SINGAPORE: The error in clearing parts of the Kranji woodland area could undermine recent efforts by Singapore authorities to better engage nature groups, said conservation advocates who expressed shock and disappointment at the mistake.
The 70ha Kranji woodland area, about the size of Jurong Lake Gardens, is along a green artery known as the Rail Corridor.
About 18ha had been set aside for the first phase of development for the Agri-Food Innovation Park, but parts of it were mistakenly cleared by a contractor of JTC Corp before an environmental impact assessment could be completed.
Revealing this on Tuesday (Feb 16), JTC said it engaged an environmental specialist to carry out a study in December and to work out an environmental management plan for specified plots of land in the area.
The study was expected to be completed around April, but land was cleared before that.
JTC did not say when its contractor, Huationg, started clearing the area, but said it discovered the error on Jan 13 and instructed the firm to immediately stop all clearing work.
CNA has contacted JTC for further information, including details on the area of land that was erroneously cleared.
A CORRIDOR FOR WILDLIFE
When CNA visited the work site on Wednesday, it was quiet with construction equipment sitting idle.
Along the nature walk nearby, a glimpse can be caught of dark green hoarding, but it is not obvious that the trees and shrubs beyond have been levelled.
Aerial photos posted by Facebook user Brice Li on Feb 14 showed swathes of land that have been cleared. Trees had been cut down on both sides with only a narrow strip of green remaining.
Following his post, some nature advocates chimed in on social media.
"This is a shocking development in an important green area of the Rail Corridor," said Facebook group We Support The Green Corridor in Singapore.
The forested area in Kranji is one of the few patches of woodland on the northern stretch of the Rail Corridor, said Mr Leong Kwok Peng, who chairs the Nature Society Singapore’s conservation committee.
The 24km rail corridor stretches from Tanjong Pagar in the south to Woodlands in the north of Singapore. The railway land, which belonged to Malaysia, was returned to Singapore in 2011 and it is seen as a green corridor that will link a number of future developments.
It is also a corridor for wildlife, said Mr Leong.
“You can't just have a linear tree-lined area and hope that nature will just continue to move north and south. You must have some kind of forest patch in between for the animals to forage,” he added.
Mr Leong said the nature society has discussed mitigation measures with JTC and hopes that the belt of green that remains can be retained and widened. “Of course, it won’t be the same,” he said.
“ONCE IT’S GONE, IT’S GONE”
Other conservation champions CNA spoke to also expressed shock and disappointment at the erroneous clearance.
“We can’t afford to make this kind of mistake,” said biological scientist N Sivasothi.
He added that the slip-up appeared to undermine efforts made by the authorities over the past few years to enhance consultations with nature groups.
Mr Sivasothi said once baseline studies are done, plans are usually discussed with nature groups to see how potential impacts can be mitigated or even avoided, which has been a move in the right direction.
Speaking of a detailed process of engagement, he said: “The fact that this all just gets dismissed without proper consideration is quite criminal at this stage.”
Conservation scientist and Nominated Member of Parliament Professor Koh Lian Pin added that baseline environmental studies help to highlight potential ecological impacts if the site is subsequently cleared or disturbed.
“Since this part of Kranji woodland was cleared before the completion of its baseline study, we may never know the full extent of the ecological impacts of this clearance.”
He added that these studies are key in providing policymakers with scientific insights to “help them make more informed decisions and to consider the need for any mitigation actions”.
“This is especially important in Singapore where we have to balance the many priorities of our society,” Prof Koh added.
MP Louis Ng (PAP-Nee Soon) added that he was shocked by the erroneous clearing, especially amid the recent public focus on the importance of conserving green spaces.
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“As (MND) put it then, any decision to clear land must be based on science, that’s why these studies are important.
“Now part of it is lost, and we might not know what we have lost,” said Mr Ng, who is also the chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Sustainability and the Environment.
Mr Ng said he has filed a parliamentary question asking the National Development Ministry if it is investigating the error, and whether it will further strengthen the environmental impact assessment (EIA) framework to prevent any repeat of such mistakes.
The framework, first introduced in 2008, aims to determine and mitigate the potential impact of new developments on the environment.
Specifically, Mr Ng suggested codifying the framework into law.
He also said there is “no use crying over spilt milk”, and that it is more important to find out why it happened to make sure it does not occur again.
Prof Koh echoed this, adding that reviewing the failure would be “in the interest of maintaining public trust in the integrity of the process” of conducting environmental studies prior to development.
As for environmental remedial action, Mr Sivasothi warned that “once (the greenery) is gone, it’s gone”.
The next best course of action is to quickly re-examine the site for impact mitigation – and this would include roping in nature groups as soon as possible, said the senior lecturer at the department of biological sciences in the National University of Singapore (NUS).
The environmental “baseline” would also have to be reviewed again now that the forest has been impacted, he said.
“With that terrible scar, we will just have to reassess according to the current situation.”