Conversations on greenery: the Pasir Ris green belt

It was first reported on 31 May 2012 in The New Paper, “Pasir Ris forest may soon disappear” by Eunice Toh that the fate of the “forested area behind Pasir Ris Heights” that is “sandwiched by two other plots of land, which are also forested” was on the minds of some of nearby residents, even though they “do not have any plans of their own to save the area” at that time.

Where exactly was this plot of land? An image from Google Earth:

pasir ris green belt

On 12 April 2012, Yellow Parcel was sold off to Elitist Development. (What an unfortunate choice of a name.)

Four days later, Blue Parcel was sold off to Capital Development.

So what remains that was not yet a done deal is Red Parcel.

At that time, Subaraj when interviewed made a good point:

… “That land has a good variety of birds, but it has never been a reserve or a park. It has always been temporary.”

A member of the Nature Society (Singapore), Mr Rajathurai is afraid that if they were to push hard to conserve this area, another area with greater biodiversity might be taken away.

This is the problem of leakage, where the benefits of taking a conservation measure at one place was lost at another place of equal or higher conservation value, so there was no net benefit, perhaps even a net loss.

On 9 July 2012, Neo Chai Chin reported in Channel Newsasia/Today, “Save our green lung, say Pasir Ris residents“, that some residents from Pasir Ris Heights had decided to take action.

Six of them “who call themselves the Pasir Ris Greenbelt Committee” were “leading the petition” and would be garnering support from households around the area.

Six out of nine interviewed from Pasir Ris Heights reportedly were in favour of preserving the woodland. Some views:

Some of them cited views expressed last month by property analysts that the north-eastern part of Singapore is at risk of housing oversupply, and said it would be hard to recreate a wildlife habitat that has taken decades to generate.

I am assuming that the Greenbelt Committee members were not among the interviewees.

The quote of one resident was particularly interesting:

We moved here because of this,” said pre-school teacher Shashee Devi, 40, gesturing at the trees and a white-bellied sea eagle’s nest from the second floor of her home.

On 6 August 2012, Neo Chai Chin reports in Channel Newasia that the original six have grown to “200 show up in bid to save green lung at Pasir Ris“. The petition by then had been signed by more than 1,200 residents.

It was revealed then of the plans for an international school on that site, although “although this is not confirmed”. This, however, contradicts with another statement:

A URA spokesperson said the area had been intended for residential use since the start of the development of Pasir Ris Town, which was reflected in the Master Plan since 1998.

The Master Plan 2008 does indeed show that the three parcels were categorized under “residential”. Educational institutions are of a different colour in the Master Plan. If the land use could be changed from residential to educational, it means that the zonings in the Master Plan are simply not as cast-in-stone as they are sometimes made out to be.

While the meeting also considered alternative sites for the school, the URA spokesperson also pointed residents to alternative “nature” spaces at Pasir Ris Beach and Pasir Ris Town Park.

A beach is a beach, and there is no natural woodland at the town park.

By this time, two Members of Parliament of that constituency had been down to dialogue with residents:

Mr Zainal said he may raise questions in Parliament – after discussion with Pasir Ris West MP and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean – to learn more about how the URA decides which areas to conserve.

He said: “I learnt from the URA that there was public consultation. But knowing the ground wants to be engaged more, maybe we should rethink our strategy in terms of public consultation.

On 6 November 2012, Neo Chai Chin (again) reports (this time, in) Today of the decision by URA and MND: “Pasir Ris woodland to make way for school“.

The site was among those included in a request-for-interest exercise announced in April, said the letters sent via email and signed by Strategic Planning Manager Loo Jian Sheng for the ministry’s Permanent Secretary.

“The request is to meet the demand for places for such [i.e. international] schools that play an important role to support international businesses and investments growing their activities and creating economic opportunities and jobs in Singapore,” he wrote.

The site was chosen to provide a “good distribution of such school sites islandwide“, and is of sufficient size “while minimising impact on surrounding developments“.

In short, they decided that they needed an international school somewhere in the east, and suddenly now I know that international schools are such an important component of our economy.

What I didn’t get especially was the last part about how the site choice also took into account minimizing impact.

NParks now gets dragged in: their data that there were “no rare plant species” and only birds and butterfly species that are “also present in other parts of Singapore”.

“While there are some bird species of potential conservation importance … NParks notes that not all of these bird species are nesting on site and are likely using the site as part of their overall home range for foraging. There is a realistic chance of these birds nesting at alternative sites,” he added.

From an ecological point of view, however,

  1. If these are rare species, protection of local populations are important, even if there are other populations elsewhere. Having separate populations reduce the risk of overall extinction.
  2. If this is an important foraging site within the home range of species of conservation concern, it actually implies that it should be protected. The argument for conservation should not be based on nesting sites alone but also other needs of relevant species.

The questions therefore are:

  1. how rare are the species that were found there,
  2. how would it impact the really rare species if the site were to be cleared, and
  3. are there alternatives nearby, both for the proposed school, as well as for the rare species to use?

The grounds are, therefore, “not sufficient to call for a detailed environmental impact assessment [EIA]” that would defer development plans.

This makes it seem as though that there are clear guidelines on which to decide if an EIA is needed. EIAs are not mandatory by Singapore’s laws, and the decision processes leading up to when an EIA would be called are opaque, with pieacemeal provisions littered throughout Singapore’s statutes.

Isn’t it a good idea to always carefully assess developmental plans before allowing them to proceed?

Without an EIA to advise them, here are some examples of what were conjured as mitigatory/compensatory measures:

…the school will be encouraged to retain the mature trees to form a natural buffer between the low-rise houses at Pasir Ris Heights and the teaching blocks of the school.

…The school will be accessed via a new road directly off Pasir Ris Drive 3, while the agencies are working to ensure traffic management measures are in place.

These are not measures for mitigating ecological impact from the loss of habitat. These are measures of mitigating impact on humans from the dust, noise, etc.

The residents that supported the petition would naturally be disappointed.

So the tension from the disappointment grew into something quite a bit more. On 9 January 2013, two articles were published.

In the Straits Times, “Fight to save forest patch hots up” by Grace Chua:

A group of Pasir Ris residents, unhappy with a decision to build an international school on a patch of forest near Pasir Ris Heights, is locked in a battle with the authorities.

… one incident on Dec 29 tipped them over – when HDB ordered a tree with about 90 parakeets chopped down because other residents had presumably complained about the noise. They confronted workers preparing to cut it down and, after a discussion about whose authority they were acting on, the workers took their ropes and left.

Two days later, the group published a letter on Facebook which it sent to the MND, Urban Redevelopment Authority, National Parks Board and Singapore Land Authority. It asked if they were “doing this to achieve their end of destroying the forest on the quiet, using what appears to be a fictitious pretence”.

No more nice guys:

They … had suggested alternative nearby plots for the school. They also want an independent study of the biodiversity of the forest and for the Government to provide statistical data to support its decision.

It threatened legal action unless the Government gave figures supporting its decisions by Jan 7.

Associate Professor Lye Lin Heng, an environmental law scholar at the National University of Singapore, said a legal challenge could be a test case that rests on whether residents have legal standing to stop developments on state land. An argument can be made that the Government holds the land on trust for the people, then they have a right to be consulted, she said.

Some flip-flop?

Late on Monday, the MND told residents the attempted felling was to stop the wild tree being toppled by strong winds. It said it was now assessing the tree and insisted the attempted felling “was with the intent to ensure public safety and not to commence clearance of the site”.

A good point on who should be assessing the site:

A member of the group’s committee, lawyer Deepak Natverlal, 42, who has lived in Pasir Ris for 16 years, … insisted that surveys by NParks were not independent enough.

Neo Chai Chin’s story in Today, “No rub of the green for Pasir Ris woodland” suggests that it was a misunderstanding of the reason for clearing the tree in question that boiled things over. After residents had met up with Teo Chee Hean to express their disappointment after Loo’s earlier letter in October,

… The MND promised to follow up with a clearer explanation, but things came to a head on Dec 29, when a big tree in the woodland nearly got cut down.

Residents halted the contractor’s work and wrote again to the authorities. The MND told TODAY that the Albizia tree was identified for removal for public safety under the National Parks Board’s (NParks) Tree Management Programme.

Mr Loo wrote to the residents that NParks is now doing a “detailed assessment” of whether the tree needs to be felled for safety reasons.

Albizia trees are always a tricky problem.

They are not native to Singapore; in some parts of the world they are even considered as invasive plant species. They grow so tall in such a short time that, or so it is thought, they prevent native pioneer plant species from establishing in the canopy. More important to pragmatic Singapore, wood from such rapid growth cannot be strong wood, and the immense height/size makes them “killer trees” when they fall, as they often did, in strong winds.

However, raptors often choose to nest in albizias, because of their height. Few (actually, can’t think of any) native plant species can replace such an ecological function.

Back to the promised “clearer explanation”:

The secondary vegetation on the land is suitable for a range of animal and bird life, but the number of species there is “considerably lower” than in nature reserves and many other nature areas in Singapore, wrote the MND’s Manager for Strategic Planning Loo Jian Sheng in an email to the Pasir Ris Greenbelt Committee on Monday…

Sites designated as nature reserves must be rich in native biodiversity across several taxonomic groups, such as plants, mammals and reptiles, he said.

Mr Loo’s reply, posted on the committee’s Facebook page, stated that the authorities had considered options to salvage and relocate the plants and animals at the site, but identified no rare plant species that needed to be salvaged.

“There are lower risks in permitting animal species to move out of the area themselves at the start of land clearance, than would be incurred by attempting to capture and remove them,” he added.

Sure, plants can be salvaged, grown, and planted as trees in parks. Or they may need to be planted in other remaining habitats, otherwise this would not allow them to serve their functions by interacting with other ecosytems. Where are these habitats?

Similarly, when animals move out of this forest, they need other forests to move into. Given Singapore’s dwindling number of forest patches (this case being a perfect example), how then does this argument, that they can move out by themselves, still hold?

But the Greenbelt Committee is still unsatisfied with the MND’s reply. Committee member Cherry Fong said the Urban Redevelopment Authority has yet to explain the need to clear the woodland “when there may be other alternative sites” for the school.

Addressing the point on nature reserves,

first, Neo Chai Chin’s article:

“Every effort” should be made to protect areas with endangered or uncommon species, even if they belong to one taxonomic group, and the committee has proposed an alternative site of less biodiversity importance, [Cherry Fong] said.

then back to Grace Chua’s article:

Dr Ho Hua Chew of the Nature Society said … “Of course you can’t compare forest fragments with nature reserves, but the carrying capacity of the nature reserves has been exceeded for some species. That’s why they are resorting to these areas outside nature reserves,”…

Two days later (11 January 2013), Dr. Wee Yeow Chin wrote to the Straits Times Forum (“Not all green patches worth conserving“). As with Subaraj, Dr. Wee rightly brought up the problem of using up “lobbying capital” on a degraded piece of biodiversity when there might patches elsewhere more worth saving.

The Nature Society, he felt, should help to advise residence about such trade-offs, and the differences in ecological value between degraded land and nature reserves.

The Pasir Ris plot is a highly degraded piece of wild growth…

There will always be such plots of wild growth, especially when an area is left undeveloped for some years. But this does not mean that we should clamour for their conservation.

I wonder, though, if Singapore would really always have wild growth. I do not have hard data [yet] to show this, but all signs point to lesser and lesser natural vegetation outside of the nature reserves… It is not hard to imagine them almost completely gone in the near future at the relentless growth rate that is being projected for our population.

Such natural vegetation certainly lose out to the nature reserves in terms of biodiversity “content”, but what of their value in terms of improving access for residents, and hence its indirect contribution to ecological literacy and societal support for conservation? A student in our lab is working on this; we may get some answers by the year’s end.

…if such areas were to disappear altogether, the mostly resident birds could always find refuge in our parks and gardens, where there are plenty of trees to provide food and shelter.

To what extent is this true? My research has some interesting results. Will blog about it when the time comes.

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2 Comments

  1. 14 January 2013 at 11:32

    […] Pasir Ris green belt (a thoughtful summary and analysis from Kwekings) […]

  2. 3 February 2013 at 10:38

    […] for the current population, natural vegetation on reserve land is being destroyed, prompting protests from both nature lovers as well as nearby residents that enjoy the benefits of such natural […]


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