Anti-Lynas campaign sprouting Malaysia’s green movement
KUALA LUMPUR, June 19 — Unprecedented public anger against the Lynas plant in Kuantan appears to be fertilising Malaysia’s green movement that could affect voter sentiment ahead of key national polls that must be called soon, a New York Times (NYT) report suggested today.
In an article titled “Environmental Protest Becomes Rallying Point in Malaysia”, the influential US daily reported that local environmental awareness had been rising and had sparked a number of public demonstrations against the government.
“While the catalyst for the rally is the construction of a rare earth refinery nearby — the target of a sustained campaign by local residents and environmental groups — the crowd is also expected to hear from people from other parts of Malaysia who are concerned about projects near their homes that they fear could be damaging the environment,” the newspaper reported.
The NYT article was referring to the “Occupy Balok-Gebeng 24 Hours” rally this Saturday, organised by a grassroots green group calling itself Himpunan Hijau (Green Assembly in Malay).
The group was formed last year following widespread concern over ecological and health hazards resulting from the RM700 million rare earth refinery built by Australian miner Lynas Corp in Pahang, the home state of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, and was spreading environmental awareness on a scale that had never before been seen.
“The kind of protests, the kind of activism that we see for the Lynas plant is something unprecedented,” the NYT quoted Khoo Kay Peng, a management consultant and policy analyst, as saying.
“Foreign businesses involved in projects that could damage the environment — such as mining, logging or exploration — are liable to encounter scrutiny from local environmental groups and government sources,” Maria Patrikainen, a Southeast Asia analyst at the consulting institution IHS, told the NYT.
The paper reported her adding that the “government was likely to become increasingly sensitive to the concerns of environmental groups”, particularly before the 13th general election in which Najib is seeking a strong personal mandate to govern following the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s weakened performance in Election 2008 where it lost five states and its traditional two-thirds control of Parliament.
The paper said the rising awareness “may mean that companies engaged in industries or activities deemed potentially hazardous to the environment are likely to face greater oversight”.
The NYT article did not name the corporate giants but several grassroots groups comprising nearby residents have sprung up to protest against the big-money developments.
Some 3,000 residents of Kampung Baru Bukit Koman in Raub, Pahang, are questioning a state agency’s 2006 decision to allow the use of cyanide in a gold-mining operation in Bukit Koman.
In April this year, a group of 578 fishermen initiated a lawsuit against the Johor government and its contractors to stop the RM5 billion Pengerang petrochemical hub from being built in their backyard, which they claim is affecting their livelihood.
In Perak, Brazilian mining giant Vale S.A. has been facing opposition to its RM4.3 billion iron ore refinery project in Teluk Rubiah, Manjung due to potential harm on the nearby mangrove forest.
The controversial project is seen as major election fodder, particularly as Perak was the state that BN had lost to the opposition parties before regaining it in 2009 after several state lawmakers jumped ship vowing loyalty to the federal coalition.
Perak was also the site of the Malaysia’s last disastrous rare earth project, which has been linked to a spate of cancer incidents and birth defects in the 1990s.
The death of Cheah Kok Leong, the son of a worker at the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant in Bukit Merah, Ipoh, last March 30, have also reawakened painful memories among locals. Cheah was born with congenital defects his mother blamed on radioactive exposure.
“Whether the energy surrounding the Lynas campaign can give lasting momentum to other issues championed by environmental groups remains to be seen,” the NYT said in the article.
But it noted that environmental activism was taking root and could prove to have an impact in the long haul.