Destruction of Kranji Woodlands Forest, a foregone conclusion from the beginning?

More questions than answers provided by JTC Corporation's response to the unfortunate "accident"

It came to a surprise to many, especially nature lovers, when they found out that large patches of greenery at Kranji Woodland Forest were bulldozed for redevelopment.

Facebook user Brice Li shared on Facebook on Sunday (14 February) some photos showing the difference between the forest in 2019 and 2021 – the older photo full of lush forestry while the latest photo shows a section of the land being developed.

“When I hear that part of it was being cleared, I was in total disbelief,” he wrote, adding that the “level of destruction in less than two years was a heart-wrenching sight”.

As for Nature Society, it shared Mr Li’s post and commented, “This is a shocking and dreadful development in an important green area contiguous to the Rail Corridor”.

However, it was later discovered that this large swathes were mistakenly cleared while the authorities were still in the midst of completing biodiversity impact assessments at the area.

Mothership.sg quoted JTC Corporation saying that it discovered its contractor, Huationg, had “erroneously” begun clearing some of these specific plots of land prematurely on 13 January 2021.

JTC said that these plots of land were earmarked for the development of the Agri-Food Innovation Park (AFIP) which is part of the Sungei Kadut Eco-District (SKED).

The SKED masterplan was announced in February last year, and is developed to support new growth sectors such as agri-tech and environmental technology.

A stern warning has since been issued to the contractor as the land was cleared before the Biodiversity Baseline Study and an Environmental Monitoring and Management Plan (EMMP) for specified plots of land within the area were completed.

According to the statutory board, it said that it had engaged an environmental specialist in December last year to carry out EMMP, and the findings were slated to be released only in April this year.

JTC said that the agency takes a very serious view of this incident and will investigate how this error occurred before deciding whether further punitive measures need to be taken.

If that’s not all, the National Parks Board (NParks) told The Straits Times (ST) that it is investigating the matter. “We take a serious view of unauthorised greenery clearance and will not hesitate to take the appropriate enforcement action.”

In a separate statement, Huationg, which is a groundwork company, has apologised for the error and is working with JTC “to determine the cause of this lapse, and to prevent future occurrences”, ST reported.

“We are reviewing internally and working with JTC,” the contractor noted.

Satellite images show clearance starting in March

Now, while JTC has said that the contractor only started erroneously clearing the forest in mid-January this year, satellite imagery shows otherwise.

Several satellite images of the area over a one year period between February 2020 until February 2021 clearly shows that deforestation of Kranji Woodlands Forest started in March 2020. It slowed down, presumably due to COVID-19 restrictions, after that.

However, the clearing of the forest picked up again at a much higher pace in August 2020 and continued until February 2021. That’s six months of unchecked, unauthorised deforestation.

Photos shared by Mr Brice Li also shows the extent of the destruction at ground level.

The thing is, doesn’t it seems unlikely that the contractor would embark on such a massive and lengthy project without explicit permission or agreement from its client? Doesn’t it seem unlikely that they would do so without oversight from public officials to check up on the progress of this large scale project?

So did the contractors actually have permission to clear the forest? Was it wrongly cleared, simply because it was done before JTC could speak to the NGOs?

If that’s the case, this brings us back to the question of whether the clearance of the forest was a foregone conclusion even before the environmental impact assessment was done by the independent assessors, and before the NGOs could make their concerns heard.

In fact, JTC had put up a sign about the site clearance back in September.

A tender was also called for and eventually awarded to a tractor company, Shuan Huat Tractors Pte Ltd on 17 February 2020 for the clearing of the land at S$1.49 million. The clearing which satellite imaging tells us commenced on March 2020. This raises another question: what is the point of having a dialogue session with NGOs and the environmental assessment report now? Isn’t it a waste of public money just for the sake of political positioning?

It is also curious why Huationg is made to answer questions on the forest clearance instead of Shuan Huat Tractor when Huationg was only awarded the tender for the proposed earthworks and construction of infrastructure on 25 March 2020, after the clearance had also begun.

TOC has reached out to JTC Corporation for clarification on the timeline of events.

Isn’t the clearance of the land a foregone conclusion?

According to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan, which was last revised on 15 January this year, most of the land is designated for agriculture.

However, one section on the top left of the forest – which is yet to be cleared, according to the photos shared by Mr Li – has been designated for “business”.

The Master Plan notes that this area is intended to be used for clean industry, light industry, general industry, warehouse, public utilities and telecommunication uses, and other public installations.

The strip of forest in the middle through which runs the Rail Corridor is designated in the Master Plan as a park or garden.

The question here is how is it possible for a private contractor to be able to bulldozed such a large swathe of land without prior confirmation from its client, JTC Corporation? How is it that the contractor is clearing the forest before the Biodiversity Baseline Study and an Environmental Monitoring and Management Plan (EMMP) was completed?

If that’s not all, since the forest was not part of the Tree Conservation Areas (TCAs) and the trees were less than one metre in girth, technically the company does not have to seek for permit from NParks to fell the trees, resulting in the forest clearance without anyone’s knowledge.

In Singapore, there are two green spaces in the South Central and Eastern parts of the county which have been gazetted as TCAs, and Kranji Woodlands Forest is not included in the areas.

According to NParks’ website, developers and private property owners who wish to fell any mature tree with a girth of more than one metre have to seek written approval from the Commissioner of Parks & Recreation. This is required even if no developmental works are in progress on-site. But since — allegedly — no one was being informed, how would NParks know how wide the trees that were fell, are?

Additionally, even if we put aside for a moment the issue of lapses that resulted in the premature clearing of the land, doesn’t this incident illustrate that it is a foregone conclusion that the forest will be cleared?

It appears that it has been pre-determined that the forest will be cleared even before any constructive dialogue can be had about the land with stakeholders and environmental NGOs following the environmental reports.

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