By Craig Moran
The farmers of Pahang state, one of Malaysia’s key agricultural regions, are marching to the beat of two different drummers when it comes to the environmental devastation caused by poorly regulated bauxite mining.
On the one hand, Pahang farmers have announced a two-week march that covers more than 155 miles as they take their demands for tighter mining regulations to Kuala Lumpur. These durian growers say that their crops have been ruined by the bauxite boom and Malaysia’s illegal mining operations, as well as have their land and health, all to meet Chinese demand for bauxite, a substance from which the majority of the world’s aluminum is produced. Some farmers want the three-month moratorium on bauxite mining that began in January, a ban designed to help clean up the environmental mess and establish better controls, to be made permanent.
For other farmers, the moratorium itself is a disaster. The small plots they sold to bauxite mining firms can no longer be used for production—or for agriculture. As Malaysia’s bauxite boom grew, miners tapped into farms in Bukit Goh in much the same way that fracking operations have dotted the landscape of other countries. Landowners realized there was easy money to be made by yielding the land to extraction. Many Malaysian landholders sold their rights to illegal miners seeking to circumvent environmental impact assessments that kick in when a land area exceeds 620 acres. Now they’re left in limbo with topsoil removed from their arable land, palm trees slashed, and toxins in the water supply and air.
Either way, Malaysian farmers want the government to intervene in what has quickly become an environmental tragedy, especially in the mining regions of Pahang and the state’s port city of Kuantan. They’re joined by many others—environmentalists, public health specialists, and even Crown Princess Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah—who care deeply about a sustainable future in Malaysia and are concerned about the decades it will take for the land to heal. The federal government needs to address violations today in order to take a hands-on approach to environmental recovery as soon as possible.
Excuses and Inaction Reveal Enforcement Weaknesses
There’s a lack of confidence in the government’s ability and political will to implement comprehensive bauxite mining reforms. There are even more questions about coordinating their enforcement within a multilayer regulatory structure. With about 200 illegal mines operating, there are only 18 employees in the Land and Mines Office to cover all of Pahang, and it’s not just the Kuantan port that needs a major cleanup. Four of the employees from the Land and Mines Office were arrested in January and charged under the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission for taking bribes from illegal miners.
Neither the environmental nor the political cleanups are really going well. The moratorium set a Feb. 15 deadline for removing stockpiled bauxite at the port that was causing the roads and sea to turn red. That deadline wasn’t met, and the estimates on how much has been shipped of the up to 10 million tons of bauxite stored at the port range from 20 to 50 percent. Some contractors say it will be another five months before the bauxite stores are removed, which spells trouble for the next phase of mining reforms.
Meanwhile, experts warn against drinking the tap water in Pahang because of heavy metal contamination, although the ban on beaches near Kuantan and seafood from its waters has since been lifted. As scientists struggle to gauge the extent of the long-term environmental damage and government officials attempt to calculate the economic impact within the lucrative mining sector, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry announced new legal protections. The provisions for federal permits that evaluate the legitimacy and capacity of mining companies will help to decrease the illegal operations and official corruption that led to Malaysia’s deepening ecological crisis.
Strengthening the Oversight and Regulatory Structure
Yet, in Malaysia, it is state officials within their own jurisdictions who are responsible for enforcing the laws that regulate mines. Any improvements in Pahang will require the cooperation of both state and federal officials in tackling the problem, with a unified approach to permits, inspections, and other mining oversight.
To that end, Malaysia’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar is visiting Kuantan on Friday, March 4, to hear firsthand from state officials on the progress they’ve made during the moratorium. He will also gather information about exactly what is hampering the progress. He’s likely to be met by state officials demanding an extension of the ban. They include Member of Parliament Fuziah Salleh, who spearheads the Coalition for Action Against Bauxite Pollution, and environmental advocacy groups aligned with the coalition, such as the National Treasures Protection Society of Pahang.
But the chief executive in Pahang, Menteri Besar Adnan Yaakob, has been slow to respond to their concerns, and he hasn’t inspired any additional confidence when he does respond. In late January, he excused his inaction as quiet observation, explaining that government agencies with authority over the problem, including the police, transportation, and mining officials, don’t include him, since “eventually we don’t have any power to enforce the law to overcome the illegal mining activities.”
Wan Junaidi is quick to acknowledge just how valuable minerals and mining are to Malaysia, with an estimated $55 billion in overall mineral reserves. What Malaysia must do now is empower and hold accountable the relevant agencies to enforce legislation, protect mineral assets within a sustainable mining framework, crack down on illegal miners, and prioritize the well-being of the country’s farms, towns, residents, and resources. With farmers marching in the streets, the government can no longer afford to condone the illegal and irresponsible bauxite mining industry.
Craig Moran is a contributor to Fair Observer and an independent analyst.
[Photo courtesy of Guillame]