Development? Really? For whom?

by Gan Pei Ling / 17 October 2011 © The Nut Graph

MOST of us living in Peninsular Malaysia take electricity for granted as we have hardly experienced a blackout since the 1990s. But how many of us have stopped for a moment to think where the electricity, that allows us to turn on our TVs and computers, comes from?

What are the impacts of the power plants that generate our electricity — be they coal, hydropower and perhaps in the future, nuclear — on the environment and local communities living near these plants?

Coal plant and fishes


At a climate and energy forum in Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur on 8 and 9 Oct 2011, Peninsular Inshore Fishermen Action Network president Jamaluddin Mohamad, from Johor, talked about the impact of the Tanjung Bin coal plant.

“They are using chlorine to prevent sea water from corroding the pipes in their power plant. But it is polluting the ocean, and the water that they use to cool the plant is being released back to the sea in high temperature. Our catch has been dwindling over the years,” Jamaluddin told the forum that was jointly organised by Third World Network, Consumers Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia.

Run by independent power producer Malakoff Corp Bhd, the 2,100MW Tanjung Bin coal plant was built in 2003. The power producer intends to expand the plant’s capacity by another 1,000MW.

Jamaluddin noted that Tanjung Bin was rapidly developing into an industrial area: “The areas where we can fish are shrinking and becoming increasingly limited.”

He said none of the affected communities are against “development” but the coal plant and rapid industrial development are threatening their livelihoods: “That’s why we’re protesting against the coal plant’s expansion.”

Dams and livelihoods

Across the South China Sea, natives in Sarawak have been displaced by the Bakun dam and more will be displaced by 12 dams the state government is planning to build to boost its power capacity to 7,000MW, over 600% of its 2008 capacity.

Philip Jau

Philip Jau, a Kayan from the Baram valley, said 20,000 people from various communities will be displaced by the Baram dam the Sarawak government intends to build. “This does not include those who are living downstream yet. Up to 38,900 hectares of our native customary land will be submerged. Our land is our life. We cannot live without it. It is as simple as that,” said Philip.

The Baram dam will also cause deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Philip said the communities affected by these dams are establishing a network to create a united movement against what he described as the “damned” dams. “We want electricity but we hope the government will explore other alternatives like micro-hydro, which is more environmentally-friendly, though it may not generate as much profit as building a mega dam,” he said.

Philip said he has been to the Sungai Asap settlement where the affected communities from Bakun were relocated to. “They’re suffering. Most of the villagers feel that they have no future,” said Philip. The communities in Baram do not want to suffer the same fate with good reason.

Of broken promises

The Bakun dam flooded 69,000 hectares of land, around the size of Singapore, and forced the relocation of 10,000 people. Construction began in 1996 and the project eventually cost RM7.5bil.

Wing Mikiu

Wing Mikiu from the Sungai Asap settlement told the forum the Sarawak government only allocated three acres of land to each family that were relocated from Bakun in 1999. “My family has eight children. Three acres of land is not enough for us. We’ve 2,000 new couples in our settlement to date and most of them have no land [to cultivate],” said Wing.

He said the government promised to build the villagers a new town with an airport, jetty, highway and even an international school in the effort to persuade villagers to leave their ancestral homes. But today, many youths have moved to Bintulu or other towns due to the lack of job opportunities in Sungai Asap.

To add insult to injury, Wing said the compensation villagers received for their now submerged native customary lands range from RM0.30 to RM3 million. “If you’re unhappy with the amount, you can bring it to court or complain to the district office, but you’ll have to pay for the cost to resurvey the land yourself,” Wing explained.

“Perhaps the project profited the company and the people in this state [when the dam starts producing energy], but what about us? Our people didn’t enjoy any development as promised, and we’ve lost our land and heritage,” said Wing.

Source of inspiration

Protesting against a coal plant or dam may seem daunting, but local communities can look to Green Surf for inspiration. Since 2007, the coalition has successfully pressured the government three times to cancel plans to build a coal plant in Sabah.

Wong Tack

Wong Tack from the Sabah Environmental Protection Society, which is one of the five environmental organisations in Green Surf, said it was most important for communities to be united. “Locals must take responsibility. If the people are united [in the struggle], then we can solve any problem,” said Wong.

Wong pointed out that it is also crucial to build partnerships with national and international partners. “When the government proposed to build the coal plant for the third time (in Kampung Sinakut in 2009), we knew this could no longer be a Sabah issue.  We had to turn it into an international issue.

“We went to the Parliament and built partnerships with international NGOs (non-governmental organisations) so that the government would have to listen to us, and finally they did,” said Wong. The government scrapped the plan to build a coal plant in Sabah for good in February 2011.

Development? Where?

Those with vested interests in mega projects have a tendency to demonise local communities and environmentalists who oppose such projects as “anti-development”.

But if there’s anything to learn from the stories of community leaders, it is not just about conserving the environment. It is about defending communities’ source of livelihood and preferred way of life so that they can continue to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, and continue to work and fend for their families.

Of course, the government and corporations involved can continue to ignore local communities’ interests and voices. But surely, they do so at their peril? If communities are adversely affected economically by development projects, surely these communities would have nothing else to lose in fighting back.

Gan Pei Ling believes government and businesses must always take into account not just environmental impact but social and economic consequences on local communities when proposing mega projects. If not, they risk earning public outrage.

Green issues: Top 10 in 2010

by Gan Pei Ling / 24 January 2011 © The Nut Graph

WHAT were the environmental highlights and low points of 2010? Do we stand a chance in conserving Malaysia’s amazing biodiversity and rich natural resources?

With the help of several “greenie” friends, I made a list of 10 major environmental happenings in Malaysia in 2010. These events give us an indication not only of how the environment continues to be under threat in Malaysia, but also how efforts are being made to combat that threat.

What stood out for you environmentally in 2010? What appalled, encouraged or enlightened you? List them down so that we may have a better picture about how we Malaysians are caring for our environment.


1. Nuclear power plants

(Pic by merlin1075 /

The federal government decided to go nuclear, announcing in May 2010 that Malaysia would build a nuclear power plant by 2021. Serious concerns were raised regarding safety and feasibility, considering the disastrous effects of accidents and shoddy radioactive waste management. Activists also questioned whether the government had exhausted renewable energy options, especially solar and biomass.

Despite this, Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Peter Chin announced in December 2010 that Malaysia intended to build two plants, the second expected to be ready a year after the first.

To date, the government has not made public its nuclear waste management plan or emergency plan detailing what steps it would take in the event of a radioactive leak or natural disaster.

2. Sabah coal plant

Meanwhile, the federal government is planning to build a 300-megawatt coal plant on Sabah’s pristine east coast. Environmental coalition Green Surf and other activists have been campaigning tirelessly against the plant, reminding the government to consider cleaner alternatives like biomass and geothermal.

The plant’s detailed environmental impact assessment was rejected by the Environment Department. However, Chin said last December the proposed coal plant would go ahead, claiming it was the best option to ensure uninterrupted power supply.

3. Bakun Dam

The flooding of the Bakun Dam began in October 2010. The flooding of the 69,000ha area, roughly the size of Singapore, to the top of the Bakun Dam wall, about half the height of the Petronas Twin Towers, is expected to take over seven months.

Disputes over compensation for the approximately 10,000 indigenous peoples displaced from their land remain unresolved. The construction of the Bakun Dam began in 1996, and its cost was reported to have ballooned from RM4.5bil to RM7.5bil due to cost overrun and compensation for delays.

Despite that, Bakun is just the beginning. The 944-megawatt Murum dam is currently being constructed, and it was announced in February last year that five more dams with a combined capacity of 3,000-megawatts are in the pipeline.

4. Renewable energy bill

(Pic by ronaldo/

The long-awaited Renewable Energy Act was finally tabled in Parliament in December 2010. Once passed, the Act will enable the public to sell electricity generated from renewable energy, most likely solar, to the power grid through the feed-in tariff scheme. Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) will buy user-generated electricity at above-market rates. Concerns, however, are that TNB might pass on the cost to consumers by raising general electricity tariffs.

Other than the feed-in-tariff, it is unclear how the government intends to fulfill its target of generating 11% electricity from renewable energy by 2020.


5. Rejang river logjam

This bizarre incident last October involved Malaysia’s longest river, the Rejang. Logs and debris choked the mighty river for 50km, making many places inaccessible by boat.

The Sarawak government tried to pass off the incident as a “natural” disaster due to floods. A BBC report, however, quoted the blog Hornbill Unleashed, which blamed poor infrastructure and excessive logging for the logjam.


6. Capture and trial of wildlife trafficker Anson Wong

In August 2010, Wong was caught with 95 boa constrictors in his bag at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. I, personally, was delighted when the High Court substituted a Sessions Court sentence of six months’ jail and a RM190,000 fine with a five-year jail term. The heavier sentence will be more likely to serve as an effective deterrent.

In addition, Parliament passed a tougher Wildlife Conservation Act, which came into force in December 2010. Punishments include fines of up to RM500,000. and up to five years’ jail for smugglers of protected species like tigers and rhinos.

7. GM mosquitoes

(Illustration by Nick Choo)

Dengue, carried by the Aedes mosquito, has been endemic in Malaysia for years. Genetically modified (GM) mosquitoes have been proposed as a solution to curb its spread. The mutant male mosquitoes do not produce any offspring and help lower the mosquito population.

Great fears, however, have been expressed over this experiment as experts say removing the mosquito from the ecosystem could wreak havoc on other species, and ultimately, the environment.

Despite these concerns, the Health Ministry intended to release GM mosquitoes in Bentong, Pahang and Alor Gajah, Malacca. Protests from local and international groups resulted in a cancellation of the programme.


8. Selangor State Park

The federal government intends to build the Kuala Lumpur Outer Ring Road (KLORR) through the Selangor State Park to ease traffic congestion. This is in spite of the park being categorised as an Environmentally Sensitive Area (Rank 1) under the National Physical Plan-2. It serves as an important water catchment area, and as such, no development, except for eco-tourism, research and education purposes, should occur there.

The highway was originally designed to cut through the park and a potential Unesco World Heritage site,  the Klang Gates Quartz Ridge. The Selangor government convinced the developer to dig a tunnel to avoid damaging the quartz ridge last November. But it remains to be seen whether they can persuade the developer to re-route KLORR away from the state park, too.

Public outcry, not just from environmental groups but also concerned residents, continue. It remains to be seen whether the federal government will scrap its plans.

9.  Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest

Wong (front) visiting the Kuala Langat South peat swamp forest in December 2010.

The Selangor Agricultural Development Corporation proposed in 2010 to convert the 7,000ha Kuala Langat forest reserve into oil palm plantations. The clearing of the forest could reportedly generate RM1bil in timber revenue.

Selangor executive councillor for the environment Elizabeth Wong has led opposition to this proposal. A biodiversity audit, done with the assistance of environmental groups, found tapirs, sun bears, white-handed gibbons and rare trees.

The audit report has yet to be presented to the menteri besar, but I’m hopeful he will make the right decision. After all, the Pakatan Rakyat-led government promised to ban logging for 25 years when it came into power in 2008.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

10. No plastic bag day

The no plastic bags campaign, pioneered in Penang in 2009, is now nationwide. Plastic bags are no longer free on Saturdays except in Penang, where they’re not free every day.

Plastics manufacturers’ indignant reactions amuse me. Although the campaign may reduce our reliance on plastic bags, it is mainly symbolic. The campaign helps us rethink the impact of our use-and-throwaway consumption on the environment, but is unlikely to eliminate all use of plastics bags, or plastics, in our lives. Perhaps the manufacturers need to start listening and evolve in accordance with consumer demand for more sustainable products.

Although I initially found the above list a bit depressing, I realised that the story of public resistance against potential ecological destruction echoed throughout. And there are many more environmental heroes that did not make it into the list. A rural Kelantan community that successfully solved the human-elephant conflict in their village, for example. Or the Bukit Koman community that continues their attempts to protect their village from pollution from a gold mine.

And I’m sure there are many, many more such stories.

Again, Gan Pei Ling finds herself more inspired by grassroots communities and individuals than governments in 2010.