Fishers struggle with land reclamation in Malaysia

Building artificial islands risks ecological damage and economic uncertainty for local fishers

Forest City land reclamation Johor, Malaysia

Forest City Johor rises from the mudflats at the southern tip of Peninsula Malaysia near the border with Singapore. The development is being built on reclaimed land, destroying areas of ecological importance, including mangroves and seagrass. (Image: Alexandra Radu / China Dialogue)

“A fisherman has to be flexible, physically strong, and able to follow the currents of the ocean,” says Tuan Haji Zakaria, reflecting on 45 years of fishing off Penang Island. From his village of Sungai Batu in the south of Penang, Zakaria faces a rising tide of development making his way of life increasingly unviable. Thousands of others on the island are in a similar situation.

Several land-reclamation schemes have received state approval there, the most prominent being Penang South Islands – a massive project to build three new islands just off the southern coast. (The central government recently revoked state approval for the project following a campaign spearheaded by local fishers. The Department of Environment has said a new environmental impact assessment will need to be submitted and approved if the project is to go ahead.)

But other big reclamation projects are ongoing in Malaysia, such as Forest City in the southern state of Johor. Construction began in 2014 and biodiverse seagrass meadows and mangroves have already been built over.

Such residential projects are marketed as sustainable, with co-benefits for ecotourism and other commercial activities. But local fishing communities and environmental non-profits have raised concerns about their impacts on ecologies and local people.

Gurney Wharf on the northern coast of Penang Island. To the right is a residential area recently built on reclaimed land. To the left, vast amounts of sand have been dumped to build a new island. If it went ahead, the Penang South Islands development would be even bigger than this. (Image: Alexandra Radu / China Dialogue)

The ecological costs of dredging and sand mining

Designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group, a global architecture firm, and to be built by Gamuda, a Malaysian infrastructure company, Penang South Islands would feature apartments, plazas and a range of amenities.

First, huge quantities of mud would be dredged to make space for the three islands’ foundations and dumped about 30km offshore. Then about 190 million cubic metres of sand would have to be mined to build the islands. The developers plan to get this from Port Klang near the capital Kuala Lumpur and from the seabed 37km offshore from Perak state.

Penang south reclamation project, Malaysia
The fishing community of Teluk Kumbar is just one of several that would suffer severe disruption and loss of livelihoods if the Penang South Islands project goes ahead (Image: Alexandra Radu / China Dialogue)

Evelyn Teh, a marine biologist and advisor to environmental non-profit Sahabat Alam Malaysia, has concerns about ecological damage to Penang. The coastal area would need to be dredged for a year, Teh says, after which “the mudflat will be gone.” If the development is completed “the whole shallow area [where] fishermen are catching fish, prawns and crabs will be completely buried under 4,500 acres [1,821 hectares] of islands.”

Tuan Haji Zakaria has been fishing along the south coast of Penang Island for 45 years
Tuan Haji Zakaria has been fishing along the south coast of Penang Island for 45 years (Image: Penang Tolak Tambak)

In 2017, the project’s EIA noted that 2,757 licensed fishers were operating in the area proposed for reclamation. Sahabat Alam has estimated the value of fishing in the area at 42.09 million Malaysian ringgit (US$10.2 million).

For 62-year-old Zakaria, who has been fishing since graduating from high school, the effects of mining sand for reclamation are clear: “It causes an imbalance in the ecosystem, affecting the whole environment’s biodiversity in south Penang, besides bringing less fishing yield.”

A 2009 study on Batam Island in neighbouring Indonesia found sand dredging disturbs sediments and damages water quality. Reclamation can also disrupt marine food chains, according to 2017 research into Penang land reclamation by ecologist Su Yin Chee, published in Global Ecology and Conservation.

Evelyn Teh highlights the potential impacts on fishers: “Not all fish can be caught at different places. Prawns only reside in shallow areas and the nets [fishers] used are meant for shallow areas.” Zakaria explains that navigating the ecological impacts of sand dredging would present a hurdle for local fishers who rely on intuition and experience at sea.

Penang south reclamation project, Malaysia
Fishers along the southern coast of Penang use small boats and nets designed to catch fish and prawns in shallow waters. They fear Penang South Islands would reduce fish stocks and force them to venture into dangerous, deeper waters to make a living. (Image: Alexandra Radu / China Dialogue)

If the project proceeds, fishers in southern Penang may be forced to go out further, using more fuel and putting themselves in danger. “These are coastal fishermen, they have smaller boats and smaller engines due to law requirements. How far can they go before they risk their lives?” asks Teh.

Loss of seagrass meadows and mangroves

Further south, in the state of Johor, a series of massive high rises overlook the Tanjung Kupang seagrass meadows, on land close to the border with Singapore.

This is Forest City Johor, a joint housing venture between Country Garden Group, a property development company based in China’s Guangdong, and Malaysian company Esplanade Danga 88. Construction began in 2014 and is due to be completed in 2035.

Advertisements are seen along the highway which links the reclaimed island on which Forest City was built to the mainland.
A Chinese–Malaysian joint venture, Forest City Johor is being marketed as “smart, green and futuristic”. It hopes to attract Chinese buyers working in Singapore. (Image: Alexandra Radu / China Dialogue)

Sometimes considered to be part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, developers are investing over US$4 billion to create four artificial islands with a total area of 30km2. The project has been marketed as “smart, green and futuristic”. It features schools, museums and ecological parks, in the hopes of attracting Chinese second-home buyers who work in Singapore.

But last year the government suspended a programme to facilitate foreign buyers applying for long-stay visas for Malaysia. With the pandemic making international travel complicated or impossible, many of the apartment units in Forest City are now empty or being sold on at a loss.

There have been concerns that dredging and other construction activities third party contractors could damage seagrass meadows and disrupt aquatic ecosystem services over the 30-year project timeline. And, as in Penang, there are concerns about the potential displacement of Malaysian fishing communities near the land reclamation.

“Its urban form does not fit in with the surrounding areas, which are largely villages and mangroves,” says Koh Sin Yee, a lecturer in Global Studies at Monash University Malaysia, who is currently researching the socioeconomic challenges posed by Forest City.

Koh also points out that nearby villages are experiencing water and electricity disruptions due to the Forest City construction efforts. Local residents in the nearby village of Tanjung Kupang have reported water shortages and expressed fears over water being diverted to luxury apartment owners in Forest City.

Fishermen’s boats are parked near a peer at low tide on the shore of the gulf surrounding Forest City.
Forest City is being built on the Malaysian side of the Johor Strait near a busy container port. The mangrove forests that line this muddy coastline, where they help prevent erosion and provide habitat, are increasingly under threat. (Image: Alexandra Radu / China Dialogue)

According to 2017 research into the sustainability of Forest City, done by Serina Rahman of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singaporean research centre, the development is taking place in areas with mangroves, seagrass meadows and soft coral. Rahman noted that the area around Forest City harbours 30 species of seaweed and eight types of seagrass. The mangrove areas that line the coasts are host to enigmatic fauna such as the estuary crocodile, smooth otter and leopard cat. Furthermore, the mangroves, intertidal mudflats, seagrass meadows, as well as nearby island rocky shore and soft coral areas, facilitate and support the breeding and feeding of a substantial web of marine species that provide food for local communities.

Rahman called for increased attention to be paid to potential environmental impacts, as slower water currents and increased silt and clay may destroy mangrove roots. She also noted that the clearing of mangroves may result in shoreline erosion and lower water quality for nearby villages.

As the Forest City project area is adjacent to sensitive ecosystems, the 2014 Environmental Impact Analysis stated that, if mitigation measures are not taken, the project could possibly damage these vital components of a larger ecosystem, affecting local fisheries supplies and community access to food sources.

Future of fishing in doubt

With the Penang and Johor Bahru state governments both approving expensive development projects, many local Malaysians feel increasingly marginalised.

Zakaria laments the “misconception” that fishers do not work hard enough. And he says they are likely to have to work even harder for their catch in future, particularly in the face of land reclamation: “There is no fixed location where a fisherman can always [catch a] maximum yield. What is good today may not yield tomorrow.”

A fishermen boat is out at sea in a bay in the southern part of the Penang island.
The Penang South Islands development would leave local fishers with an increasingly uncertain future (Image: Alexandra Radu / China Dialogue)

The original version of this article misrepresented some of Serina Rahman’s research. This has now been rectified.