A controversial plan by the Selangor government to raze a forest reserve 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 that is nearly twice the size of Singapore's Sentosa Island 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 in Pulau Carey on Tuesday, along with several Selangor lawmakers.
Mr Samsul Anak Senin, an Orang Asli resident and chairman of his village community management council, said at the town hall: "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."
His village is located 50m from the forest.
The planned project is another example of how the 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 the human rights angle or the procedural angle," Centre for Orang Asli Concerns coordinator Colin Nicholas, who was at the meeting, told The Straits Times.
"I see no way that 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 notice announcing its plan to degazette 931ha of the forest for a "mixed development" project, without giving further details.
Some 45,000 written objections to the project have been received by the State Forestry Department.
The plan to develop the degraded forest in Kuala Langat district that is nearly twice the size of Singapore's Sentosa Island comes at a time when Malaysia is experiencing a property glut and a contracting economy.
During a state assembly sitting in March, Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari said two companies had submitted proposals to develop the forest, namely Titian Jutaria - which is linked to the Selangor royal family - and the Selangor state's Menteri Besar Incorporated.
Datuk Seri Amirudin said the two companies would have to pay land premiums of nearly RM323.8 million (S$106.7 million) and land tax to Selangor, 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 added.
"However, before this ownership process can go through, the applicants must go through the degazettement process."
A public hearing must be held and a replacement area gazetted before the plan can proceed.
At the meeting on Tuesday, assemblymen from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) raised questions about the project.
Both PKR and 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.
Mr 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 swop it with another area. You cannot swop biodiversity. The trees cannot walk."
He said that the state government is asking for only RM3 per square foot (psf), while the land price in the area is RM110 psf.
"There are hundreds of millions to be made through this deal," claimed Mr Parish.