An engineer (right) involved in the mitigation work under intense questioning by Penang Forum steering committee members as Chow Kon Yeow (centre) looks down.
A heated discussion took place during a site visit to Botak Hill (Bukit Relau) this morning over whether the work being carried out was mitigation or restoration.
Half a dozen Penang Forum steering committee members, who had been invited along with about two dozen media personnel for a site visit, were alarmed to see at close range the extent of the “mitigation”. Steep embankments, evidence of rock blasting and landscaping, along with large drainage systems were visible.
The activists peppered the engineers involved in the mitigaton work and MBPP engineer Rajendran with relentless questions as they sought to establish the nature of the mitigation work and whether restoration would be eventually carried out.
“Restoration is Penang Forum’s word (not ours),” countered Penang state exco member Chow Kon Yeow.
At one point, while defending the mitigation work, Rajendran appeared to lose his cool, prompting MBPP president Patahiyah to intervene and ask him to calm down, “we are all friends here”.
The concern among the activists is that the mitigation work could be paving the way for residential development of bungalows in the longer term. Instead, they want the site restored to its original condition.
The engineers, for their part, spoke about planting grass and some trees, whereas Penang Forum members asked why restoration specialists and forestry experts were not engaged for more careful restoration. MBPP councillor Lim Mah Hui said he had given the names of ecological restoration experts to the MBPP a long time ago.
Penang exco member Chow Kon Yeow was then asked if the state authorities would approve any development on the hill top, which is well over 250 feet above sea level.
“If they submit an application, we will consider,” he said, cryptically. “We could reject it.”
“But you could also approve it, right?” said another activist, to which Chow nodded.
The state government had earlier said there would be no development at the top.
Although this was supposed to be a site visit, the Penang Forum steering committee members were not taken to the actual plot at the top belonging to General Accomplishment.
Instead, the government four-wheel drives ferrying the groups stopped short, at the upper-most edge of the adjacent property lot below, which belongs to Boon Siew. (The access road to the Bukit Relau summit cuts through this lot.)
Activists had wanted to see if there were any plots for bungalows on the flat land at the summit, but they were not taken there.
But see drone photos below taken in late 2015:
One avid hiker who had visited the site told me work would stop whenever hikers neared the site.
Further below, still above the 250 feet above sea level threshold, work on 17 luxury bungalows under the Beverly Heights project by another developer is nearing completion. The steep, high retaining wall between the bungalows and the access road stands almost vertically.
Mitigation and restoration of Botak Hill
By Penang Forum steering committee
The hills of Penang not only play important ecological roles as water catchment areas and for biodiversity conservation but also have strong cultural and heritage values recognised by Penangites to be at par with the heritage significance of George Town.
Regrettably, there have been increasing cases of illegal land clearing on the hills of Penang over the past years which must be checked. The most daring and visible of recent illegal hill land clearing has happened on Bukit Relau at the location that is now popularly known as Botak Hill1.
The Penang Forum has been informed that mitigation work is being carried out as part of the effort to restore Botak Hill.
It should be pointed out that mitigation and restoration are different, although these two terms are sometimes loosely used interchangeably. We need to be clear that any illegal hill cutting, earthwork, construction and road building should be restored to its original condition. Mitigation work for drainage and soil erosion prevention should be a temporary activity and removed when restoration and rehabilitation work is completed.
The EU defines mitigation as ‘measures to avoid, reduce and, if possible, remedy significant adverse effects’ (European Union, 1985).
Typically, it is used in project planning and also during project implementation. However, after the project, and when the adverse impacts are evident, these are measures to reduce impacts and ensure safety.
In hill slope projects, mitigation is often an engineering approach that seeks to prevent further adverse projects such as soil erosion and landslides. However, mitigation measures are for legal and approved projects. In the case of illegal construction, such as the extensive hill cutting on Bukit Relau or more popularly known as Botak Hill, mitigation by itself is not enough.
Mitigation measures, as a first step to reduce soil erosion of the illegally cleared land and to address safety concerns, must be limited and be environmentally sensitive and must not lead to a greater scale of clearing and destruction than is necessary.
Mitigation measures should not be a prelude for residential development housing projects on hill slopes higher than 250 feet above sea level, in the expectation that there may be changes in hill development policy and that residential development would be permitted on hills.
Restoration of damaged ecosystems
Restoration of a degraded ecosystem involves taking measures to return the ecosystem to its original natural state. It would require more time, effort and expertise to replant the vegetation that had been destroyed.
There is now a well-accepted methodology for restoration of cleared and degraded land based on a sub-discipline in ecological science called restoration ecology and it is now practised in many countries for hilly areas. In Asia, it is widely practised in China and the Philippines. Japan prohibits the clearing of forests especially on hill slopes, which hence do not need restoration.
Restoration of Botak Hill
Since Bukit Relau was illegally cleared and there had been no permission to turn the whole area for residential development, the damaged area must be restored to its original condition. The current engineering mitigation measures should be a temporary measure and the aim would be a restoration of the forest in the hills.
There are consultancy companies, mainly based in Kuala Lumpur, that can undertake restoration projects with the involvement of foresters and forest ecologists. In 2013, when the issue of illegal land clearing on Botak Hill received public attention, the Penang Forum did suggest bringing in a forest ecologist from the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) to provide advice on restoring the cleared area – but did not get a response from the then MPPP (now MBPP).
Penang Forum maintains that measures to rehabilitate the ecosystem to its original condition should be the requirement for all illegal hill cutting, unapproved earthworks and deforestation. It reiterates that, specifically for Botak Hill, restoration measures must be carried out under advice and guidance of restoration ecology experts.
Penang Forum steering committee
26 January 2016