Malaysia: EIAs required, but state government has final say

New Straits Times 26 Aug 12;

WILDLIFE as well as plant life must be taken into account under the environmental impact assessment (EIA) guidelines.

"We have to study and document how the project affects wildlife and plant life," says Dr G. Balamurugan, from the ERE consulting group, who has done numerous EIAs for development.

He says when the EIA was introduced in 1988, it was initially not very effective as the Department of Environment (DOE) was still not well established then.

"Over the years, it has improved. It has tighter guidelines and public awareness is also very high. It is definitely better now."

However, Balamurugan says the DOE can improve further especially in certain states, such as Kelantan, Terengganu and Johor, where land is being cleared for the planting of rubber timber as well as oil palm.

"They are getting approvals. These areas may be wildlife crossings. There is a need to be more alert."

He says in some cases, there is a lot of pressure from the state governments for development.

"Kelantan ignores all EIA requirements. Even the national park is being invaded. If all these state governments respect the central forest spine, then there will be no problem.

"Whenever land is developed and if there are animals living there, some will run away while others will die. If the land is an island of forest, they have nowhere to run to.

"When they go on the roads, they get run over. If they go into the villages, they get shot."

However, he says, there are many cases where the DOE has stopped a project by referring to it as "sensitive to the environment".

Balamurugan says the current DOE procedure is to refer to the National Physical Plan to see if an area is sensitive.

"All the sensitive areas have been mapped and identified.

"Under the DOE's current guidelines, all important wetlands, freshwater swamps and national parks have been mapped."

He adds that the total area involved is about 50 per cent of the land area in the country which is protected.

"Sometimes, they will allow exceptions, for example, where the Public Works Department (PWD) is building a road through the forest. This is on the basis of national importance and public good.

"These roads require wildlife crossings. Most PWD projects over the last five years have culverts and viaducts to allow animals to cross."

Balamurugan says the government is working on creating what is called the central forest spine.

This project is under the purview of the Town and Country Planning Department which is responsible for all land use in the peninsula.

The central forest spine identifies 31 priority sites across the peninsula where forests need to be connected either via underground culverts or by replanting tracts of land to become forests.

Connecting these tracts of forest allow better transfer of genes as well as plant seeds.

He says every professional is accountable when working on an EIA and has to report truthfully.

"A number of consultants have been suspended and given warnings in the past. The DOE is now more strict with them."

He says a number of methods are used to determine whether animals roam a particular area.

"The existence of animals at a particular site can be derived from secondary data, such as studies by non-governmental organisations, the Forestry Department and others on tigers and elephants."

The land may be where the animals live or it may be used as a crossing from season to season as they migrate.

Once secondary data is collected, they proceed with the field work.

This may involve trapping, in the case of small animals, or identifying footprints and droppings in the case of bigger animals like elephants and tigers.

"In the case of birds, we may go to the field to observe over a period of 18 hours, 24 hours or even one week."

The requirements for EIAs differ from project to project.

Balamurugan says while housing estates and townships below 50ha do not require an EIA, all roads, no matter what size, require an EIA.