Ocean Grabbing in Malaysia is Destroying Coastal Zones

Aug 19, 2020

Healthy oceans are critical for sustaining life, eliminating poverty and promoting prosperity. They also sequester carbon dioxide from our climate. Yet despite their importance they continue to be devastated by human activities, including coastal development and ‘ocean grabbing‘ reclamation projects. This is devastating marine biodiversity and robbing fishers and communities of access to the coastal and marine resources they have traditionally relied upon. 

Coastal Reclamation

Malaysia’s coast includes diverse habitats and ecosystems including estuaries, coral reefs and seagrass beds. These provide coastal communities with goods – such as fish, oil and minerals – and services, including natural protection from storms and tidal waves, and recreational opportunities. However, the coastline is increasingly densely populated and is a preferred site for urbanisation. Coastal states are heavily engaged in shipping, oil and gas development, and coastal tourism, and competition for land and sea resources results in severe conflicts and the destruction of the functional integrity of the resource system.

Malaysia’s response to competition for land and resources has been to increase the size of coastal zones by reclaiming land from oceans and wetlands, and by building artificial islands. Several states, such as Johor, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Penang and Perak, have now embarked on massive reclamation projects along their coastlines to augment their land bank and enable them to carry out large-scale development projects. As a result, hundreds of hectares of fishing grounds and marine habitat are disappearing, with severe impacts on fishing communities.

Environmental Impacts

Coastal reclamation involves the loss of coastal ecosystems such as mangroves and mudflats, as well as seagrass meadows. These act as natural buffers against wave energy, protecting coastal areas from flooding and erosion. In addition, various reclamation activities have severe impacts on coastal water quality and thus biodiversity, especially fish species and coral reefs. Coral reefs are the spawning, feeding and nursery grounds for much of marine life, and their destruction will inevitably cause ecosystems to break down. Seagrass meadows improve water quality by absorbing nutrients in runoff from the land, slowing the velocity of water, and capturing sand and silt. Their destruction leads to those toxins, including heavy metals, being released.

Community and Livelihood Impacts

This loss of mangrove forests and seagrasses, and activities that directly disturb ocean substrates and micro-environments, also has significant implications for coastal food chains, with severe impacts on local fishers, whose livelihood and source of income depend on the fishing industry, and for local communities’ access to food more generally. Coastal farming communities can also be impacted. Land reclamation activities in coastal areas can change local groundwater systems and lead to saltwater intrusion, especially where the coast is no longer protected by mangroves and mudflats. This can have significant negative impacts on the productivity of nearby agricultural lands.

Campaign against the Penang South Reclamation Project

The campaign against the proposed Penang South Reclamation project has been gaining momentum since early 2019. Unjust and defamatory statements targeting campaigners, including fisher communities and civil society organisations such as Sahabat Alam Malaysia, are increasingly prevalent. This ongoing slander by supporters of the reclamation project has been spread through social and online media, videos and printed materials. Nevertheless, the defenders of these ocean and coastal territories remain determined. 

Sahabat Alam Malaysia/Friends of the Earth Malaysia is calling upon the Malaysian government to cancel all proposed reclamation projects in the country. The environment and Malaysia’s multi-million ringgit fisheries sector, which many thousands of people depend on, and communities’ food security are being traded off for development projects that are not justified. Stop reclaiming our seas! Stop ocean grabbing!

Read the full story of Ocean Grabbing in Malaysia here (page 12).

In the last few years, Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific’s member groups’ staff, activists and supporters have been beaten, kidnapped, jailed and even murdered while fighting for environmental justice. Our report exposes these injustices and highlights the ongoing struggle for those on the frontlines.

Find out more in our report
Defending territories, Defending our lives: Protecting human rights and the environment in Asia Pacific through system change.

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For more information contact:
Emma Harvey
Communications Coordinator
Friends of the Earth Asia Pacific
Email: emma.harvey@foe.org.au