Even if you are not an environmentalist, you would have heard about the case involving an erroneous clearance of Kranji woodland that was under public scrutiny recently.
While investigations are ongoing, the lack of information has also drawn many speculations.
Some of the speculations were being addressed with more information shared by agencies involved on Feb. 22 in a press conference. JTC acknowledged that there "has been some confusion" stemming from its earlier statement.
If you haven't been keeping up with the developments of this case, here's a summary of what the buzz is about.
What is Kranji woodland?
Before we delve into the clearing of woodlands, here is the history to this plot of land.
The Kranji woodland used to be part of the former Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway line. When the railway was discontinued, part of the site was returned to the State on Jul. 1, 2011.
Singapore negotiated for the return of the railway land to meet our land-use needs, JTC said.
Back then, most of the site comprised of disused scrubland, with a few scattered large trees. The land, which was not managed pending upcoming redevelopment works, was eventually dominated by fast-growing non-native Albizia regrowth.
Here's a quick look at the land transformation in less than 10 years:
Running through this site now is the Rail Corridor which JTC and National Parks Board (NParks) proposed to retain as a green corridor for nature, leisure and community uses while the rest of the site was slated for other industrial uses.
The site in question is part of a bigger woodland-scrubland in Kranji of the size of 70 hectares, according to the Nature Society Singapore (NSS).
After years of being left untouched, NSS recorded 47 bird species from a rapid survey conducted in this area, both resident and migratory.
This is about 12 per cent of Singapore's total records, NSS said.
There are nesting or breeding records of the Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Changeable Hawk-eagle, and the White-bellied Sea Eagle in the Albizia groves, NSS noted.
NSS recommended for development, if needed, to proceed on the western side of the corridor in the southern stretch from Mandai Road to Kranji Road where scrubland still dominates, and retaining the eastern side.
What kind of development is happening there?
The site that was cleared was part of the 25ha land allocated for the development of the Agri-Food Innovation Park (AFIP) in 2019.
The proposal by JTC and NParks includes retaining the railway line as a green corridor within the AFIP.
The plans were exhibited in public as part of the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Draft Master Plan 2019 and later as JTC's Sungei Kadut Eco-District Master Plan in Feb 2020.
The green corridor retained will be 75 to 100m wide so as to provide ecological connectivity to sensitive nature areas like Sungei Pang Sua and Sungei Mandai leading to Mandai Mangrove and Mudflat, JTC and NParks said.
There will also be bank enhancement such as the growing of native species along the linear park adjacent to Sungei Pang Sua.
However, as the development site is not close to any sensitive nature areas, an environmental impact assessment is not required.
Enough of the historical context, let’s return to last week when JTC acknowledged some plots of the forested land at Kranji was cleared by mistake.
How did people find out about it?
Members of the public were drawn to the clearance after photos showing "before" and "after" of the site went viral online on Feb. 15, 2021.
The sheer scale of the clearance seen from photos had taken the public as well as the environmentalists by surprise.
However, not all plots of land shown in these photos were cleared by error.
How much of the land was cleared by mistake?
A total of 25 hectares of land has been allocated to AFIP.
Of this, 11.9 hectares have been cleared since March 2020 and the plots of land that were erroneously cleared were about 4.5 hectares in size, JTC clarified on Feb. 22.
The area of clearance that was shown in pictures circulated online was larger than this. Furthermore, there was a series of satellite images that show the clearance started a year ago.
To clarify, JTC has released the timeline of the site clearance in greater detail:
Timeline of the site clearance
May. 2, 2019: JTC engaged CPG Consultants to carry out design and planning works at the Kranji site.
July 2019: As part of the requirement to get approval for tree falling from NParks, the consultant conducted a flora baseline survey. The survey was completed on Jul. 29, 2019 by CPG.
Aug. 29, 2019: NParks issued Written Direction to approve CPG's urgent request for tree falling for the first three plots of land (outlined in purple and yellow) after verifying that the trees could be felled.
Mar. 2, 2020: Site clearance works for the plot in yellow commenced (about 1.9ha).
Aug. 21, 2020: CPG resubmitted its Building Plan as a new drain was proposed. This drain would discharge into Sungei Pang Sua, and therefore, NParks asked for a fauna baseline study and the Environmental Monitoring and Management Programme (EMMP). The need for additional environmental impact studies arose from a potential risk of pollution caused by sediment runoff.
August to September 2020: Site clearance for another few plots of land totalling about 2.8ha (outlined in blue) was conducted while the fauna baseline study was being called.
Nov. 3, 2020: CPG asked NParks for permission to clear more plots but NParks only approved the portion outlined in green to be cleared.
December 2020: Clearance works commenced at plots 4 and 5 totalling about 2.1ha (outlined in purple). Fauna study and EMMP consultant were engaged.
End-Dec., 2020 - Jan. 13, 2021: The contractor further cleared the areas (outlined in red). This is the area cleared without approval which is 4.5ha in size.
When was the mistake discovered?
The mistake was discovered by JTC on Jan. 13, 2021 and an immediate stop-work order was issued.
A stern warning was given to the contractor.
If the mistake was discovered in January, why was the statement released a month later?
JTC Chief Executive Officer Tan Boon Khai explained at the press conference:
“We realised that… there has been media interest as well as undue speculation. This led therefore to the media statement that JTC had (released) on Feb 16, trying to clarify some of the issues that have been surrounding (the incident) as well as the interest that has been generated.”
Why a stern warning only?
Tan explained that during JTC's preliminary investigations, the contractor Huationg admitted that there was over-clearing on its part.
This has resulted in the company issuing an apology and a stern warning has been issued.
Investigations are ongoing, and the outcome of the investigations will determine the next course of action.
Commissioner of Parks and Recreation of NParks, Leong Chee Chiew also added that NParks will be investigating whether there were any breaches of the Parks and Trees Act and the Wildlife Act.
Leong highlighted the importance of a thorough investigation and avoiding prejudicing as "the penalties are not small" and therefore he will not make any assumptions at this point in time.
Who's at fault?
This million-dollar question will not have a quick answer as a development project has multi-layer personnel and procedures.
Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said on Feb. 22 that a large-scale development like the one at Kranji woodlands would have "its fair share of complexities". Lee said:
"There are many parties involved — the project management teams, the qualified person, and the various consultants. There are also many technical agencies involved weighing in on various aspects during the planning and consultation process."
What are the steps taken so far?
While investigations are ongoing, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said that three sets of directions have been issued for "immediate follow-up".
To summarise, they are:
- NParks and JTC to conduct investigations respectively.
- Permanent Secretary Joseph Leong, an independent party, had been appointed to lead a review of the lessons arising from this development at Kranji, and to identify any learning points for project management, supervision, and execution, and interagency coordination.
- Chan as the minister in charge of the public service had also instructed all agencies involved in land clearance projects to conduct immediate checks to ensure their project supervision and implementation processes are in order.
Lee also added that MND will continue to strengthen its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) framework in the meanwhile by working on several enhancements proposed by the nature community previously.
The government will be developing a more comprehensive picture of Singapore's islandwide ecosystem and connectivity through studies to aid with long-term planning.
Both ministers said that they take a "serious" view of the incident.
Top image by Brice Li.