Lynas: An unsolved conundrum

by Gan Pei Ling / 29 July 2013 © The Nut Graph

IT’S been more than two years since The New York Times first broke the story on the construction of the Lynas rare earth refinery in Malaysia. Groups like Himpunan Hijau and Save Malaysia Stop Lynas have since organised several rallies and even taken the government and company to court. In response to public uproar, the Malaysian government invited international experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2011 and set up a parliamentary select committee in 2012 to review the plant.

(© cumi&ciki | Flickr)

(© cumi&ciki | Flickr)

After many road bumps, Lynas Corp finally secured a temporary operating license and began operations in November 2012. The company is also monitoring radioactivity levels at Gebeng which it periodically publicises.

However, there are still many questions about what will happen to the low-level radioactive waste that the plant produces. How will the hazardous by-products of a rare earth refinery be dealt with? And how are the government and anti-Lynas groups responding to these developments?

Recycle? Ship abroad?

Lynas Corp is confident that it can recycle the low-level radioactive residue into commercial products. The company intends to dilute its radioactive water leach purification residue into road base material and recycle its neutralisation underflow residue into fertilisers.

But as The Wall Street Journal pointed out in an 11 Dec 2012 report, such technology has yet to be tested. Additionally, it remains to be seen whether Lynas can find buyers to make its recycling proposal commercially viable.

The Atomic Energy Licensing Board and the Department of Environment are also still reviewing the recycling proposal. And even if the proposal is approved, Science, Technology and Innovation Deputy Minister Datuk Dr Abu Bakar Mohamad Diah told Parliament on 19 July 2013 that “these products must leave the country”.

In other words, Lynas must find international buyers for its recycled products. And should the recycling plan fail, the waste must be shipped abroad. But where to?

Permanent dumpsite

Australia is unlikely to take back the waste. And one wonders which other country would willingly import such waste and risk its citizen’s ire? At this stage, I think we should be prepared for the worst-case scenario where the waste is stored locally.

Indeed, on 2 July 2013, the Australian company submitted its plan for a permanent disposal facility. However, Dr Abu Bakar has declared that Lynas has no plans to permanently store the waste in Malaysia but that international procedures require the building of a permanent disposal facility. In the meantime, ministers have refused to disclose the plan and the potential locations for such a facility, likely fearing more protests from communities in any of these locations.

The Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Dr Ewon Ebin said on 5 July 2013 that the government could not reveal identified locations as it was “not finalised”. Six days later, the Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili was reported to have said the government need not disclose the plan since Lynas might be able to recycle the waste.

What is apparent is that there is no guarantee Lynas will be able to recycle the waste or to ship it out. Indeed, it’s clear that no matter what our political leaders say publicly, the company in consultation with the government seems to have prepared a contingency plan for the waste to be stored in Malaysia permanently.

(© existangst | Flickr)

(© existangst | Flickr)

Learning from past mistakes

It appears that the government has yet to learn from its past mistakes. The Lynas controversy stemmed from the government’s foolish move to approve the construction of the rare earth refinery without public consultation. Most Malaysians were only aware of the plant after the The New York Times report. If the government wants to restore public confidence, it must be transparent in all its future dealings with Lynas and the public.

Even if the final location of the permanent disposal facility has yet to be determined, the government must guarantee that it will consult the relevant state governments and local communities before a location is finalised. The government must assure local communities that they will be treated and included as legitimate stakeholders when the time comes. This is especially so since there are real fears that the community’s livelihood and environment could be affected by a permanent disposal facility in their midst.

Compared to the government, Lynas Corp seems to be doing a better public relations job. On 10 July 2013, it dropped the defamation suit against Save Malaysia Stop Lynas. Apart from that, it’s clear Lynas has a business to run. Hence, it must manage its relationship with stakeholders carefully if it’s to continue running its business.

(© existangst | Flickr)

(© existangst | Flickr)

Continued protests

To keep public attention on Lynas, Himpunan Hijau is running a campaign to collect one million Malaysian signatures to shut down the plant. The petition will start on 24 Aug 2013 and the signatures will be presented to among others, Parliament and the financial institutions that back Lynas. Himpunan Hijau chairperson Wong Tack has also announced that the coalition might take to the streets again in October.

Meanwhile, Save Malaysia Stop Lynas lead campaigner Tan Bun Teet has vowed to continue its international campaign against Lynas. The group has also mobilised local residents to file for judicial reviews in an attempt to revoke Lynas’s temporary operating license. Clearly, the parliamentary select committee and the approval of international experts has not been sufficient to convince skeptics of Lynas’s safety.

What needs to happen next? The government needs to be honest with the public. How feasible is Lynas’s recycling plan? Should it fail, is it really possible for Lynas to ship the waste abroad? If no, will Lynas store the waste locally? Or will it close down the plant after the temporary operating license expires in September 2014?

These are legitimate questions that the public deserve answers to. Will they be forthcoming? Past experience suggests the answer will be “No”. And if past experience is anything to go by, then the government will have to brace itself for more protests and bad press over Lynas.

Gan Pei Ling is going abroad to pursue a one-year master’s degree on the environment. She hopes the government will sort out Lynas’s waste management plan before she returns in September 2014.

Environmental “hot potatoes” in 2013

by Gan Pei Ling / 28 January 2013 © The Nut Graph

POLITICIANS today ignore environmental issues at their peril. The year 2012 saw major environmental protests against controversial projects in Malaysia. Thousands protested against the Lynas rare earth refinery, the use of cyanide at a gold mine in Pahang and the multibillion petrochemical complex in Pengerang, Johor. In Sarawak, indigenous peoples reluctant to be uprooted from their ancestral homes to make way for the Murum Dam mounted a blockade at the site for almost a month.

It is heartwarming to witness the rise of resistance from environmental groups towards potentially hazardous mega projects in this country. Our citizens are asserting their rights, and holding governments and corporations accountable to the people and the environment.

Kenyahs, Kayans and Penans protesting on 20 Jan 2013 near the proposed site of the Baram Dam.

With the general election looming, activists will likely ramp up their respective campaigns. What environmental “hot potatoes” will politicians have to deal with carefully this year to avoid public anger and opposition?


The Lynas rare earth plant has been a major rallying point for environmental issues. Himpunan Hijau successfully staged several anti-Lynas rallies in 2012. There was a protest in Kuantan in February 2012, a 300km march from Kuantan to Dataran Merdeka in November 2012, and a rally at the refinery’s door step on New Year’s Eve.

It is unlikely the protests will stop there. Despite the opposition, Lynas Corp began production in November 2012 after obtaining the official Temporary Operating License (TOL) from the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) in September 2012. Federal ministers have repeatedly claimed the company must ship its waste abroad, but Lynas Corp insists there is no such requirement under the TOL.

It remains to be seen whether Lynas will be able to recycle its low-level radioactive waste into safe commercial products. It can also help sooth public concerns by being transparent about its waste management process. As the regulator, the AELB must also play its part to ensure the company deals with its waste safely and responsibly. Many activists, however, are still adamant the plant should be shut.

Sarawak mega dams

Construction work for the 944MW Murum Dam is expected to conclude this year. About 1,400 Penans and Kenyahs will be resettled to Tegulang and Metalun – 46km upstream from the dam.

It may be too late to stop the Murum Dam, but I think campaigners still have a fighting chance to pressure the government to scrap the upcoming Baram Dam. The 1,000MW hydropower project will displace some 20,000 natives currently living in Baram and submerge 412 square km of forests – nearly double the size of Kuala Lumpur.

Indigenous people in the hornbill state formed the Save Sarawak Rivers Network (Save Rivers) in February 2012 to oppose the dams. The activists travelled to Australia last year and successfully pressured state-owned dam operator Hydro Tasmania to stop assisting Sarawak Energy Bhd. Activists have been visiting villages to mobilise the people and Radio Free Sarawak has been disseminating information via its short wave radio.

Baram Valley

The Sarawak government proposes to build a total of 12 mega dams under its Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) plan to “transform Sarawak into a developed state” by 2020. However, the Bruno Manser Fund, an international charity, criticised SCORE in its November 2012 report as an “outdated” development plan. A policy paper published by the National University of Singapore in March 2011 also doubted SCORE’s viability.

Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud has not bowed to public pressure to halt controversial projects. Nevertheless, the state’s indigenous peoples are increasingly bitter with his administration. They have already lost thousands of hectares of native customary rights land to loggers and plantation companies over the past few decades. Now, their homes are at stake due to the hydroelectric dams. Taib’s administration cannot afford to ignore the growing public dissent if it intends to stay in power.

Pengerang Integrated Petroleum Complex (PIPC)

The PIPC is an ambitious project to turn Pengerang into a petrochemical hub. Petronas is investing RM60 billion to develop the Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development (RAPID) project at the complex located at the southern tip of Johor. Some 3,000 residents from seven villagers, mostly fishermen and small-business holders, will have to be relocated to make way for the complex. A protest was held against the Pengerang project on 30 Sept 2012.

Environmentalists are also concerned that KuoKuang Petrochemical Technology Co will revive its controversial project, cancelled by the Taiwanese government in 2011, in Pengerang. A 2010 Chung Hsing University study found that the average lifespan of people living near the petrochemical project may be shortened by 23 days due to pollution. More protests may be in the pipeline if the government allows the Taiwanese company to resurrect its project here.

Moving towards sustainable development

An increasingly discerning electorate coupled with growing environmental awareness means that governments and corporations can no longer get away with sloppy environmental management. Instead of being defensive, the best way forward for the state and businesses is to engage the public proactively and be transparent about the details of the projects.

After all, if the mega projects are truly beneficial to local communities and harmless to the environment, they should be able to withstand public scrutiny, right?

Gan Pei Ling hopes the growing environmental resistance will help push the nation towards a more sustainable development path in the long term.

Can local govt elections protect public interest and the environment?

by Gan Pei Ling / 24 September 2012 © The Nut Graph

THREE weeks ago, 10,000 protesters rallied against a gold mine in Raub, Pahang. Separately, indigenous people from Sarawak submitted a petition to the state’s chief minister to oppose the Baram dam on 19 Sept 2012. The next day, activists protested in front of rare earth miner Lynas Corp‘s headquarters in Sydney.

From Pahang to Sarawak, local environmental activists are capitalising on the window before the 13th general election, which must be called by June 2013, to highlight their causes. This weekend, another rally is being planned against a multi-billion ringgit petrochemical project at Pengerang, Johor.

The main entrance to Raub Australia Gold Mine Sdn Bhd was barred with razor wire on 2 Sept 2012 (All pix by Gan Pei Ling)

The main entrance to Raub Australia Gold Mine Sdn Bhd was barred with razor wire on 2 Sept 2012 (All pix by Gan Pei Ling)

The rise of environmental activism in Malaysia was highlighted in an article in The New York Times. It is unlikely the Malaysian government would be flattered with such coverage. But what could it have done to prevent these protests? What could it have done to secure better public buy-in?

Navigating public consent

One common grouse between the local communities in Raub, Kuantan, Baram and Pengerang is the feeling that they were not properly consulted and informed about a project’s environmental, health and social impact prior to the projects’ approval.

Villagers in Bukit Koman, for instance, did not know that the Department of Environment (DOE) had given the green light to the Raub Australian Gold Mining Sdn Bhd in 1997. The factory, which uses cyanide to process the ore, is located right next to the Chinese New Village. But the locals only found out about it in 2006 and only got hold of the Preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment (PEIA) report in 2007.

The villagers filed for a judicial review in 2008 only to have their case thrown out by the High Court in 2009, again by the Court of Appeal in 2011, and most recently by the Federal Court on 6 Sept 2012. The grounds of rejection was that they should have launched court action within 40 days of having knowledge of the PEIA approval. But as policy adviser Yin Shao Loong rightly pointed out in an opinion piece, the residents would have needed more time to look for the help of sympathetic experts to understand the technical report and the project’s impact.

In the case of the rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Kuantan, local residents were also not consulted about the project. The miner was only required to carry out a PEIA instead of a detailed environmental impact assessment (DEIA). The key difference is that the public is able to scrutinise and provide feedback on a DEIA report before the DOE decides to approve or reject it.

Environmentalists have complained before that their views were not taken into account and that flawed DEIA reports have been approved. But I think the public feedback process remains crucial as it allows public access to the documents. It has enabled activists to highlight major gaps in the DEIA to the media, and to further raise public awareness about a project’s problems.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people attended the peaceful rally against the gold mine.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people attended the peaceful rally against the gold mine.

Yin also proposed that consultants be hired by the DOE via a blind fund financed by various developers to carry out DEIAs. Developers should not hire consultants directly, as is the practice now, to prevent a conflict of interest. I second this proposal because the financial independence of consultants would likely increase public faith in the DEIA process.

The case for autonomous local governments

I have wondered if the local authorities of Gebeng, Raub or Pengerang willingly gave planning approval to the developers. If our local governments were truly autonomous, local councillors could have blocked projects deemed to be against public interest.

In Japan, 73 current and retired mayors spoke out against the federal government’s plan to restart two nuclear reactors. The Japanese government reactivated one nuclear reactor on 1 July 2012 despite public protests. But what struck me more was that the elected local officials dared to go against their federal counterparts. Now that is a functioning democracy.

Back in Malaysia, were the local authorities properly briefed about the gold mine in Raub or the petrochemical complex in Pengerang? Or were they pressured to issue the planning approval regardless of their concerns over the environmental and public health impact?

The ultimate aim of development is to improve the people’s lives. But no project should be shoved down people’s throats if the communities affected are staunchly against it. If we could bring back local government elections, councillors could at least be held accountable for giving the nod to the projects without the communities’ knowledge and approval.

Youths at the rally

Youths at the rally

Some may argue that it would be chaos if local governments started blocking state and federal development plans. I beg to disagree. If a development project does bring prosperity and better quality of life to the rakyat, a responsible elected government, at any level, would not want to risk public outrage to sabotage it.

Gan Pei Ling thinks much more needs to and can be done to improve environmental governance in Malaysia.

What will remove opposition to Lynas?

by Gan Pei Ling / 21 May 2012 © The Nut Graph

CONTROVERSY surrounding the rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Pahang has generated lively, and sometimes polarising, debate among those who support and those who oppose Lynas Corp. The debates have, among others, centred on the refinery’s impact on the environment and local communities, and the government’s role in the matter.

In August 2011, local experts from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) and the National Professors’ Council also weighed in by producing a report on rare earth industries. The report acknowledged that the industry presents both economic opportunities and environmental and health risks to local communities. The academy invited four foreign experts to visit the Gebeng plant, and asked them to give their views in a 9 May 2012 public forum.

Panel of experts at the 9 May 2012 forum organised by ASM

What do the Academy of Sciences and the four experts think about the rare earth refinery in the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia? And what will it take to remove opposition to a project that brings economic benefits just as it stokes fears for public safety and health?

Evaluating the refinery


After their 8 May 2012 visit, all four experts, from Canada, the US, China and Germany, agreed that the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) was well designed. Alastair Neill, a trained engineer and executive vice-president of Dacha Strategic Metals, described the refinery as a “world-class facility”. The Canadian, who has been in the industry since 1995, thinks the Gebeng refinery is the best among the plants he has seen in China and Japan.

Neill noted that Lynas would attract a lot of downstream companies to Malaysia as demand for rare earth elements in the green technology sector was fast rising. To illustrate, he said rare earth metals are commonly used to manufacture the more energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. He noted that China produced 62 million compact fluorescent light bulbs in 2008 and the production doubled a year later.

In addition, Neill highlighted that a hybrid or electric car uses around 10kg to 12kg of rare earth metals while wind turbines of one-megawatt capacity, made of neodymium magnets, use about 400kg.


Founding principal of Technology Metals Research, Jack Lifton, remarked that Lynas is Malaysia’s “gateway to 21st century technology”. The American expert has been involved in the rare earth industry for 48 years and thinks the pollution risks posed by the chemical plant are “low” and manageable.

Be transparent and proactive

According to the ASM report, the Lynas refinery will generate three types of wastes — Water Leach Purification (WLP) residue, Flue Gas Desulphurisation residue and Neutralisation Underflow (NUF) residue.

Lynas claims it has developed a method to dilute the concentration of radioactive thorium and uranium in its WLP residue from six Becquerel per gram to below one Becquerel per gram, the limit set by the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB). The company is confident it can recycleits diluted WLP residue as road base and NUF residue as fertilisers.

Nonetheless, the International Atomic Energy Agency had, after its visit in June 2011, recommended that the company locate and build a permanent disposal site in the event that Lynas failed to commercialise its waste residue.

Prof Dr Yan Chun-Hua from Peking University said Lynas should make public its dilution method of the WLP residue to sooth public concerns over radiation pollution. “[Consult] the public, never fight (with them). The public is always right. They complain and raise questions because they’re concerned. If you can convince the public, they’ll support your project,” said the chief scientist on rare earth functional materials from China’s Science and Technology Ministry.


ASM senior fellow Lee Yee Cheong, who moderated the discussion, also conceded that the lack of public consultation prior to the project’s approval had fuelled deep distrust between the local communities and the government. He said a detailed environmental impact assessment, instead of a preliminary environmental impact assessment, should have been carried out.

“Going forward, the government must consult the local communities (before approving a project of such scale),” said Lee. He added that ASM recommends that the government commissions a university to carry out a long-term baseline health study to monitor the refinery’s impact on surrounding communities.

Lee said the government should also help clean up the Gebeng industrial zone as some of the existing chemical plants have polluted the environment. “Any development must be green and clean,” he stressed in his concluding remarks at the forum.

Engage and be open

What with the parliamentary select committee and media visits organised by Lynas, Himpunan Hijau and other anti-Lynas groups have clearly succeeded in pressuring the government and the corporation to be more transparent about the refinery’s operations.

Now that the communication channels are open, local communities should continue to ask more questions. These questions could be to find out how Lynas plans to deal with its residues, and whether a permanent disposal facility is needed as different parties seem to have differing views.

For now, the crux of people’s opposition to the refinery lies in fears about the radioactivity of the waste that will be produced. If expert and independent scientists can be convinced that the plant’s operations can be conducted in a way that makes it safe, shouldn’t those who oppose the Lynas plant be open towards different views so long as they are supported by facts and science?

Dr Yan

At the same time, Lynas would do well to regain public confidence by making its processes for dealing with the radioactive waste as accessible as possible to experts and the public. Peking University’s Dr Yan said as much when he was asked to comment on the viability of Lynas recycling its radioactive waste. “I didn’t see the detailed parameters (of the study). But I think Lynas should release the data so the public can [evaluate it].”

By doing so, Lynas would prove that it had nothing to hide. And it would also ensure that any radioactivity will effectively be dealt with through a process that is robust and that has been peer-reviewed. And if the radioactive waste can be dealt with to ensure no public harm, why should there be any more opposition to the rare earth refinery in Gebeng?

Gan Pei Ling is still learning something new about rare earths and sustainable development every other day. She thinks it’s important to keep an open mind when engaging on any issues.

What’s wrong with a rare earth plant, here?

by Gan Pei Ling / 26 March 2012 © The Nut Graph

THE rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Pahang is arguably now the hottest environmental issue in Peninsular Malaysia. And both the Malaysian government and Lynas Corp, the company that wants to set up the refinery in Pahang, are struggling to convince an increasingly skeptical Malaysian public that the rare earth refinery is safe.

On 20 March 2012, the Dewan Rakyat set up a parliamentary select committee (PSC) to soothe concerns about public health and safety arising from the radioactive waste that will be produced by the rare earth refinery. But Pakatan Rakyat (PR) lawmakers have boycotted the PSC while Lynas opponents, Himpunan Hijau, have decried the PSC as a public relations exercise. In a related development, on 20 March 2012, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ordered the Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) to explain what Lynas can do with the Temporary Operating License that it granted the Australian company on 30 Jan 2012.

Himpunan Hijau 2.0 rally (© Gan Pei Ling)

As tempers rise over the issue, the debate may just boil down to an emotive one where fear and anger cloud reasonable and measured discussion and action about a public interest issue. Is it really such a terrifying thing to set up a rare earth refinery in Malaysia? And if it’s not, what could the government have done better to handle the public’s fear over exposure to radiation? And how can anti-Lynas groups remain true to public interest?

Safe if properly managed

Che Rosli Che Mat (source:

Regardless of whether or not they are familiar with environmental issues, most PR politicians have happily jumped on the growing anti-Lynas bandwagon except PAS lawmaker Dr Che Rosli Che Mat. The nuclear scientist and Hulu Langat parliamentarian says that a rare earth refinery can be safe as long as it is properly monitored.

Indeed, anti-Lynas groups claim that the plant will pollute the Kuantan coast and have warned that the refining process is toxic. But really the most contentious point about Lynas is its waste management plan and if the company can assure the public it has a fail-safe plan, can we still justify opposition to the plant?

The Lynas refinery is located in Gebeng, an industrial zone. Bearing in mind that most industrial zones such as Port Klang and Pasir Gudang are situated near the sea, I don’t see why Lynas shouldn’t be allowed to do the same as long as it treats its wastewater before releasing it.

Nevertheless, the government should have anticipated high public concerns over the plant’s safety and its effect on public health from the painful episodes of the Asian Rare Earth plant in Bukit Merah, Perak. It should have publicised the project before approving the refinery’s construction in 2008 and held public briefings to inform the surrounding communities about the plant. The government should have actively disseminated information instead of only releasing it when the public sought it.

In addition, it was also premature for the Pahang government to approve construction without first finding a suitable location for Lynas to store its low-level radioactive waste. Now works on the RM700 million plant are near complete but public opposition is growing by the day. And Lynas is fast becoming a powerful election issue that is likely to affect the Barisan Nasional’s performance.

To the government’s credit, it did invite experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) to inspect the Lynas refinery in June 2011. It also set up the PSC but all these measures have come too late to dispel the refinery opponents’ deep distrust of the authorities.

Viewing the damage at Unit 3 of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (© G Webb | IAEA)

Why not in Malaysia?

From using social media, and organising forums and protests relentlessly, to travelling toAustralia to lobby foreign lawmakers, the awareness anti-Lynas groups have generated locally and internationally is phenomenal.

The Himpunan Hijau 2.0 rally on 26 Feb 2012 in Kuantan attracted thousands of participants. The organisers have threatened to hold a larger protest to pressure the government to revokeLynas’s temporary operating license.

I admire their efforts to hold the government and a corporation accountable. Hence, I willingly attended the 26 Feb 2012 rally. But I’m afraid I don’t see eye-to-eye with the organisers’ aim to scrap the project entirely.

I agree that Lynas should not be allowed to operate until a permanent waste disposal site is found and the company sufficiently addresses the construction flaws alleged by former contractors. And that’s as far as I would go.

Picture of a phone with the caption “This product contains rare earth elements” (© Gan Pei Ling)

Let’s face it. Rare earth elements are increasingly being used in our consumer products including electronic screens, disk drives, MP3 players and hybrid cars. We need refineries to process the ore in order to manufacture these goods.

So far, the world has left the dirty job of refining rare earths to China. But what does it say about us if we oppose the Gebeng refinery but continue to buy and hence, sustain demand for, the end-products?

Compared to the Chinese, I think Malaysians are in a much better position to scrutinise the government and corporations. Some may argue that Australia is a much more advanced democracy with more stringent environmental regulations. But why can’t we pressure our own government to live up to the same, if not better, standards?

And while the refinery may only create a few hundred jobs for locals near Gebeng, downstream manufacturing companies would be able to source the rare earths directly from Pahang. Is that not an economic benefit to Malaysia?

Trust and credibility

From my observation, much of the opposition against Lynas is based on an irrational fear over radiation pollution from the low-level radioactive waste of thorium and uranium rather than informed opinions on the issue. And fear can be a powerful thing and hence, useful and easy to manipulate.

Some Lynas opponents have capitalised on this fear to gain support. For example, by telling a forum I attended last year that radiation knows no boundaries and that if there is a radiation leak in Gebeng, even people in Kuala Lumpur can be affected.

But where are the facts and context? How much radiation would the low-level radioactive waste from the Lynas plant generate? And how does it compare to the radiation we’re already exposed to in our daily life?

According to some experts, even the fear over the radiation at Fukushima, Japan is overblown. And it is that same fear that is being stoked in Gebeng. For certain, there are risks involved in any industrial activity, be it refining rare earths, processing aluminum or manufacturingfertilisers. The question is, how large are those risks to public health and aren’t there steps Lynas can be compelled to take to minimise them?

If we are to solve this impasse between the government, Lynas and the opponents of the project, all sides including the anti-Lynas groups, must be transparent. That means putting forward arguments that are reasonable, accurate and in-context. It also means not resorting to propaganda just because your opponent is doing that, too.

Gan Pei Ling thinks cultivating uninformed masses gives the government even more justification to act like a patronising Big Brother. She cautions against supporting any cause before learning the facts.

Related post: Lynas: What’s the fuss?

The doughnut of justice

by Gan Pei Ling / 27 February 2012 © The Nut Graph

ECONOMIC development and jobs or toxic waste and radiation? The Lynas rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Kuantan was granted a temporary operating license by the Atomic Energy Licensing Board on 1 Feb 2012. Lynas claims its company contributes towards “sustainable development” and helps create jobs as rare earth materials are increasingly being used to manufacture green technology products.

But thousands gathered on 26 Feb 2012 to oppose the plant, pointing out that the process of refining rare earths is toxic, which may impact local communities and the environment if not handled properly. This was the case with a plant in Bukit Merah, which left behind radioactive waste.

Thousands gathered for Himpunan Hijau 2.0 to protest the Lynas rare earth refinery in Kuantan, 26 Feb 2012 (© Juana Jaafar)

So, what should take precedence?  Promoting economic growth or preventing toxic waste? Is sustainable development possible? Or must ecosystems and local communities be sacrificed for the general population to achieve economic growth? Is there a way to develop and achieve prosperity while upholding human rights and living within the Earth’s ecological limits?

A safe and just space

Oxfam International senior researcher Kate Raworth has proposed a new framework to think about sustainable development, and it’s shaped like a doughnut.

In her 3 Feb 2012 paper A safe and just space for humanity: Can we live within the doughnut?, Raworth combines two boundaries to provide a framework for sustainable development.

Doughnut of justice (source:

The inner boundary consists of the “social foundation” — basic human essentials such as food, water, energy security and gender equality. The doughnut sets a minimum base which must be achieved, below which lies human depravation.

The outer boundary constitutes the “environmental ceiling” of our planet’s nine biophysical systems including the climate, ozone layer, ocean, and freshwater sources. Leading scientists have warned that crossing the critical threshold of these nine areas could lead to drastic and irreversible changes to our environment.

“The space in between the two boundaries — the doughnut — is where inclusive and sustainable economic development takes place,” states Raworth.

Although sustainable development has been talked about since 1987, Raworth’s ideas are noteworthy as she combines two important frameworks — human rights and environmental sustainability.

Duncan Green (source:

After all, as noted by Oxfam Head of Research Duncan Green, “an environmentally safe space could be compatible with appalling poverty and injustice”. Conversely, surging economic development could lead to devastating environmental effects.

Therefore, it is essential to incorporate both frameworks into the concept of sustainable development.

“Human rights advocates have long focused on the imperative of ensuring every person’s claim to life’s essentials, while ecological economists have highlighted the need to situate the economy within environmental limits.

“The framework brings the two approaches together in a simple, visual way, creating a closed system that is bounded by human rights on the inside and environmental sustainability on the outside,” writes Raworth.

The Oxford economics graduate notes that conventional economic indicators such as GDP growth have failed to take into account the social and environmental impact of economic activities.

“Within this framework, social and environmental stresses are no longer portrayed as economic ‘externalities’. Instead, the planetary and social boundaries are the starting point for assessing how economic activity should take place,” she states.

She adds that our economies should focus on bringing humanity within the doughnut – to eradicate poverty, social inequality and increase human well-being within planetary limits.

“[The doughnut] implies no limit on increasing human well-being; indeed, it is within this safe and just space that humanity has the best chance to thrive,” she thinks.

The doughnut in Malaysia

Raworth (source:

Raworth’s ideas build on existing ones that take into account other indices besides economics and production to demonstrate well-being. Indicators like the Gross National Happiness Index developed by Bhutan and the Happy Planet Index introduced by UK’s New Economics Foundation have emerged in recent years to measure human well-being and environmental sustainability in development.

But by using Raworth’s doughnut, it becomes clear that Malaysia, with its addiction to mega projects, is still trapped in the old mindset of pursuing “economic growth” per se, causing local communities’ needs and environmental concerns to take a backseat.

In Sarawak for example, the state government said constructing 12 mega dams as part of its Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy initiative would spur more economic growth. However, indigenous communities are up in arms as they would be displaced from their ancestral homes and have formed a Save Rivers Network to rally against the dams.

The dams have little to do with the communities who will be displaced. They are expected to power up energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelting plants and create jobs for locals, or migrants, where the industries would be located.

To apply Raworth’s doughnut, the dams’ construction stresses both the inner social boundary and the outer environmental boundary. While it may create jobs, it would destroy the indigenous communities‘ livelihoods, cultures and heritage, as well as submerge large areas of forests and wildlife habitat.

The Orang Asli community demonstrating during the Himpunan Hijau 2.0 protest (© Juana Jaafar)

If Raworth’s concept were to be applied, the policymakers should weigh heavily the views and needs of the indigenous communities involved. Whether they would benefit from the dam project, for example, by being hired by the industries the dams benefit. And more importantly, whether they have any desire to work in those factories.

Raworth’s inner boundary cites “voice” as one of the social foundations. Policymakers would have to respect indigenous communities’ rights and let them determine the kind of economic, social and cultural development they desire, as recognised under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

Lynas and the doughnut

Similar considerations need to be made in the Lynas case. Yes, Lynas will create jobs and bring in foreign direct investment. But is this needed to raise the surrounding communities’ social foundation — to provide better income, education, health and jobs — or can this be done through other means?

On the environment side, large amounts of water are needed to process the rare earths ore. Would the water be treated before it is released back to the rivers and ocean? How would it impact local fisheries? And what about the radioactive waste? Will it be stored next to the refinery, since Australia has refused to take it back? What steps are being taken to prevent radiation pollution?

Malaysian policymakers may not have heard of Raworth’s “doughnut of justice” as dubbed by US environmental news portal GristBut what is clear from it is that more questions need to be asked and answered by our authorities to justify their approval of the Lynas refinery. More public consultation should have been done and is still needed. More information is required.

Youth protesting against the Lynas rare earth refinery during Himpunan Hijau 2.0 (© Juana Jaafar)

The same principles need to be applied for other projects that have a significant impact on local communities and the environment, such as whether or not Malaysia will go nuclear in 2013 or early 2014.

We’ve gone past the age of “the government knows best”. Transparency and accountability are essential in any government decision-making processes in sustainable development. As Gristenvironmental writer David Roberts points out when commenting on Raworth’s doughnut, development should no longer focus solely on economic growth, “but what kind of growth and to whose benefit?”

Gan Pei Ling thinks Raworth’s doughnut of justice should be introduced to all policymakers in Malaysia.