Questions raised over controversial plan to raze a forest reserve in Selangor

The Orang Asli community opposing the Selangor government’s proposal to degazette the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

PULAU CAREY, SELANGOR - A controversial plan by the Selangor government to raze a forest reserve nearly twice the size of Sentosa island is being opposed by Malaysia's indigenous Orang Asli community, environmentalists and lawmakers from both sides of the political divide.

The plan to develop the degraded forest in Kuala Langat district comes at a time when Malaysia is experiencing a property glut and a contracting economy due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some 100 Orang Asli and environmentalists attended a town hall meeting on Tuesday (Sept 29), along with several Selangor lawmakers.

"We oppose this plan. This forest is important to us and our future generations. Without the forest, the Orang Asli will become extinct. Our culture and heritage will disappear," Samsul Anak Senin, an Orang Asli resident and chairman of his village community management council, said at the town hall. His village is located 50m from the forest.

The planned project is another tale of how fast-expanding urban sprawl from growing cities is affecting rural communities.

The Orang Asli say the forest is a source of livelihood for them, as they roam and forage the land.

"There are so many arguments against the degazettement, whether it is from the environmental angle, or human rights angle or procedural angle," Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) coordinator Colin Nicholas, who was at the meeting, told The Straits Times.

"I see no way how the state government can still push ahead with this project. If it does so, then this is just a show."

The Selangor administration claims it will replace the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR) with other parcels of land if the plan does go ahead.

In February, the Selangor government, which is controlled by the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, published a public notice announcing its plan to degazette 931ha of the forest for a "mixed development" project with no further details. Sentosa island is about 470ha in size.

Some 45,000 written objections have been received by the state forestry department.

Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari said earlier this year that two companies had submitted proposals to develop the forest, namely Titian Jutaria Sdn Bhd - which is linked to the Selangor royal family - and the Selangor state's Menteri Besar Incorporated.

He said the two companies would have to pay land premiums of nearly RM323.8 million (S$106.7 million) and land tax to the state, as well as fulfil other conditions set by the state.

"The Selangor State Executive Council on Oct 16, 2019, approved 931ha of the KLNFR for land acquisition under Section 76 of the National Land Code 1965," he said during a state assembly sitting in March.

"However, before this ownership process can go through, the applicants must go through the degazettement process," he said.

A public hearing must be held and a replacement area gazetted before the plan can proceed.

At the meeting on Tuesday in Pulau Carey, Selangor, assemblymen from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) rose to ask questions about the project.

Both PKR and the DAP are part of the PH state government and PAS is in the Selangor opposition.

Environmentalists say removing the 931ha peatland forest reserve from the protected list, will displace more than 2,000 Orang Asli and critically endangered species such as the Malayan sun bear.

Datuk Seri Amirudin has defended the plan claiming that 40 per cent of the area is degraded forest and frequently catches fire.

But experts warned that the forest is important for climate control as peatland acts as a natural carbon store.

"This is one of very few remaining peat swamp forests in the southern part of Selangor. It has a high diversity of unique species," Global Environment Centre director Faizal Parish told The Straits Times. "You cannot just swap it with another area. You cannot swap biodiversity. The tree cannot walk."

He said that the state government is asking for only RM3 psf while the land price in the area is RM110 psf. "There's hundreds of millions to be made through this deal," Mr Parish claimed.

There were also complaints that invitations to the town hall were received at short notice and that the venue was far from the forest reserve and inconvenient for the Orang Asli to get to. Attendees said they were initially not allowed to enter the meeting hall.

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