Pasir Ris Heights: Fight to save forest patch hots up

Pasir Ris Heights group protests against plans to build school
Grace Chua Straits Times 9 Jan 13;

A GROUP of Pasir Ris residents, unhappy with a decision to build an international school on a patch of forest near Pasir Ris Heights, is locked in a battle with the authorities.

They claim they will lose a precious piece of woodland and had suggested alternative nearby plots for the school. They also want an independent study of the biodiversity of the forest and for the Government to provide statistical data to support its decision.

But the Ministry of National Development said that the school site was "based on planning considerations, including the need to provide a good distribution of such school sites islandwide".

Still, the group is not satisfied. In a post on its Facebook page on Monday, it said it was "disappointed" with MND's response, which it felt did not "adequately address" the issues it had raised.

It added: "We are seriously considering proceeding with a legal recourse to save the forest."

The battle to save the green space started with a petition last July, after plans to develop the land on either side of the forest patch at the intersection of Pasir Ris Drive 3 and Elias Road were made known. The residents also met their MP, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

But one incident on Dec 29 tipped them over - when HDB ordered a tree with about 90 parakeets chopped down because other residents had presumably complained about the noise. They confronted workers preparing to cut it down and, after a discussion about whose authority they were acting on, the workers took their ropes and left.

Two days later, the group published a letter on Facebook which it sent to the MND, Urban Redevelopment Authority, National Parks Board and Singapore Land Authority. It asked if they were "doing this to achieve their end of destroying the forest on the quiet, using what appears to be a fictitious pretence".

It threatened legal action unless the Government gave figures supporting its decisions by Jan 7.

Late on Monday, the MND told residents the attempted felling was to stop the wild tree being toppled by strong winds. It said it was now assessing the tree and insisted the attempted felling "was with the intent to ensure public safety and not to commence clearance of the site".

It also said the dialogue in August with DPM Teo and government officials "was not intended as 'a PR exercise' - it was arranged to allow the agencies to hear the residents' concerns".

"After consideration of the assessment of the local biodiversity and the many competing land uses, we were unable to accede to the residents' request," it added.

The group had insisted that the area was a wildlife haven but the MND said visits by NParks from 2004 to 2012 found "the number of species is considerably lower than in the nature reserves or in many parks and nature areas".

The plot is about the size of two football fields.

A member of the group's committee, lawyer Deepak Natverlal, 42, who has lived in Pasir Ris for 16 years, said the Government's decision to "raze the forest to build an international school despite objections from residents is an unfair and an unreasonable one". He also insisted that surveys by NParks were not independent enough.

Dr Ho Hua Chew of the Nature Society said it did a bird survey at the patch last year and found 30 to 40 species, including hawk-eagles, white-bellied sea eagles and oriental pied hornbills. "Of course you can't compare forest fragments with nature reserves, but the carrying capacity of the nature reserves has been exceeded for some species. That's why they are resorting to these areas outside nature reserves," he said.

Associate Professor Lye Lin Heng, an environmental law scholar at the National University of Singapore, said a legal challenge could be a test case that rests on whether residents have legal standing to stop developments on state land. An argument can be made that the Government holds the land on trust for the people, then they have a right to be consulted, she said.

Background story

10-month battle

April 2012: Land on either side of a forest patch at the intersection of Pasir Ris Drive 3 and Elias Road is earmarked for development. June: Residents form the Pasir Ris Greenbelt Committee to protect the patch, which is about the size of two football fields.

July: They start a petition to protect the woodland.

Aug 5: They hold talks with their MP, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

Oct 30: The Ministry of National Development (MND) and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) send the group a letter saying the site is slated for an international school. It will be encouraged to retain the trees there as a buffer between the school and homes at Pasir Ris Heights.

Nov 18: The group meets DPM Teo, URA, MND and the National Parks Board.

Dec 29: Residents are alarmed when they see workers about to cut down a large tree. Workers stop work after residents protest.

Dec 31: The group sends a letter to agencies following the Nov18 meeting. They want a reply in seven days or "we shall instruct our solicitors to commence legal proceedings".

Jan 7: MND replies that the tree was being felled for safety reasons, and the school was picked based on planning considerations; the group says its questions have not been adequately addressed, so it is seriously "considering proceeding with a legal recourse to save the forest".

No rub of the green for Pasir Ris woodland
'Considerably lower' number of species at proposed school site than in nature reserves: MND
Neo Chai Chin Today Online 9 Jan 13;

SINGAPORE - The Ministry of National Development (MND) has provided more details on its decision to develop an international school at the junction of Pasir Ris Drive 3 and Elias Road - the latest round of engagement between the authorities and some residents who want the forested area preserved.

The secondary vegetation on the land is suitable for a range of animal and bird life, but the number of species there is "considerably lower" than in nature reserves and many other nature areas in Singapore, wrote the MND's Manager for Strategic Planning Loo Jian Sheng in an email to the Pasir Ris Greenbelt Committee on Monday. The committee comprises residents who initiated a petition last July that garnered over 1,200 signatures.

Sites designated as nature reserves must be rich in native biodiversity across several taxonomic groups, such as plants, mammals and reptiles, he said.

Mr Loo's reply, posted on the committee's Facebook page, stated that the authorities had considered options to salvage and relocate the plants and animals at the site, but identified no rare plant species that needed to be salvaged.

"There are lower risks in permitting animal species to move out of the area themselves at the start of land clearance, than would be incurred by attempting to capture and remove them," he added.

The area in question is the size of two football fields and home to more than 30 bird species, including the endangered Changeable Hawk Eagle and critically endangered Oriental Pied Hornbill.

Before Monday's reply, Mr Loo had written to residents last October to say that plans for the international school would go ahead.

The residents then met with their Member of Parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, and government agency representatives on Nov 18 and expressed dejection at what they felt was a lack of transparency and sincerity from the authorities in managing the issue. The MND promised to follow up with a clearer explanation, but things came to a head on Dec 29, when a big tree in the woodland nearly got cut down.

Residents halted the contractor's work and wrote again to the authorities. The MND told TODAY that the Albizia tree was identified for removal for public safety under the National Parks Board's (NParks) Tree Management Programme.

Mr Loo wrote to the residents that NParks is now doing a "detailed assessment" of whether the tree needs to be felled for safety reasons.

But the Greenbelt Committee is still unsatisfied with the MND's reply. Committee member Cherry Fong said the Urban Redevelopment Authority has yet to explain the need to clear the woodland "when there may be other alternative sites" for the school.

"Every effort" should be made to protect areas with endangered or uncommon species, even if they belong to one taxonomic group, and the committee has proposed an alternative site of less biodiversity importance, she said.

The committee will deliberate on further options to preserve the woodland, Ms Fong added.

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Trawling ban in Hong Kong waters hopes to increase fish numbers

WWF 8 Jan 13;

Since 2005, WWF-Hong Kong has tirelessly campaigned for a ban on trawling in Hong Kong waters. Finally this long awaited ban came into effect on 1 January 2013.

WWF sees this as a bold and encouraging step taken by the government on local marine conservation. This first-ever fisheries management measure will safeguard the diversity of marine life and ecological integrity of the Hong Kong marine environment.

Populations of marine fish like croakers and groupers should increase by 20 to 30 per cent from now on. WWF hopes that the Hong Kong government will continue to provide support to the affected fishers and help them switch to other livelihoods such as marine eco-tourism.

The fishing practice of trawling has resulted in catching different marine species at random and damaging the seabed over the past few decades. It is also believed to be one of the main reasons leading to the almost collapsed status of the marine ecosystem in Hong Kong.

According to fisheries scientists, it was predicted that five years after the implementation of the trawling ban, populations of squid and cuttlefish would increase by 40 per cent and reef fish by 10 to 20 per cent, populations of larger fish, such as groupers and croakers, would surge by 30 to 45 per cent.

In the long term, the increase in fish catch will result in the stability of supply and quality of local seafood, and the public will also be able to enjoy a healthier marine environment.

Responding to the argument that trawling ban may impact the livelihoods of fishermen, Ms Samantha Lee, Senior Conservation Officer, Marine of WWF-Hong Kong stated that, “WWF has been actively engaging with fishing communities, marine related business operators and the government for one year. We believe that developing marine eco-tourism would unlock the potential of the sea and provide viable alternative livelihoods for the fishermen. WWF also urges the government to continue to help the affected fishers to switch jobs, consult the relevant stakeholders and formulate a holistic policy towards sustainable marine eco-tourism.”

WWF points out that apart from overfishing, rampant coastal development also contributes to the depletion of marine resources. WWF urges the government to implement Marine Spatial Planning immediately, which will put sound strategies and plans in place while ensuring better conservation of marine life, and better utilization of marine resources. Through this proactive and integrated planning approach, society will be able to achieve the ecological, economic and social objectives.

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Australia battles hundreds of wildfires, fanned by outback winds

Rob Taylor PlanetArk 9 Jan 13;

Australian fire crews battled hundreds of wildfires, a searing heatwave and powerful, hot outback winds on Tuesday, but we're hopeful they had dodged a potentially catastrophic fire day without loss of life or major damage.

Hundreds of people were forced to evacuate homes as fires raged in southeast Australia, while some had no choice but to seek shelter in their homes as fires approached. Temperatures soared to more than 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).

Fire fighters hope cooler weather sweeping up the Australian east coast late on Tuesday, which saw temperatures fall 20 degrees Celsius in a matter of hours in some coastal towns, would ease the incendiary conditions.

"It's very much a moveable feast with many fires still being identified," said New South Wales (NSW) state fire commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, warning a respite would not come for some hours and would last only days before searing heat driven by outback winds returned.

The severe fire conditions replicated those of 2009, when "Black Saturday" wildfires in Victoria state killed 173 people and caused $4.4 billion worth of damage.

After a week-long heatwave bushfires are ablaze in five of Australia's six states, with more than 137 fires in the most populous state NSW, and in forests around the capital Canberra.

Around 100 houses, the majority on the island state of Tasmania, have been destroyed by bushfires in recent days, and many people are still missing in fire-ravaged areas.

More than 40 fires raged out of control on Tuesday as thousands of firefighters and more than 60 water-bombing aircraft battled the blazes, some suspected of having been lit by arsonists.

Fire officials declared five areas of southern NSW as catastrophic, meaning if fires ignited they could not be controlled and advised people to evacuate.

"We grabbed the photo albums, suitcases, clothes and jewelry and ended up getting out while we could," said Hallie Fernandez who runs a bed and breakfast motel at Brogo in NSW, where an out-of-control bushfire was burning.

In Australia's biggest city Sydney, where the temperature hit 41.8 degrees Celsius, thousands flocked to the city's iconic beaches, while zookeepers hosed down animals to help them cope with temperatures that tested national records.

The blistering heat also caused a blaze at a nuclear research facility in southern Sydney after cabling overheated in a nearby electricity substation, while thousands of homes in the city's north experienced power outages due to soaring demand.

In the outback city of Broken Hill, the mercury hit 45.1 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit), while the country's biggest highway between Sydney and Melbourne was cut by fires that surrounded people in the township of Tarcutta.

"The heat has been so intense that tar on the road has been melting and sticking to my shoes," retired Australian journalist Malcolm Brown said from central NSW.

The record heatwave forced the Australian Bureau of Meteorology to extend its extreme temperature limit, adding new pink and purple colors to forecast maps to allow for temperatures of above 54 degrees Celsius (129 Fahrenheit).

The bureau is forecasting 54 degrees Celsius in central Australia next Monday.

The heatwave, which began in Western Australia on December 27 and lasted eight days, was the fiercest in more than 80 years in that state and has spread east across the nation, making it the widest-ranging heatwave in more than a decade.

Strong wind gusts had created a "dome of heat" covering much of the island continent, said climate experts.

Australia, the world's driest inhabited continent, is particularly vulnerable to bushfires, fuelled each summer by extreme heat and by what scientists say is creeping climate shift blamed for hotter average temperatures globally.

Authorities warned earlier in the Australian summer that much of the country faced extreme fire conditions this season, after several years of cooler conditions that had aided forest growth, but also created tinder dry fire fuel conditions.

(Editing by Michael Perry)

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