In a historic event at Batu Puteh to kick-start the first officially sanctioned removal of oil palms that had allegedly been illegally planted in violation of riparian reserve laws in a replanting process, Assistant Minister of Culture, Tourism and Environment Datuk Pang Yuk Ming mounted the controls of an excavator and ceremoniously dug out a young oil palm which Ladang Kinabatangan had planted at a site that the Land and Survey Department authenticated last month as part a riparian reserve of the 560km Kinabatangan River.
Pang forewarned that what looks like "just a small function" to remove 20 acres of oil palms (1.3km long and 20-50 metres in width) that had encroached riparian reserves should be seen as precursor to deal with "plenty more" similar situations, including a study to look into the possibility of punitive measures on those who have done harm to mother nature.
"We don't want people to have the perception that if we don't follow up, those people responsible can get away with it without any consequence," added Pang, who agreed that Sections 41 & 42 of the Sabah Water Resources Enactment 1998 give the legal mandate to the State Government to make violators pay for the cost of putting back natural vegetation from riparian reserves that had been removed for commercial agriculture and also for causing pollution of the river.
"In fact, it is something we have been toying with and waiting for an occasion like this to indicate our intention to set up a proposed Special Task Force with this instruction: your job is focused on just to recapture back all the riparian reserves throughout Sabah, that's all!" Pang said.
"You and I know that throughout Sabah, such encroachment runs into thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of acres by many, many people," Pang noted.
"I know I have the support of my Minister Datuk Seri Masidi who is very keen and ready to do it, because plenty of people outside are willing to help - a lot of NGOs and corporations - in putting the trees back," he said.
"It's just that the State Government has to take the lead," Pang cited the exemplary event on Saturday which demonstrated such political leadership.
"But it is very important to stay more focused with a Task Force set up specifically to look into and claim back all the riparian reserves because it is difficult to rely on the District Offices and Land Office which already have their never-ending day-to-day duties to do," Pang explained. "But we want to make this a collective responsibility, especially those in charge, to ensure that the laws of the land are followed," said Pang, who praised the Batu Puteh community for taking ownership of their rights as citizens.
On reasons for this new-found tough stand, Pang said:
"We know riparian reserves are very important for protecting our rivers.
The livelihood of many people depends heavily on the riparian reserves, especially the Kinabatangan, which is riddled with wildlife and very tourism sensitive.
Once they rip off the river bank forests like this, all the agro chemicals will be thrown back into the river when the big floods come and kill aquatic life," Pang explained.
"So, it is high time that we protect our environment because the State Government now realises and has come to the conclusion that tourism is one of the key pillars for Sabah with far-reaching ripple effects on local livelihood, compared to plantations, most of which are owned by companies from outside the State while industries still face many uphill challenges such as logistics and manpower-wise.
Knowing this, the State Government is taking serious steps to not only protect but also enhance the environment," said Pang.