Standing up to defend Penang’s fishing community

·9-min read
Standing up to defend Penang’s fishing community
Standing up to defend Penang’s fishing community

MALAYSIANSKINI | No one could imagine that a fisherman would take on the state government and succeed in blocking its ambitious plans to develop the Penang south coast.

But Zakaria Ismail (above) made history when he challenged the environmental impact assessment (EIA) approval for the controversial Penang South Islands (PSI) reclamation project at the Appeals Board level.

The EIA, which has now been revoked by the Department of Environment (DOE), was initially approved on June 25, 2019, by the department's director-general, but Zakaria, 64, who hails from a generation of fisherfolk from Sungai Batu, has been protesting against the project further back - since 2016.

The fishing community was alarmed over the state's plan to build three artificial islands at the southern coast of Penang to help fund the state's ambitious Penang Transport Master Plan.

Spanning 1,821ha (equivalent to the size of about 2,550 football fields), the islands will see industrial zones, tourist attractions, education hubs, and housing projects, including affordable housing.

Zakaria was almost in tears when the appeals board supported his appeal, based on the Environmental Quality Act 1974.

The former laboratory assistant at USM’s School of Industrial Technology (Food Division), did not claim the victory for himself as he credited no less than 185 fisherfolk who supported his mission to challenge the reclamation project.

"It was the fisherfolk from several fishing units, the various NGOs, lawyers, academics, ulama, and ordinary citizens of Penang who were steadfastly united with us in this protest.

"This project would have not only brought a negative impact to the community here, but it would have also destroyed our waters and the environment," Zakaria told Malaysiakini when met at Sungai Batu for an interview.

"We saw what happened in other places like Tanjung Tokong and Gurney Drive, where our fisherfolk friends and relatives suffered after reclamation was carried out in the area. We do not want to suffer the same fate," he added.

Zakaria's journey began when he was a part-time fisherman, helping his dad out at sea during the 1970s.

He furthered his studies and landed himself a job as a laboratory assistant in USM in 1978, after which he took early retirement in 2011, and returned full-time to fishing. Today, he is the Sungai Batu Fisherman Unit chairperson.

Zakaria said several groups came together under the #PenangTolakTambak umbrella to write protest letters, issue joint statements, and organise rallies.

They even marched to Parliament in November 2018 to hand over a memorandum to then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, seeking his intervention to cancel the project.

Since then, many political leaders took interest in the group's plight, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, his daughter, Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah, and then agriculture minister Salahuddin Ayub.

However, it was no easy task to mount the appeal, as there were many threats, warnings, and counter efforts against the group's mission to see an end to the PSI.

"Some of our supporters caved in to the threats, but the struggle goes on.

"Our stand is clear and it remains that there shall be no reclamation and no artificial islands in our seas in Penang.

"If it is carried out, the project not only destroys our livelihood but those who live in other areas as well, on the mainland, and even other states like Kedah or Perak," Zakaria claimed.

The Penang state government, which promised that the project would be part of its sustainable development efforts, did not respond well to the verdict at the Appeals Board.

On Sept 16, state executive councillor (infrastructure and transport) Zairil Khir Johari said the state government will seek a judicial review over the Appeal Board's decision to revoke the EIA for the PSI.

Penang will also submit a new EIA report for the project, Zairil added.

The verdict was read out by Sessions Court judge Rozina Ayob on Sept 8, who chaired the board, with UKM environmental specialist Mazlin Mokhtar and UPM EIA expert Ramdzani Abdullah as members.

The appeal board held that it was “premature” for the department’s director-general to approve the EIA based on the Penang Structure Plan 2030 even before the plan was officially gazetted.

The Penang Structure Plan 2030 was gazetted four months later, on Oct 24, 2019.

The board's decision set aside the Department of Environment's director-general's approval of the PSI EIA as it was ultra vires of Section 34A(4)(a) of the Environmental Quality Act 1974.

Zakaria’s lawyer Meenakshi Raman said the verdict is significant for all future EIA approvals by the DOE and will ensure that the department’s director-general makes decisions to ensure that EIAs comply with structure plans or local plans.

Here, Zakaria speaks in his owns words about his struggle, saying that unity among all sectors in society is the best "political party" to ensure success in any people's movement.

WE, THE FISHERFOLK UNITS IN THE SOUTH, started our protest against the sea reclamation in 2016, when the state declared the ambition to build the PSI, a project involving three islands A, B, and C, spanning 4,500 acres.

We viewed the project seriously, as the fishing community in Telok Kumbar, Sungai Batu, Gertak Sanggul, Permatang Damar Laut, and Telok Tempoyak has always fished in this area.

This area is considered "gold", rich with resources from the sea with the daily catch of ikan kembung, udang galah, bawal, and others.

In the beginning, we were not aware that all the areas I mentioned would be affected by the proposed reclamation. But since we learnt about the impact of the project on all our sites, we started writing letters of protest to the developer, fisheries department, district offices, as well as state and federal governments.

Year after year, we continued writing protest letters until there was a briefing for all fisherfolk at Tabung Haji and a public hearing in Hotel Lexis.

Ministers came to see us and we continued to protest. Later we joined a rally to march to Parliament and after that Anwar Ibrahim visited us here in Sungai Batu.

I was one of the hard-headed people who fiercely protested the reclamation project. Year after year I never gave up.

In 2016, DOE approved the EIA and I made the appeal to cancel the project with the help of Theiva Lingam and Meenakshi, our legal counsel.

WE HAD A MASSIVE DEMONSTRATION AT PADANG KOTA LAMA before Covid-19 put an end to our physical gatherings.

On Sept 8, the Appeals Board decision sided with us, to cancel the EIA approval by the DOE.

When we were successful in our bid to stop the project, I was moved. I could not believe it as this was the first of such cases in Malaysia.

It will now be a precedent for similar cases in the country. I thank Allah that our sweat and hard work - not me but by everyone, especially the fishing units, involved in this struggle - protesting against this project has finally paid off.

As for Penang's plan for judicial review, they cannot take us to court for this matter but they may resubmit a new plan. As far as we are concerned, I will always ensure that this area will remain protected and beneficial to us fisherfolk and all Penangites.

We are firm in not wanting a single area reclaimed, not even one island.

To me, even if the project involves one island, the effects of sea pollution would be tremendous. The after-effects are far-reaching, to the mainland and as far as northern Perak and southern Kedah.

Water runs 24 hours, two tides a day. Unlike land, which may be affected only when there is a storm. On the sea, the impact quadruples in a day, during low and high tides, twice a day.

MANY OUT THERE DO NOT UNDERSTAND. I have been a fisherman for almost 44 years. I used to follow my dad and grandfather. I learnt how to fish from them. Until today, I remain a fisherman.

Our daily earnings depend on various factors, for example, the weather, season, and sea tides. There are months I can work for 20 to 25 days but when it's a monsoon season like now, our earnings dip.

So far we were only promised compensation but most of us have not received it yet. Take for example, if we are given only RM20,000 compensation how will we survive or carry on our work as fisherfolk?

We look at what happened to our friends affected by the Seri Tanjung Pinang reclamation. I tear up when I saw my fisher friends affected by the Gurney Drive reclamation.

They are now isolated, limited to a certain area and can hardly make a living as fisherfolk. Compensation alone is not enough for better boats, engines, nets, and equipment. These alone can come up to RM100,000.

At the moment, Sungai Batu fisherfolk have yet to receive any compensation as most do not agree to the reclamation.

I WAS ATTACKED A LOT ON SOCIAL MEDIA FOR PURSUING THIS PROTEST.

They tried to persuade my own friends and fellow fishermen to go against me, to sign approval for the project, but they remained steadfast in supporting me. Those who signed were only about 16 people.

But they eventually realised they were "cheated" by being promised facilities and others, but actually, they did not receive anything before signing. After getting RM500 only they realised they were deceived.

We have met Deputy Chief Minister Ahmad Zakiyuddin Abdul Rahman and the project developer in Batu Maung.

That day, we protested at length against the project from 3pm to 7pm. I even missed my afternoon prayers but I considered it as doing an intense battle for something good.

So when we finally won at the Appeals Board, I was overjoyed.

I UNDERSTAND THERE ARE ACCUSATIONS SAYING I am a member of a political party. Since my younger days, I have never joined any political party. Umno or PAS, none. My days are filled with work and prayers. I have to leave home very early to fish and return home at about 3.30pm.

My father often advised me not to join politics. Politics is not good, he used to say, so I have listened to my dad's advice.

I'm truly grateful to the fisherfolk who believed in me, for allowing me to represent them in the appeal.

I am thankful to Penang Forum and Sahabat Alam Malaysia and the many NGOs, activists, academicians, ulama, and ordinary folks who helped us in our journey.

United we are strong, and being sincere in our struggle, regardless of race, religion, and social status, we succeeded in our appeal against the PSI.

When we are united, nothing can stop us. The best political party should be like this.

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