It’s a Sunday in Johor, the southernmost state of peninsular Malaysia, and crowds of locals and foreigners are out for a good time in the sun. On the beach among the lounge chairs, young couples walk hand in hand, smartphone at the ready to immortalize the day with countless selfies.
Around the manicured lawns, oversized statues of crabs and sea lions are a hit with the kids; parents and grandparents are all here to witness such precious moments. In the distance, just across the narrow Tebrau Strait is Singapore.
This could be just like any other Sunday on one of the many beaches Johor is blessed with, save for two things: this long, landscaped stretch of sand didn’t exist a year ago, and it is part of the controversial, China-funded real estate project of Forest City.
Launched in 2014, the US$100 billion development is conducted by Country Garden Pacific View Sdn Bhd (BGPV), a joint venture between Guangdong-based, Hong Kong-listed Country Garden Group and local partner Esplanade Danga 88 Sdn Bhd, a company partially owned by Sultan Ibrahim Ismail of Johor. It is one of many other projects underway in the Iskandar economic region, but by far the most ambitious.
Forest City is still at an early stage of development and reclamation work is currently ongoing. Four artificial islands will soon rise up from the waters of the Tebrau Strait, covering a total surface of 14 square kilometers and bringing Malaysia’s shoreline ever closer to Singapore.
On those islands one of the first so-called “eco-smart cities of the future” is expected to sprout, with an ambitious projection of 700,000 residents expected by 2050. A massive, futuristic sales complex was swiftly built to welcome potential investors and guide them around a scale model draped in green plastic and dotted with fancy mock-up apartments.
At the start of this year, a five-star hotel, Phoenix — part of a Country Garden-owned chain — opened its doors to accommodate overnight visitors who would want to prolong their stay on what is still, technically, a construction site, with as many as 20 cranes looming nearby.
Talking with some of the locals on the beach, we sense a deep feeling of excitement and no small amount of pride. “It is good for Johor,” Liza, 21, tells us. She and her family have come all the way from Johor Bahru, Johor’s main city, 35 km away. “The project looks so amazing. I hope it brings many jobs and many foreigners here.” Her parents and siblings smile and nod all together.
Forest City has been advertised as Johor’s bright new star, the ultimate environment-friendly escape just minutes away from Singapore. The way to go for the much-publicized Iskandar economic region to claim its rightful place among the world’s most avant garde metropolises.
However, the project has also garnered a lot of media attention of late due to its seemingly heavy reliance on mainland Chinese buyers to acquire its myriad apartments. Stricter rules on individual foreign exchange and currency use instituted by Beijing earlier this year could deter investors from getting ahold of property in Forest City. The starting price for a smallish, two-room apartment is set at around US$170,000, a price most Malaysians are unable to afford.
Beyond the economic conundrum that lies ahead, it is worth pondering what impact on the local environment this megaproject will have, and already has. Twenty square kilometers in its ongoing first phase – most of it reclaimed, like the aforementioned four man-made islands – another 10 sq km in its second phase, 700,000 people by 2050: it all seems surreal, especially for a place where the most common sight today, and for the past few centuries, is of quaint fishermen’s enclaves and small jetties secluded among the mangroves. Once Forest City will have sprouted up and Iskandar reached its maturity, where will all this have gone to?
Academic observers and local environmentalists have expressed concerns about the way things are run in Forest City. According to some, the frantic pace of construction maintained so far by CGPV and its contractors could have dire consequences on the local ecosystems if left unsupervised.
“We have a potential time bomb on our hands,” warns one close observer who declined to be named. “There are ways to mitigate what has already been done and to reduce the impact of what is still to come, but you need people with credible expertise at the helm.”
It is public knowledge that earthworks for Forest City’s four artificial islands got underway in 2014 without a legally required Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIA). Though a small number of the local community members were approached to fill in questionnaires at the time, many were mostly left in the dark about the start of reclamation work.
So was Singapore. It was only when the city-state voiced its concerns to the Malaysian government about the potential effects of the reclamation works that action was taken: CGPV had to temporarily backtrack and provide a DEIA, more or less in order.
Directly affected by the ongoing reclamation works is the Tanjung Kupang intertidal seagrass meadow, the largest of its kind in Malaysia. Lying just two hundred meters away from Forest City’s landscaped beach, it covers a total area of 36 square kilometers and now has to accommodate an increasingly invasive neighbor.
Experts agree that seagrass meadows are essential indicators of a shoreline’s health. When protected, they can contain some of the most diverse marine wildlife, but they are also extremely fragile ecosystems put through tremendous pressure by waterfront developments such as Forest City.
For its reclamation works, CGPV has extended a long causeway into the sea; that reclaimed causeway is now cutting across the seagrass meadow, potentially altering currents and threatening the ecosystem’s rich biodiversity.
Changes have already been felt by the local fishing community. Among those affected are Aminah and her fellow gleaners from Kampung Tanjung Kupang. Every morning at low tide, they can be seen prodding the seagrass as they tread across the shoals. They are usually able to pick up all sorts of seashells, crabs and other small molluscs that will complement their families’ meager meals. “But we find less seafood now than before,” Aminah tells us. “I used to be able to fill my bucket with conch shells and crabs, but with the causeway, I have to settle for less before the tide comes up.”
Other fishermen have complained of reduced catches and growing petrol costs due to the extra mileage incurred by the causeway and more distant fishing grounds. Following these complaints and short-lived reports from independent local media, CGPV admitted — during a community stakeholder meeting — having no knowledge of the local biodiversity when reclamation kicked off. CGPV has since revised the mapping of its reclaimed islands.
To a certain extent, the company also tries to engage with grassroots organizations, distributing compensation money to affected families and pledging its attachment to the local environment. Some reliable sources have noted, however, that compensations rarely reach those directly affected, and they fear CGPV’s damage-control actions are just a smokescreen preventing any future communication mishaps about Forest City.
To an outsider, it would seem clear that a certain atmosphere of omerta surrounds the whole Forest City project. As it is financially backed by the Sultan Ibrahim Ismail of Johor – a well-respected, charismatic figure protected by strict laws on lèse-majesté – some villagers facing resettlement and a loss of their livelihood feel ill-at-ease in expressing their discontent. Others try to take advantage of the reclamation works by selling off sand from their own village to unscrupulous contractors, disfiguring local landscapes in the process.
“The fact that the sultan is involved financially in Forest City through a number of businesses, including sand extraction in the bay of Tanjung Ramunia, is widely known among villagers. Some of them might feel like, if the sultan is allowed to make money out of all this, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to do it too?” says a source close to the local communities.
As advertised by CGPV, it was the sultan himself who envisioned the megaproject as part of “a balanced development where the people of Johor will benefit.” The positive trickle-down effect the monarch is expecting could effectively happen, though it would take decades and the price to pay in the meantime seems like a hefty one for the local ecosystems and population.
Adjacent to Forest City – and deeply affected by its second phase extension announced in June this year – lies the Pulai River Mangrove Forest Reserve, the largest riverine mangrove system in Johor. In 2003 some 9,126 hectares of the Pulai River mangroves were designated as a Ramsar site. The Ramsar Convention, which Malaysia joined in 1995, exhorts its contracting parties to protect their wetlands deemed of international importance. However, it holds no coercive or punitive power over adherents contravening their engagements.
The Pulai River mangroves are especially important to Johor and, by extension, to Malaysia. Besides bringing socioeconomic balance to nearby fishing communities, they also fulfill essential ecosystem functions such as shoreline protection and flood prevention. However, as one academic observer points out, “the mangroves in Iskandar are now fast becoming part of the urban space. As the urbanization extends, even Ramsar sites like the Pulai River Reserve have become trapped in some sort of shifting jurisdictional limbo.”
Declassification of gazetted land for private purposes is becoming common news among the affected village communities in the area. Just north of the port of Tanjung Pelepas – Malaysia’s biggest port, which has been testing the resilience of the mangroves since its inception 20 years ago – an international building system (IBS) facility for the Forest City project, covering about 160 hectares and churning out prefabricated panels for its expanding building site, was raised directly on now former Ramsar wetlands.
Of the three upcoming golf courses promised to Forest City investors, the ground-breaking ceremony of the one designed by ex-pro Jack Nicklaus was held late June right at the heart of the Ramsar reserve, near Kampung Simpang Arang. A long two-lane access track has already been built, ripping through wide expanses of mangrove and leading to a vast no-man’s-land filled with pile drivers. The golf course is expected to be completed in late 2018.
Kampung Simpang Arang, a settlement of once-nomadic, indigenous Orang Seletar, looks bound to be relocated in the years to come, along with other nearby villages. Much less likely to find new locations are the artisanal charcoal kilns which provide villagers with a small but much-needed income. “I’ve been cutting and burning wood my whole life,” says Ibrahim, a seasoned artisan at one of the last standing charcoal factories.
“Our village is now surrounded by building projects. I don’t see the factories last much longer, especially now that they are pulling down the mangroves. Where will we get our wood from?” Standing in front of his traditional earth kilns, Ibrahim already looks like he belongs to another era, one that is bound to be buried under layers of concrete.
Also likely to be deeply affected are a number of plant and animal species, some of them already threatened, which call the mangroves home. When reached, the Ramsar Secretariat, based in Gland, Switzerland, declared it had been “informed of encroachments on Johor’s protected wetlands” and was “already working with the involved parties in order to minimize any further impact” suffered by these areas.
Like Beijing’s recent regulations on capital outflows, all this looks to be just another small pebble in CGPV’s shoe. Positive thinking remains the order of the day in Forest City and, as the well-rehearsed sales pitch goes, “The Sultan of Johor is a shareholder in this project, and you can rest assured: when the Sultan wants something done, he gets it done.”
“Projects such as Forest City are an aberration in light of the Paris agreement on climate change,” says one expert and close observer who declined to be named. “CGPV says they have it all covered: the rise of water levels, the increased emissions of carbon dioxide due to the increase in traffic, etc. But how do you counter all those effects once you have destroyed huge swaths of the one ecosystem that can help you mitigate them, and displaced its original people? Trees on balconies won’t help with shoreline erosion. Migratory birds won’t stop on your golf courses.”
For villagers like Aminah who live in fear of losing their livelihood and being forced to leave their ancestral homes, it all seems too tough a battle to wage. Realizing that change has become unavoidable, however, some proactive members of the community are now stepping up and taking initiatives in order to develop alternative sources of income. Simple aquaculture endeavors and a nascent ecotourism industry will help alleviate their burden if not in the long run, at least temporarily. Not unlike the fireflies flickering in the mangrove, hope might sometimes seem elusive – but it is there, glowing in the dark.
The authors of this piece are publishing under pseudonyms due to the sensitivities surrounding this topic.