Tony O’Dempsey is a GIS and Remote Sensing professional who has been living in Singapore for the past 20 years. He is active as a noted conservationist in Singapore and a council member of Nature Society (Singapore). He has previously served as the Chairman of the Plant Group. Tony has participated in flora and fauna surveys throughout Singapore and his interests are in botany and history are well known amongst nature lovers. He has also been involved in Nature Conservation in Singapore for the past 15 years and most recently played an active role in NSS’ proposals and in the Cross Island Line proposal with the Land Transport Authorities (LTA).
His lobbying efforts together with the NSS made the LTA follow a less sensitive route across the Nature Reserve when building their MRT project that came close to the water catchment areas of the nature reserve. The Cross Island Line Proposal would enable the MRT to cut across Changi, passing through Loyang, Pasir Ris, Hougang, Ang Mo Kio, Bukit Timah, Clementi, West Coast and Jurong. His passion for the green movement in Singapore can only be matched for his love for the outdoors as he grew up in the Australian bush.
Can you tell me more about yourself and how you came to support the green movement of preserving the environment? Was this something you are passionate about since young? And why ?
I have always appreciated the natural environments – since a child in Australia I accompanied my father into the Australian bush whenever I could – he was a logging supervisor for our family owned sawmill . As long ago as the 1970’s he was practicing sustainable harvesting but not from a conservation point of view – it was an economic consideration due to the cost of transport. He wanted to be able to reharvest. As a young adult I worked in the surveying industry, and this allowed me to work in the bush, an ideal occupation for me. I also spent a lot of my spare time hiking and climbing mountains in South East Queensland. So I have always had a connection with, and a love for the wilderness. When I moved to South East Asia over 20 years ago I connected with likeminded people through membership of the Nature Society (Singapore) and explored the native forests here. Eventually I was asked to join the council first as Chairmen of the vertebrate study group, then later as Chairman of the plant group. The first 3-year stint was as vertebrate chairman, the second 3-year stint was a co-opted council member- during which time I acted as Plant Group Chairman for some of that period. During that time, I became intimately involved in various campaigns promoting conservation – the most recent being the Cross Island line where I served as a working group member consulting with the Land Transport Agency as well as the Mandai Forest Park development where I was engaged, along with other members of the nature community with the developer.
You had stints as the Singapore Nature Society Vertebrate Chairman then as Plant Chairman, and later as co-opted council member. Tell us what does that entail and how do you work with the other groups within the Nature Society?
I am currently taking a break from council duties, however I will continue to be involved in conservation matters as they arise. Whenever special conservation matters appear – those that are related to the native habitats we usually form a group of interested and knowledgeable individuals who have specific skills or knowledge relevant to the issue at hand. Sometimes the group is constituted with individuals from outside the Nature society. In the Nature community we all know each other and work well together no matter what is the organization of affiliation. The purpose of this group is to directly engage with developers. The Cross Island Line campaign was a good example of this style of working. We formed a group to engage with the LTA, we made presentations and engaged in discussions with the agency to help them understand the conservation issues at hand. Our approach is to be non-emotional and fact driven in our presentations. Over the course of engagement we aim to build trust and friendship with the organization we are engaging with. That is not to say we sit around and have pleasant conversations over cups of tea, sometimes discussion can be tense.
Can you tell us what are some of the flora and fauna surveys you have undertaken in Singapore? What were some of the results of the surveys ?
Since the 1990’s the Nature Society has participated (in conjunction with NParks) in fauna and to a lesser extent flora surveys of our native forests. The first round of surveys in the 1990’s revealed to us that our native habitats were still quite healthy considering the pounding they received during the 19th century through gambier and tapioca plantations. The summary results of these early surveys are published in the Gardens Bulletin (a journal published by NParks). Later surveys are not necessarily published in mainstream journals due to the need to protect fauna and flora that are subject to poaching. Nevertheless the data is maintained and used in the management of the Nature Reserves by NParks.
Can you tell us more about your Cross Island Line Proposal? Were you successful in getting the message across diverting the Cross Island rail line from cutting through the nature reserves and the use of an alternate route that cuts via Lornie Road going around the reserve ?
I would say we were partially successful. The original CRL alignment proposed by the LTA cut straight through some our best low land Dipterocarp (primary forest) and mature regeneration forests, as well as two pristine rain forest streams. It would have been a total ecological disaster had that alignment been chosen. So a success that we can chalk up is the alternate alignment proposed by the LTA that follows a less sensitive route across the Nature Reserve. The LTA also massively reduced the number of bore-holes required for the geotechnical survey. Our primary concern was for disturbance due to geotechnical survey, less so for tunnelling. The proposed alignment was subjected to an Environmental Impact Assessment which we had the opportunity to review as part of the working group. During this review we were successful in shaping the final report due to the majority of our feedback points being incorporated into the Assessment report. We were unsuccessful in the sense that our long term conservation considerations were not sufficient to convince the LTA that the alignment option (that transits the Nature reserve) should be abandoned all together.
What are some of your successes and failures in preserving the eco system in Singapore? Can you share with us some of your success and failures? Was it ever an uphill task ?
Due to the constant tension between Development and conservation, you have to be prepared do compromise in some areas and fight “tooth and nail” for others. Sometimes you are successful (Sungai Buloh Wetland Reserve, Tanjong Chek Java) and other times a compromise is obtained (Cross Island Line) and yet others are failures, Lentor stream is a very recent example. We cannot claim exclusivity to the successes (or failures) for Tanjong Cek Java as an example, Nature society was one of several groups vying for its conservation. Again for the Cross Island Line, other groups played a significant role – we work together as best we can.
What are some of the other causes you support in conserving nature in Singapore ? Are you are also involved in preserving the mangrove swamps and the outer islands off Singapore.
I personally do not get directly involved in Mangrove Forests conservation (they are forests not “swamps” ) because my hands a full working with the native inland habitats, there is also a good number of very competent people already working in the inter tidal areas.
How do you reach out to more Singaporeans to do their part in preserving nature in Singapore ?
Outreach is achieved as a general function of the Nature society, and there are other groups who are very active in outreach activities, they include Cicada Tree Eco Place, NUS Toddy Cats, BES Drongos, Love Macritchie. This outreach includes social media presence a well as the conduct of guided walks for members of the public. There can never be enough outreach.
Do you have similar programs in Malaysia? Whom do you work with in Malaysia ?
We are not active in Malaysia issues, our sister organization – the Malaysian Nature Society is the goto organization for Malaysian conservation issues.
What are your plans for the future? What is your wish list for the green movement in Singapore ?
I would like to see further development of Conservation Policy for native habitats. Currently there is a lot of emphasis on City-Biodiversity but that does not address the needs of our native flora and fauna. When I read the policy documentation that is available I can dissolve it into two simple statements – 1) that we want to conserve our native habitats for future generations, and 2) we will use the land if its needed for the national greater good. The policy is in need for details, for example what are the circumstances and where it would be justified to use some of the native habitats for other purposes. These trigger points need to be made clear. It is I fear too easy to invoke the second clause. Work needs to be done to develop conservation policy for the native habitats into a more sophisticated and detailed statement of policy.
The problem that I see at the moment is that projects that affect the native habitats are never considered holistically, the direct effects or impacts are identified and often deemed to be acceptable based on a blinkered view of the project at hand. However the accumulated effects of many projects over time either adjoining or within the nature reserves are not considered at all. There is a real danger that we are causing slow and imperceptible movement towards local extinctions due to this ad-hoc approach to environmental impact assessment and decision making.
We need to take a longer term view of conservation of our native habitats, Singapore is one of two cities in the world which host a significant tropical native forest within the bounds of the city. This is an incredible and special situation which can only increase in value to the nation as time passes and other countries lose their native forests to palm oil and other agricultural pursuits. The potential for significant eco-tourist dollars has recently been confirmed by the plans to build the Mandai Rainforest Park attraction as a part of the zoo complex. So let us also recognize the value of our true rainforest assets as well and take better care of them.
Aside from the eco-tourist value, we also need to seriously consider the economic and other more esoteric benefits to the health of the citizens and to the nation afforded by opportunities for personal engagement with nature. Increased population targets will result in increased demand for eco-experiences. We need to ensure that we manage the native habitats not only for their long term existence, but also to realize the benefits that can be had for the citizens who now need to survive in higher population density than ever before.
Along with more sophisticated native habitat Conservation Policy we also need to define a template for undertaking environmental impact studies where nature habitats are affected. The standardised methodologies used in other countries for more homogeneous and larger habitats are not sufficient to properly assess impacts in our isolated and fragmented nature reserves. The longer term cumulative impacts are not being addressed by methodologies in current use. I would like to see government, NGOs, Academics and knowledgeable professionals come together to define a more suitable methodology for undertaking Environmental Impact studies and that the outcome of this work would be supported by improved environmental legislation obligating its use.