On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Stop destroying our hills

Bald spot: Rampant farming and construction on Penang Hill has caused it to become bald in many parts. — Drone photography by Se Vena Networks Sdn Bhd

PENANGITES are furious over the continuing destruction of their beloved hills. We are incensed at the wanton destruction of our hill slopes, whether for agriculture or housing, leaving ugly bald patches on our hills.

The hills fronting the seaside resorts of Tanjung Bungah and Batu Ferringhi are more visible and we have seen how, over the years, the plush green slopes are no longer there. And also affected is the quality of the seawater and the beaches.

And we need to be on constant guard because there is always the fear that another spot on the hills there will be singled out for development. It is telling that even the DAP assemblyman there, Teh Yee Cheu, lashed out against hillslope projects in Penang. He even went bald in a symbolic protest over what he deemed as insufficient action taken against the landowner over the bald spot on Bukit Relau in January 2014.

Penang island is geographically unique in that the hills are in the centre of the island. That is why it is possible to cycle round the island, as what many of us did in our younger days. In the much earlier days, we could easily see the development going on in the hills fronting the popular beaches.

But today, the clearing of hillslopes on the other sides of the hills is not so clearly visible to the naked eye.

Which is why our Page One exclusive story last Saturday, “True picture exposed”, (The Star, April 23, 2016) really shook everyone up.

It is a sorry state of affairs for the pictures captured using drones reveal that this has been going on for some time now.

The bald patches caused by slope clearing are getting bigger and the terraced slopes indicate that they are almost ready for the farmers to move in.

This has gone on for far too long. Nobody seems to care and nor does anyone want to be responsible. All the big talk of protecting and respecting the environment by the politicians, especially during the elections, has remained empty promises.

The Star has continued to speak up on the degradation of Penang’s hills because this newspaper started in Penang 45 years ago.

Penang Hill, or Bukit Bendera, is a prime tourist attraction and we are always sensitive towards any development or activities that threaten its pristine environment.

Likewise, we are also sensitive to any activity that threatens the hills of Penang because they are environmentally-sensitive ecosystems. The ramifications to the rest of the island are immediate.

On the peninsula, for example, we are told that activities on the Main Range can have effects all the way to the coastlines. What more an island like Penang where the hills in the middle serve similar functions, like acting as a sponge to ensure water resources are protected?

Many of the senior editors of this media group, including this writer, started our careers in Penang. We are true Penangites because we were born and raised in the state, and we remain connected to the people.

We want our concerns on the continued rape of the hills to be heard because we have already lost much of our beautiful seas. We do not want to see our hills become a footnote in history.

Our seas are now filthy and no longer fit for swimming. We know what we are talking about because the beaches and waters were once clean when we were children.

Come every Sunday, our parents would take us to Gurney Drive to dig for small mussels and it was possible then to collect sea shells. Now, Gurney Drive is just mud and dirt when the tide is low. It’s a disgrace, really.

Take a ride on the ferry back then and one can see jellyfish floating by and even the occasional flying fishes. Even at the Esplanade, we could see sword fishes swimming by the walls of the promenade.

Concerned Penangites, wherever they may be, continue to bring up these environmental issues, including the loss of our forests, mudslides and the pollution of water catchment areas. It is sad when our views are greeted with defensive statements.

Worse, we are dismissed as troublemakers out to challenge the authorities or to embarrass the state government.

It is not just in Penang but in other states too, where each time we highlight such issues, the reactions are similar. We have been consistent in highlighting how rivers, once alive with fishes, have gone dead. In Cameron Highlands, for example, we have repeatedly exposed those who destroyed the hills.

It is incredible that Penang’s hills, as highlighted in our reports, have been cleared illegally and yet they have escaped the attention of the relevant authorities.

The officials boldly claimed they have not been sleeping when shown the evidence, but we wonder why they have not acted and still need to verify the status of such destruction.

Yes, of course, they are “monitoring the situation and studying the next course of action”. A committee will be set up and more sub-committees will also be formed even as the destruction proceeds.

The questions remain – why have the local authorities not monitored the situation and taken preventive action as the cutting down of trees continued.

The Penang Green Council, for example, has remained silent on the many reports that have been brought up by the media.

While the attention of the public and non-governmental organisations are against high-density property development in hilly areas, we must also not forget the illegal clearing by farmers, which is just as bad.

This has been going on for decades but Penangites are now waking up because the bald patches have become more visible.

It used to be known as just Bukit Relau but now Penangites call it Botak Hill to signal the seriousness of the destruction.

Its bald spot can be seen all the way from the Penang Bridge and on a clear day, from the mainland. Yes, that’s how bad it is.

Mitigation work is now being carried out costing possibly up to RM50mil but we have to see how successful the rescue work will be. And no one is prepared to give a commitment that the hill, once healed, would be protected.

Penangites have the right to demand answers and accountability. Enough of throwing challenges for debates, let’s just get the job done.