Azrul Mohd Khalib
Malay Mail Online
February 11, 2016
FEBRUARY 11 ― Those were the two words which came to my mind when I first saw and heard what had happened. I wish it was an exaggeration. But it really wasn’t.
The Lynas debacle was a picnic compared to the fallout from uncontrolled and unregulated bauxite mining. You have to see it with your own eyes and listen to the stories from those living there to know, to understand and to even believe what the hell is going on in Kuantan.
I was recently in Pahang to participate in a discussion on the issue of corruption in the country. It was apt that the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) forum was in the one place where the dire consequences of widespread corruption and the failure of regulations and enforcement of laws could be visibly seen, breathed in, and even drank.
Despite a three-month moratorium on bauxite mining currently in place since January 15, it is clear that massive damage to the environment and to the long-term wellbeing of the surrounding communities had already been done.
The landscape around Bukit Goh, on the outskirts of the state capital, currently looks as if a host of monster field rats had burrowed into the land, creating pockmarks and craters, huge mounds of red earth and swathes of land deprived of topsoil. Some parts of this area now resemble a red Martian landscape.
It’s a good time to be in the car wash business in Kuantan. Before the moratorium, cars left outside and exposed would be coated or caked with red dust. All you had to do was look out the window and see the red-tinted leaves of trees and the colour of rust on the road dividers.
The signs of mining were everywhere. Digging wasn’t just happening in the acres of mature palm oil plantations but also behind schools, next to residential areas, near water reservoirs, and even football fields and playgrounds. In some places, people’s houses were not less than 50 metres from where earth moving equipment had dug into the ground in search of ore deposits.
This isn’t mining that was conducted clandestinely in the middle of a dark and remote jungle far from civilisation and somewhere in the rural heartland of Pahang. This is right on the doorstep of Kuantan, the state government’s seat of power, the mentri besar’s office and the royal palace.
To say that there had been very little regulation on the mining activities would be a serious understatement. What had happened to the state authorities, law enforcement, the Department of Land and Mines and the mentri besar?
The mentri besar’s feeble and powerless public statement on being unable to identify and arrest the perpetrators calls into question the impotency of the state authorities in the face of obvious rampant corruption.
The answer to this helplessness and the air of fear, impotency and the impunity of the perpetrators can probably be attributed to the intimidating presence of many yellow coloured signboards erected at different sites to indicate the mining activity and the licence holder. Look at it. Keep your mouth shut, turn a blind eye and don’t even think of complaining.
The environmental toll must be simply staggering.
Red stains and red dust everywhere. Residents spoke of how their furniture and eating utensils were coated in fine red dust, similar to the dust bowl scenes described in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
The topsoil of a large number of mined areas has been denuded rendering the land unusable for many years to come. During heavy rainfall late last year, rivers and the waters closest to the shore turned a Biblical red due to contaminants from bauxite-rich soil and spillage from lorries transporting the ore to the port.
For months, students and children of the surrounding schools had to endure classrooms exposed to the pollution from the mining areas and the dust and spillage from the movement of the countless lorries used to transport the mined bauxite.
At the peak of mining operations, convoys of up to 80 lorries and trucks were known to be on the road at a time. Hundreds of foreign drivers reportedly had to be brought in to drive more than a thousand lorries, trucks and earthmovers.
Who knows what health consequences the people there have to suffer in the long run?
Strangely enough, the results of government tests on water, soil and air quality in the area have been classified as secrets under the 1972 Official Secrets Act and not permitted for release to the public, despite repeated requests.
Instead, Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) environmental scientists have independently taken water samples from rivers, the sea, water reservoirs and even from the taps homes and found the presence of heavy metals caesium and strontium, and chemicals such as mercury and arsenic. Cases of respiratory related complications and illnesses have been on the slow increase.
It has been estimated that rehabilitation of the affected land will take at least two to three years. But the reality is that no funds have been allocated for this purpose.
There is no political will to require the mining industry to pay for it and if the state government is as helpless as it describes itself in enforcement efforts, you can bet that a conversation on land rehabilitation and conservation would go nowhere.
A massive clean-up operation has been underway since the beginning of the moratorium. Alam Flora and the fire department, among many others, have been scrubbing and hosing down houses, streets, public buildings and even the leaves of trees and shrubbery in an effort to be rid of the red patina which seems to be everywhere.
Will the miners be forced to reimburse the cost of these taxpayer supported services and be slapped with a punitive fine? What happens to the water used to decontaminate and wash off the contaminants? Inhabitants have expressed their worry that the tons of water used to sluice off the red crap from the surface have now seeped down to the water table.
Despite all of this, the inhabitants and people of Kuantan seem to be paralysed by fear and feel as helpless as their chief minister. Lawyers with MNS spoke of their frustration and inability to identify and secure plaintiffs for a case to bring against the perpetrators.
Those approached for their co-operation and assistance would later be “honoured” with visits from Felda officers who would discourage such action insinuating that there would repercussions if they decided to go ahead. Intimidation and the fear of losing your livelihood work well.
The Felda landowners, many of whom took advantage of offers of large sums of money, are themselves not free from fault. After all, they probably thought it was a win-win situation where they would allow for the mining to be done on idle land, still own it and be paid handsomely at the same time.
Whether RM50,000 or a million, it’s a hell of a lot of money for anyone to resist. Quite a few pilgrimages to the Holy Land (umrahs), shiny MPVs and newly renovated houses were funded this way. They bear silent testimony that the settlers bear some responsibility for this orgy.
The kneejerk reaction is to point the finger at capitalism. To declare that what has happened in Kuantan is yet another example of capitalism run amok. But what this actually is are the dire consequences of corruption and the failure of the state to enforce the very regulations and laws that it has set up to govern such activity.
A mind-set that does not take issues of the environment seriously and sacrifices long term consequences for short term gain led to this disaster. Capitalism isn’t a suicide pact.
The annual output of bauxite ore increased dramatically from less than 200,000 tonnes in 2013, to nearly 20 million tonnes last year, with a value of RM46.7 million in royalty to the state government.
Malaysia, maybe even specifically Pahang, somehow within a year became the world’s top producer of bauxite, accounting for nearly half of the supply to China’s aluminium industry. So there is a lot at stake. For some people at least.
When the lorries, trucks and earthmovers are gone, after the air is finally free of the sound of thousands of diesel engines and the dust of red earth settle on the rooftops and interiors of homes, the people and leaders of Pahang need to ask themselves: what’s left and was it worth the pain and suffering caused?