In the wake of the Penang landslide tragedy, it is time to stand up and defend Nature

Once again, it takes a tragedy for us to wake up to the hazards of hill-slope clearing and development – this time in Penang.

Oct 27, 2017

By Anil Netto
Once again, it takes a tragedy for us to wake up to the hazards of hill-slope clearing and development – this time in Penang.

No one can say that this tragedy on Oct 21 was an ‘act of God’ — there was no rainfall in the days preceding the collapse of the hill-slope in Tanjung Bungah which resulted in 11 deaths.

Neither can anyone say that the tragedy was totally unexpected, that there was no warning. Penang Hills Watch, an initiative of Penang Forum, a coalition of civil society groups in the state, had highlighted 59 cases of hill clearings to the state government in three reports earlier this year.

The very first case of the 59 highlighted involved the site of the tragedy. In response, the state government said, on January 26, that “the earthwork is being monitored” at the site.

In the second report submitted to the state government on 2 April 2017, Penang Hills Watch asked about the 29 cases highlighted in the first report. It called on the local council to “exercise due diligence in carrying out inspection procedure as set forth in the ‘Safety Guideline for Hillsite Development 2012’ to ensure that proper mitigation measures are enforced to check further soil erosion and rehabilitate exposed soil surfaces.”

In relation to the first case, along with a couple of other cases, Penang Hills Watch said it hoped the city council “inspects and ensures that safety requirements such as providing buffer zones… are adhered to.”

In fact, Penang Hills Watch received over 150 cases of hill clearings since it was set up last October, the most infamous case being Botak Hill.

Apart from the environmental concerns, the tragedy resulted in the tragic loss of 11 lives – 10 of them migrant workers.

This raises questions about the use of migrant workers in the construction industry throughout the country and their status — whether documented, undocumented or refugees. What are their working conditions? Are all safety procedures followed? What are their living conditions? Are they cramped? Do they have proper sanitation?

Are the workers insured — and are families being properly compensated when workers die at construction sites? Do we even have proper statistics of workplace accidents? Are all injuries and deaths reported to the relevant authorities?

In Penang, the Structure Plan prohibits development above 250 feet above sea level and on gradients steeper than 25 degrees. But loopholes for small so-called ‘special projects’ in the public interest have been exploited to allow large-scale development projects.

Looking at the big picture, perhaps the greed of capitalism that allows society and governments to close one eye to unsustainable development. Such greed encourages people to degrade the environment and take risks with the lives of innocent workers.

No doubt, these massive projects add to the gross domestic product or economic growth of the nation and to the bottom line of developers — but it is an illusion, a mirage.

The ‘growth’ masks the damage done to natural environments as hills are cut bald resulting in erosion on hill slopes. Deep gulleys scar the hill slopes, and whenever it rains, muddy water gushes down the hill slopes, triggering flash floods and occasionally landslides.

We really need to question our development model.

Sure, certain media have been bashing the Penang government, as it is ruled by the opposition. But such greed that destroys the environment is by no means confined to any particular state. Think of the deforestation in Sarawak, the hill-scarring in Pahang, the logging in Kelantan and Ulu Muda in Kedah, and the massive land reclamation around the country.

Often this sort of ‘development’ enriches a relatively small group in society, contributing to income inequality.

Three years ago, the Bishop of Rome urged activists to “stand up to an idolatrous [economic] system which excludes, debases and kills.”

Francis said that various forms of exclusion and injustice are the result of an economic system that “has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.”

Francis added that perhaps the most important task facing the world today is to defend Mother Earth. In words, that will resonate in the aftermath of the Penang tragedy, he warned, “Our common home is being pillaged, laid waste and harmed with impunity. Cowardice in defending it is a grave sin.”

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