Successful listing of the Penang Hill biosphere reserve

It would be prudent for the state government to reconsider its proposal to build a cable car system, Penang Hills Watch says

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Penang Hills Watch hails the successful designation of the Penang Hill biosphere reserve as a Unesco Man and Biosphere site, encompassing lowlands and coastal and marine ecosystems in the northwest section of Penang Island.

Penang Hills Watch sees this as due recognition of the area’s rich natural, historical and cultural significance. We are very happy and celebrate this listing as a step in the right direction towards the protection and active management of Penang Hill and its ecosystems. Congratulations Penang!

While there is much to celebrate about this listing, we are cautiously optimistic about it especially when there are examples like Tasik Chini which, having been designated as Malaysia’s first Man and Biosphere site, has since succumbed to extensive land use conversion of its surrounding forests to agriculture and mining, resulting in severe silting and pollution of the lake’s waters.

The overarching priority for the Penang Hill biosphere reserve must be the protection of the environment, the continued sustenance of its forests, and the precious water catchment areas within the reserve area.

Habitat destruction is a serious threat to the hills of Penang, with quarrying, uncontrolled and unsustainable agriculture, residential development, and mega transport projects being various manifestations of this threat.

With this listing, we are hopeful that these risks, some of which are already present within the boundaries of the Penang Hill biosphere reserve, are managed and mitigated effectively.

Penang Hills Watch welcomes the decision of the Penang state government to set up a management unit dedicated for managing the biosphere reserve, but this unit must not only function as a monitoring unit but also have enforcement powers. It must also have the clout to garner the cooperation and resources of relevant government agencies to ensure effective management of the biosphere reserve in the interest of biodiversity conservation and long-term environmental sustainability.

With this listing as a Unesco Man and Biosphere site and in the wake of the Covid pandemic and with a looming climate change crisis, there is yet time and opportunity to rethink the development strategy of Penang Hill as set out in the 2020 draft special area plan, particularly its summit area when it opens up to tourism again in the near future.

The authorities will need to be more sensitive to the risks of over-tourism, mass tourism and any form of infrastructure development on the hill which may not be in harmony with the objective of the listing. It would be prudent for the state government to reconsider its proposal to build a cable car system.

Instead, the state government should redirect its resources to enhancing the natural attributes and facilities of Penang Hill that would be preferred by ‘new normal’ tourists. In particular, it should look to outdoor-oriented and culturally based activities that make the best of the natural and historical heritage of Bukit Bendera without compromising its fragile ecological integrity.

The focus of the Unesco Man and Biosphere programme is the establishment of a scientific basis for the improvement of relationships between people and their environments. Hopefully, environmental NGOs in Penang would be welcomed to be proactively engaged in the planning and management of the Penang Hill biosphere reserve in the interest of safeguarding the natural and managed ecosystems within this new Unesco site.

Penang Hills Watch has been actively engaging with relevant authorities in tackling issues of hill land clearings and degradation and looks forward to further a constructive relationship with the new management unit for the Penang Hill biosphere reserve. – Penang Hills Watch

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