KUALA LUMPUR - A plan by the Selangor state government, which is controlled by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, to turn a massive forest reserve into yet another development project has run into stiff opposition from environmentalists and local residents, as well as PH ministers in the federal government.
The issue is a tricky one to negotiate for PH leaders, as the Selangor Crown Prince Tengku Amir Shah Sultan Idris Shah is a stakeholder in the company jointly developing the 931ha plot with the Selangor government.
Although the royal families are symbolic heads of states in Malaysia's constitutional monarchy system, they wield significant influence. Malaysian politicians largely avoid clashing with them as they are also symbolic heads of Malays and Islam.
An official source told The Straits Times that some 364ha of the proposed development will be owned by state-run company Menteri Besar Inc (MBI), while the remaining 566.56ha will be awarded to a private company called Titian Jutaria.
In comparison, Sentosa island is about 470ha in size.
According to its company profile lodged with the Companies Commission of Malaysia, the two directors of Titian Jutaria are Crown Prince Tengku Amir Shah and Mr Syed Budriz Putra Jamalullail, the nephew of Selangor's Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah.
The company profile also states that one "Sultan Idris Shah" owns 40 per cent of the issued share capital of Titian Jutaria, while Mr Syed Budriz owns the remaining 60 per cent.
Environmentalists say removing the 931ha swamp forest reserve, known as the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLFNR), from the protected list, will displace more than 2,000 Orang Asli aborigines and critically endangered species such as the Malayan sun bear at a time of worsening climate change.
The peatland forest, estimated to be around 8,000 years old, was gazetted as a reserve forest in 1927 and measured 7,247ha at the time. But over the years, chunks of the forest have been dug up for development projects.
Federal lawmaker Xavier Jayakumar, who is Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister and the MP for Kuala Langat, has objected to the latest development plan.
An online petition has been launched on Tuesday (Feb 18) to block the move, after the Selangor Forestry Department published a notice on the proposal to degazette 931ha of the forest reserve for a "mixed development" in a local newspaper earlier this month .
"We should not be destroying green lungs for development, what more an area that has been specially gazetted since 1927," said Mr Jayakumar, who is from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), one of the four component parties of PH.
Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari, who is also from PKR, has defended the plan, saying opening up the land will prevent fires.
"Forty per cent of the area is depleted forest and frequently catches fire, and it no longer has any elements of a forest reserve or virgin forest. It is a depleted forest. There are no trees and its ecosystem has been disrupted," he told a news conference on Thursday (Feb 20).
He said there were already development projects around KLNFR. "So, we are ending its permanent forest reserve status to prevent forest fires."
He added that the proposal would not diminish the number of forest reserves in Selangor as it would be replaced with new areas, along with an additional 121ha.
Datuk Seri Amirudin also brushed aside claims by the Orang Asli that there were documents proving their ownership of land in the reserve.
"How can there be a black and white document (of their ownership)? The only black and white there is, is for roaming and foraging land for the Orang Asli, as far as we know," he said.
Mr Amirudin was asked about a government gazette in 1927, under which some 7,200ha were awarded to the Orang Asli by the then Selangor ruler, Sultan Abdul Samad Tengku Abdullah.
The land had been given to the Orang Asli as a reward for the services of one of their ancestors who had served in the sultan's guard, Rahman Pahat, the headman of three villages in the area was quoted as saying by The Malaysian Insight news website on Thursday.
The Orang Asli settlements have already been moved out from the reserve forest earlier, Mr Amirudin claimed, although he conceded that old burial grounds of the Orang Asli have yet to be relocated.
Members of the public can still submit their objections to the Selangor Forestry Department before March 5, he said, adding that he had received over 2,000 objections to date.
Mr Amiruddin also said that part of the mega East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) being built by the PH federal government will run through the forest. He said this was one of the reasons for degazetting the reserve. But ECRL project owner Malaysia Rail Link said on Friday (Feb 21) it had not applied to degazette the area and would apply for permission to use a portion of the protected forest.
PROXY BATTLE IN PKR
The issue can complicate relations between the Selangor royal house and the PH coalition that rules Malaysia and Selangor state.
In the deforestation plan, the issue has an added twist in that it has become a proxy battle for the two warring factions in PKR.
Many of those opposing the project are allies of PKR president Anwar Ibrahim, while the Selangor Chief Minister Amiruddin is a staunch ally of Datuk Seri Azmin Ali, the party's deputy president.
Mr Xavier, the federal minister, supports the pro-Anwar faction.
Representatives from the pro-Anwar group in PKR called Otai Reformis 1998 delivered a memorandum opposing the plan to the state government on Wednesday (Feb 19).
Otai Reformis 1998 secretary Abdul Razak Ismail said: "The area being pushed for degazettement is roughly the size of 2,290 football fields."
The development is for a high-end mixed project and sand excavation for sale to other developments, he claimed.
Illegal sand mining had been ongoing, according to complaints from the Orang Asli community, but now the proposal to degazette the forest would be seen as approving the activity, Mr Abdul Razak was quoted as saying by The Star daily.
Experts also warned that the forest is important for climate control as peatland acts as a natural carbon store.
"If the development of KLNFR went ahead, it could release 5.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, contributing to local as well as global warming and climate change problems," Global Environment Centre director Faizal Parish said.