Pouring Concrete on Tioman Island
To walk off a wooden verandah, your toes sinking into powdery white sand and into sky-blue waters. To swim out and see corals and fish beneath you. By 2030, this is gone for the 372 islanders and roughly 400 workers operating small-scale tour operations in Tioman island’s west coast. In its place is a concrete, stone and asphalt runway stretching 186.36 ha over beach, sea, corals and fish. The forested hill behind is also flattened. For a new airport is to be built on the Pahang island.
Approved by the Pahang state government in 2017, the airport would be located in front of two sea-fronting villages, Kampung Genting and Kampung Paya. The project proponent is Tioman Infra, owned by the conglomerate Berjaya Group and the Pahang royal family. According to the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment report, the objective is to turn Tioman into an international travel destination, bumping up the pre-Covid 277,000 tourist arrivals to 977,000 tourists in 2040.
The “multiplier effects” of the airport in terms of infrastructure and human density will irrevocably change the island. Pictured as of July 2023 are Kg Paya at the top and Kg Genting at the bottom. The two are connected by a pathway through the forest. Seawards is the fringing coral reef. Landwards is a dipterocarp forest.
In mythology, Tioman was a land of dragons. In the 9th and 17th centuries, it was an important freshwater stopover and navigational aid for Orang Laut, fishers, pirates and traders. Today, its natural significance is recognised in its status as a Level 1 Environmentally Sensitive Area. Nature is the basis for its tourist appeal and for decades now, the seas have been protected as a marine park, the inland forests, a wildlife reserve.
The marine park protects the island’s fringing reef, which runs along the west coast. These shallow reefs work as a whole to harbour and nourish marine resources. Besides providing food and supporting fishers’ livelihoods outside the park, they sustain the key economic activity – tourism based on snorkeling and diving. Coral reefs also play a critical role in coastal erosion and to counter intensifying storm surges due to climate change.
The reefs are healthy too. According to NGO Reefcheck Malaysia, Tioman has the second highest live coral cover (63.37%) on the peninsula’s east coast. While corals in that region deteriorated between 2015—2020, Tioman’s was stable and in “good condition”. This could be due to years-long local participation and leadership in maintaining the ecosystem through reef surveys and ghost net and crown-of-thorn removals.
Therefore, locals are up in arms over the lack of engagement about the airport, 3 islanders told Macaranga. Azman bin Awang Mohd, village head of Kampung Paya and Kampung Genting (in red), disputes the social impact assessment results of 21 of his villagers agreeing to the project. “The reality is 95% of us do not agree and oppose the airport…We do not have the right avenue to pass on our objections to the government.” He says money should go instead into building roads and urgent improvement of water and electricity supply and waste management.
Twenty-eight chalet and homestay operations and 18 seasport operators would lose their sea fronts. Tri Juli Yety fears the shuttering of her 13-year-old family-run resort, the Melina Beach Resort. Her husband and children have spent a total of “RM4—5 million developing the resort”. She asks, “Why would investors come if this is the way they treat the old investors, the tax payers? Where are my children going to go? Where are my workers going to go? Some have worked here for 8 years, 10 years.”
Further north in the main village Tekek, resident Hasnizah Hassan is wary that the airport development will produce similar outcomes to that of the Tekek marina over a decade previously. That too, was aimed at raising local incomes and living standards. “How much money are locals earning?” she asks. “And during the construction, my dive instructor cried in his mask when he saw the silt killing the corals…With the airport, why build such a big project when you have heaven right in front of your doorstep? People come to Tioman for the corals, because of nature.”
It is not only the marine ecosystem that is under threat. Tioman houses Peninsular Malaysia’s largest colony of the island flying fox (Pteropus hypomelanus), photographed in Kampung Genting above. Locally endangered, these bats help maintain forest health, particularly on islands, says expert Dr Sheema Abdul Aziz. She told Macaranga the airport would increase risks of the bats colliding with planes, conflicts with villagers, and poaching. “There is absolutely no way you can mitigate these kinds of impacts on the island’s biodiversity; it’s just not possible.”
The environmental impacts of the airport go beyond Tioman island. About 76% of the area (142.7 ha) will be built on reclaimed land. This means that sand will need to be mined. According to the EIA, the sand would come from offshore near Kuantan (180 mil m3), Pekan (87.2 mil m3) and Kuantan port (300 mil m3). EIAs for the first two have been approved.
Macaranga contacted the EIA consultants for a response, but they said they could not comment other than to ask everyone to provide feedback to the EIA. We received no response from Berjaya Infra, Berjaya Corporation and the Pahang state government.
We thank Alvin Chelliah/Reefcheck Malaysia and the Tioman residents for their support during our reporting.
About the photographer: David ST Loh is a photojournalist, aerial landscape artist and publisher based in Penang. He is creator of the best-selling ‘Over Penang’ and ‘Simply Penang’ pictorial books. He has worked in various media, including 20 years with Reuters. He also has a BSc in Biology.
[Edited by YH Law]
UPDATE (20.8.23): The Malaysian Cabinet has cancelled the proposed Tioman airport, citing commitment to “protection, conservation and use of natural resources that are optimal and responsible”. ps:/citi/twitter.com/niknazmi/status/1689215919745376256?s=20niknazmi/status/1689215919745376256?s=20
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