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.