ENVIRONMENTALISTS in Malaysia have called on the government to delay the Chinese-funded US$13 billion rail project linking peninsular Malaysia’s East and West amid concerns of massive deforestation.
Three influential non-governmental organisations issued a joint statement on Wednesday calling for a moratorium on the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project barely hours after it was launched by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
“Malaysia must further evaluate the viability of this project due to the sheer size and the financial, socio-economic and environmental effects it will have on our country,” the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (PEKA) and Treat Every Environment Special (TrEES) said in the joint statement.
The planned 688-km ECRL will connect the South China Sea, large parts of which are claimed by China, at the Thai border in the east with the strategic shipping routes of the Straits of Malacca in the west.
It is among the most prominent projects in China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative. The initiative aims to build a modern-day “Silk Road” connecting the world’s second-largest economy by land corridors to Southeast Asia, Pakistan and Central Asia and maritime routes, opening up trade with the Middle East and Europe.
The environmental groups said the ECRL traversed through the peninsula’s Central Forest Spine as well as coastal forest areas, wetlands and rivers, all of which are “sensitive and inter-connected ecosystems”.
These environmentally sensitive areas, they said, provided vital services to the nation including protecting 90 percent of the nation’s water supply, aiding in local climate control, flood mitigation as well as protecting vast areas of irreplaceable biodiversity.
“All these ecosystem services are provided free to the nation and have an enormous impact on the success of Malaysia’s economic and social well-being.”
“These environmentally sensitive areas also contribute to Malaysia’s recognition as one of twelve mega-diversity countries in the world. Malaysia’s forests should have top conservation priority.”
The groups also called on the government to provide more information on the project’s loan repayment, its impacts and whether the project is going to create huge infrastructure debt.
Malaysian Nature Society president Henry Goh said the ECRL’s planned 600km length, 36 percent of the rail corridor, or 500m on either side of the rail lines, is currently classified as “forest” land. The remaining corridor comprises 42 percent agricultural land while the remaining were used for other purposes.
He said the project would likely cut through 12 Permanent Reserved Forests in two East Coast states.
With a currently estimated completion date of mid-2024, Goh said the construction period may prove to be the “worst threat to Malaysian flora and wildlife” with the disruption within the forested areas and potential risk of soil erosion and water contamination.
“We are not against the construction of the project, but we are just raising our concerns about what happens during the process,” he told Asian Correspondent on Thursday.
“There could be a lot of potential damage to the forests.”
During the ground-breaking ceremony of the project, Najib said: “The ECRL is indeed yet another ‘game changer’ and a ‘mindset changer’ for Malaysia as it will significantly cut travel time to and from the East Coast of the peninsula.”
For China, the project is another expansion of its soft power in Malaysia, which also lays claim to some disputed South China Sea islands, and is critical for China’s geopolitical and strategic interests.
“The China government has attached great importance to the China-Malaysia relations and has always considered Malaysia a dear neighbour and trustworthy partner who is committed to seeking mutually beneficial cooperation and common development in the country,” Chinese State Councillor Wang Yong said at the ceremony, heading up a 100-strong delegation in the East Coast city of Kuantan.
Najib said the project would be financed with an 85 percent loan from China Exim Bank and the balance through a “sukuk” Islamic bond programme managed by local investment banks.
Additional reporting by Reuters