Rising costs, rising accountability?

DECEMBER 28 — As we approach the end the year, it is safe to say 2016 has been a year of price hikes in Malaysia; various commodities and services from fundamental goods such as sugar and cooking oil to public transport became more expensive. 

Fellow Malaysians, however, have reason to cheer as one thing that is not going up this year happens to be the compulsory conservation fee to enter a federal marine protected area (MPA). That remains at RM5. 

This comes after the Department of Marine Parks Malaysia (DMPM) most recently revised its fee structure. Nonetheless, the same does not apply for certain groups of people. Most notably, foreigners are now charged RM 30 per entry, six times more than locals. 

Additionally, scuba operators have to fork out a monthly fee of RM150 and permits for research activities are now at RM200 while documentary film-makers have to pay RM100 per day for filming at a marine park. 

Conservation fee rationale

But do we actually need to pay for entry into a National Park? Isn’t the government — through their respective agencies — supposed to protect these areas which are funded by taxpayer money? And thus it is our right as citizens of Malaysia first and taxpayers second to enter for free? 

In my humble opinion, the answer to this is yes and no.

Yes, because our Federal Constitution somehow guarantees that right. According to a paper by a USM academic, Article 5 — Right to Liberty and Life encompasses the right of every citizen of Malaysia to live in a healthy and clean environment. This then includes access to what she describes as an ecologically sound environment that is protected for the present and future generations.

For the purpose of comparison, visitors to National Parks in the United Kingdom can enter for free.

Realistically though, protecting a large amount of land or sea is not cheap. The median cost to run an MPA stands at US$2,698 (RM12,082) per km2 per year according to a worldwide study. But how is that so? Isn’t PA gazettement just simply declaring a large swath of land as untouchable then getting people to manage its borders?

To begin to question this, it is useful to first understand the objectives of MPA establishment in Malaysia. The objectives of DMPM show that the agency prioritises preservation, conservation and awareness. 

Seeing that environmental related programmes are usually the first to be removed in national Budget cuts, it is only natural that the agencies look to other sources of income to fulfil these objectives.

Hence, I argue that a developed nation may be able to allow free entry into PAs because sufficient funds exist to manage the area. In the case of developing countries like Malaysia, a fee is necessary to supplement federal or state funding towards the delivery of public services. 

This can range from "free of charge" in Penang National Park to RM50 in Kinabalu Park. Aside from the entrance fee, some park managements offer services like tour guides, porters and accommodation to tourists.

A different crowd

I would like to turn the reader’s attention to the fees that were raised during the restructuring exercise. Imagine travelling thousands of kilometres to one of the most exotic sites in the world only to be charged six times more than locals. Who wouldn’t be annoyed? 

The argument that the fee hike is small in comparison to the plane ticket cost to me does not hold water. Why should one spend more to enjoy something a fellow human being has access to for less?

Although it might seem like the authorities are trying to make an easy buck from international tourists, I do agree with this move. This is simply because international tourists, in general, are less invested in a local protected area. 

What I mean by this is that international tourists do not bear any future consequences from actions committed during their often brief stay. Any damage however small is to be managed by locals and authorities of a protected area. 

That being said, I have met a few foreigners who were so enchanted with our islands that they returned to volunteer with local NGOs or work in the diving industry.

Likewise, I opine that the monthly fee imposed upon scuba operators is a timely move. In environmental economics, we often talk about valuing environmental services and internalising environmental externalities.

Scuba operators arguably only contribute to marine conservation by paying their taxes which ultimately goes to the civil service before the monthly charge was put in place. 

However with the monthly charge, the marine environment is given a value. Albeit nominal at present, I hope this leads to discussions and further studies in the future; because without assigning any monetary value to an environmental service, the default value is zero.

The fact is that any tourism activity including scuba diving can negatively affect the health of the marine environment. Studies have shown that increased diver activity does lead to reef damage, water pollution and change in animal behaviour. 

This conservation fee of RM150 per month can potentially be used to offset any damage incurred. In effect, this can be seen as a local green tax which can then be channelled to mitigate any localised island-specific damage by scuba divers.

Rising costs, rising accountability?

I believe this restructuring is a step in the right direction for MPAs in Malaysia. However, I am also cautious about the delivery of services expected from this increase in fees. In a nutshell, would this increase result in an accompanying increase in the quality, efficiency and most importantly transparency?

Now with the fee in place, users of MPAs will have certain expectations of the facilities provided and have the right to question if these services are not delivered. 

DMPM has to also be transparent in their spending to make sure the "conservation fee" is actually used for said purpose.

Malaysia is one of the 17 megadiverse countries, harbouring a majority of Earth’s species with high endemism. Malaysian seas are also in the Coral Triangle which hosts 76 per cent of all known coral species in the world. Such richness has to be accompanied by well-funded conservation initiatives to protect our marine ecosystem for posterity.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.