift houses in the Little India area would be relocated and our health would not be put at risk by bird faeces and the airborne fungus spores that grow on bird faeces, not to mention the noise pollution from the tapes and the large number of birds themselves.
Of course then we, the people, voted the current State Government into power based on their integrity and promise to improve the lives of people. You can imagine our disappointment when come end 2009, this State Government decided to extend the period of relocation to end 2009. I’m sure other house owners, investors, developers, all would have been disappointed as suddenly, a home hard worked for is compromised by the possibility that the birds next door won’t be moved or that new birds would move in next door. We moved into our home in February 2009 counting the months to the end of 2009 whilst watching around us, the heritage houses being dismantled and swift houses then built and established with no plans and no bother from council, and of course no permits. We wondered what had happened to basic law. We are citizens, we are rate payers and we pay our taxes. Why did Council allow me no protection from damage next door, from noise pollution and from the threat to my health? Why has Council allowed the breeders to go on investing large sums of money while ignoring basic building laws which Council is surely compelled to act upon? Surely Council has the law to follow eventually, and should not have led the breeders into feeling a sense of false security?
Ms Loh states quite firmly “droppings that we see outside are actually that of pigeons as swiftlets are very particular and they only release their droppings in the house”. I can assure Ms Loh that flying swifts do release their droppings on top of me, my children, my friends and my house and it all needs to be scrubbed with disinfectant. I also know that I do not have hundreds of pigeons sitting or flying over my house every morning and night. They are definitely swifts and the size of the droppings tell me so. I would be very happy to show Ms Loh the difference between swift and pigeon droppings and also inform her that we do in fact have many other bird species, in lesser numbers of course, flying and roosting around George Town.
Ms Loh also says, “The breeders clean the bird houses weekly as the swiftlets like a clean premises.” Please can Ms Loh explain to me why the breeder adjoining our home has green slime oozing from under the roller shutter at the back of his bird house? Can she also explain the stagnant water pools in his property, clearly visible from our house and the sprinkler system which keeps our adjoining wall water damaged. Ms Loh claims that the breeders use humidifiers not sprinkler systems. I’m afraid that this is not true.
As president of ASNI, Ms Loh surely is compelled to make sure the breeders who are registered with the association, all have permits, follow the basic building guidelines required by Council and also, protect her members by advising them not to invest their hard earned cash when permits are no longer issued.
The State Government has disappointed again. At the end of 2009, swift houses were not relocated despite the building inspectors verbally reassuring me that they would be. Our Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng declared, at the recent conference on the ‘Economics of Heritage Revitalisation’, “We have committed ourselves to Unesco to protect, preserve and promote the George Town World Heritage Site…” He continued, “We must also create a sense of belonging amongst the people of Penang that can connect them with the heritage city of George Town. It is important that heritage conservation is perceived as something alive, relevant to our lives and a source and symbol of pride.” In the end the Chief Minister is responsible for creating either a wonderful place to live and work (It is certainly not too late: the Unesco Status has brought tourists, new business and vitality already. I see it everyday living in the heart of town) or a place alive just with birds, pretty facades and sick people who will not wish to connect with the heritage of George Town. Vietnam is evicting breeders from its towns because it has suffered the consequences from noise, complaints from residents and tourists, and has no emergency measures in case of an outbreak of bird flu. In Batam, Indonesia, eviction is underway to halt the noise pollution and to stop the town from becoming so unsightly. Can we please learn from them instead of making the mistake here?
I am a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen of Malaysia and George Town, who has always worked tirelessly at promoting our wonderful city and country. I am truly gutted by the fact that my State Government offers me no recourse but seems to protect anyone with a house full of birds and the will to flaunt the law, disregard their very own heritage and culture, ignore basic building codes and risk mine and everyone’s health and safety.
A George Town resident
Others too have expressed concern too. Check out this blog here.