Anil Netto reports on a lively and creative protest against huge land reclamation projects around Penang.
Fishermen in more than two dozen small fishing vessels from mainland Penang crossed the channel to the waters near the Esplanade to join other fishermen and activists protesting against massive land reclamation plans around the state.
The fishermen had hung up their fishing nets in a symbolic strike on a clear morning, the air fresh and crisp after rain had damped the surroundings at Speakers’ Square (see video above).
The fishermen say the reclamation, especially for the 4,500-acre three-island project in the south of Penang Island, will hurt their livelihoods and undermine food security in the northern region.
University students, activists from Penang Forum and other NGOs, dancers and artists of all ethnic backgrounds joined in the spirited protest in solidarity with the fishermen. Also present were a team of lawyers monitoring the event.
Among those in the crowd was the mural painter Ernest Zacharevic, known for his Penang street art, especially of two children on a bicycle. He held up a large placard that read: “One island is enough.” Another placard spotted read: “Something fishy is going on down south.”
The thump! thump! thump! from a group of female drummers added to the sense of urgency and alarm that the reclamation plans have sparked.
Chanting “Tolak, tolak! Tolak tambak!” (Reject the reclamation!) and “Hidup, hidup! Hidup nelayan!” (Long live the fishermen!), the crowd then marched from Speakers’ Square to the Dewan Sri Pinang auditorium building a short distance away. The state assembly was holding its session there as the regular Penang State Assembly building was under renovation.
Along the way, the protesters paused at the coast to acknowledge the flotilla of boats bearing Penang Tolak Tambak flags fluttering in the gentle sea breeze (see video below).
The fishermen in each boat, from fishing units such as Bagan Ajam and Teluk Air Tawar on the mainland, waved back at the crowd. They too have been affected by land reclamation on both sides of the channel and are now worried about future reclamation along the Bagan Ajam to Teluk Air Tawar coastline on the mainland and the three-island project off southern Penang Island.
“The fishing catch in the Northern Channel has already been hit by the reclamation, which has churned up the waters.” said a fisherman from Jelutong, his face weather-beaten by the elements. “Considering our fuel costs, it is almost not worth fishing in the waters of the channel.
He gazed at the fishing boats bobbing in the sea nearby. “Now many of the fishermen have to go further north but then fuel costs are not cheap. Unlike a car, 50 litres in a boat won’t get you that far. Even the cost of crossing the channel on boats like these comes up to a fair bit.”
In the south, he said trawlers often encroach into the coastal fishermen’s fishing waters, damaging the sea bed.
As the protesters continued their march, a line of light strike force personnel a short distance away blocked their path to the auditorium.
A police officer said only five fishermen’s representatives would be allowed through as agreed. No one objected.
The fishermen were disappointed when only a junior officer at the assembly received the memo from them.
The fishermen and the activists then returned to the Esplanade, where a youth group performed a skit on the reclamation plans and a couple of women rendered songs. Two women from the Sungai Ara residents group, who are campaigning against a major hill-slope project in their area, added their support and appreciation for the fishermen.
The media coverage from this event is expected to boost the campaign to put a stop to the damaging reclamation plans. The fishermen feel the urgency most as they stand to lose their livelihoods to the projects, which are expected to reap huge profits for developers, contractors and others while eroding fresh local fish supply to ordinary Penangites.