Malaysia must pursue real reform during bauxite mining moratorium

By Robert Held

The tale of Icarus is known the world over. Daedalus, the master craftsman of King Midas, fashioned a set of wax wings in order to escape imprisonment on the Isle of Crete. Failing to heed the warning of his father and overcome by the euphoria of flight, Icarus flew too close to the Sun. The wax wings melted, and Icarus’ flight (and life) ended when he plunged into the sea that now bears his name.

On January 15, the Malaysian government enacted a three-month ban on the mining of bauxite, an ore from which aluminium is derived, on account of the massive and thorough pollution of the region caused by grossly irresponsible mining and transportation methods.

The Pahang region has been a significant exporter of the ore after Indonesia banned the export of it almost exactly two years prior and has suffered much damage as a result. Though long overdue, the ban is a welcome respite for the people and the environment of Pahang. However, for this temporary moratorium to be effective, it must be something much more than a time-out in the industrial pollution that has occurred in Pahang.

Booming Demand for Bauxite

The boom experienced by the region was tremendous. Pahang went from exporting a respectable 200,000 metric tons of the ore in 2013 to shipping an astounding twenty million metric tons of it last year. It became the People’s Republic of China’s prime source of bauxite practically overnight, accounting for approximately forty percent of China’s imports. (China is the world’s prime producer of aluminium.) In one month alone, China bought 3.7 million metric tons of the ore, netting the region US$170.8 million. That is not a bad haul for a place where the median annual income is US$813. However, as lucrative as the economic boom may be, the bust may be even more damaging. Experts estimate that Malaysia’s bauxite reserves would be exhausted after five years of mining at these levels. Once the bauxite is exhausted, what then?

The Malaysian government should be applauded for the move, too long delayed though it was. Over 15 km of coastline was polluted by bauxite ore, soiled by runoff from the mines during the rainy season. Malaysia’s Department of Fisheries and the Department of Chemistry tests showed the region’s water to be full to the brim of heavy metals. Readings taken in Sungai Pengorak registered levels of aluminium, silver, cadmium, iron, lead, chromium and mangan that far exceeded acceptable levels per national River Quality Standards. Water tested from Pantai Pengorak showed that lead, chromium, copper and zinc exceeded allowable limits as well, bottoming out toxicity ratings of Marine Water Quality Criteria and Standards. Even more toxic is mercury, which is also found in abundance in the region.

Kuala Lumpur’s intervention into the local politics of Kuantan is wholly appropriate as well, as Pahang’s politicians proved themselves, unwilling, unable, or both, to address the problem of rampant mining and pollution.

Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob, the appointed head of the executive branch of Pahang’s government, is the poster child for the regional government’s failure to act. In a recent interview, Adnan gave excuse after tepid excuse as to why his government did nothing in the face of the disaster. Ubiquitous pollution was completely hidden to him, he says, and “without the involvement of the press, we might not have known the exact ramifications of bauxite mining.”

Apprehending the offending miners was just not possible for the government, as they have this annoying habit of “run[ning] away.” He even admits that, “we have not been able to arrest a single illegal miner despite the many illegal mines.” This, despite informing the reporter of the exact times illegal mining occurs. “Operations by these illegal miners start at 1am and they leave at 4am,” Adnan explains. Simply staking out a mine like every other police force in the history of policing has routinely done was apparently beyond his officers’ capacity. How his province has not descended into a chaos of violence and crime remains a mystery.

Raising Standards on Malaysia Bauxite Mining

While enforcement of the laws on Malaysia’s books did not happen at all, the lax nature of the laws themselves did the local people and environment no favours, either. The current regime of mining laws are largely inapplicable to tracts of land smaller than 250 hectares, which describes exactly the sort of acreage owned by small farmers who have been hit the hardest by fly-by-night mining companies with grossly irresponsible practices. Environmental impact studies are not required on these small plots, and neither is rehabilitation of the land that was mined. The end result is that small farmers, who are already barely scraping by, are now saddled with land that is no longer agriculturally useful at best, an environmental disaster area at worst, and completely without resale value in any case.

The Malaysian government has done one thing right so far. It has a responsibility to its people and the environment to take this opportunity to not only clean up the land, but to clean up the laws and the practice of mining in the region. Elected and appointed officials at all levels of Malaysia’s government must find real, lasting solutions for healing this gaping wound, and the international community should hold them to their responsibility.

Bauxite mining can be done in an environmentally responsible and economically sustainable manner, but only if the industry and the government can fly straight and level. Giddily continuing down the dark path of economic and environmental exploitation will melt the delicate wings that have taken the region to great heights and send it plummeting back into the sea, staining the shores with the red blood of poisonous bauxite pollution.

This article was contributed to AseanToday by Robert Held.