An environmental and humanitarian disaster is occurring in Malaysia. The specter of avarice, embodied in the bauxite trade, is slowly but surely destroying the land and poisoning its people as the weak and ineffective local government stands by and allows it to happen. International outcry is conspicuous by its absence, as the cheap availability of aluminium is much more critical to the worldwide bottom line of multinational corporations than the suffering of farmers half a world away
In a nutshell, the problem began when Indonesia, suffering from its own bauxite problems, banned the export of the aluminium precursor almost two years ago. This created a tremendous vacuum in the worldwide bauxite market. It caused significant problems for the enormous aluminium industry in the People’s Republic of China – the producer of fully half of the world’s aluminium supply lost its main source of bauxite overnight. Into this abyss Malaysia rushed headlong. The country’s before inexistent bauxite industry awoke, and exports of the ore increased exponentially in order to fill the maw of China’s aluminium monster. In 2015 Malaysia shipped more than 24 million tons of bauxite, up from a paltry 126,830 tons the year before. And, after failing to learn from Indonesia’s experience and to enact adequate regulations, pollution in and around the area increased exponentially as well. The Malaysian state government of Pahang, the ground zero of the country’s bauxite production, was overwhelmed – the Lands and Mines Office had only eighteen employees for covering the whole state, but zero hope of getting out in front of the rush. Finally the government came to its senses and enacted a temporary moratorium on mining bauxite, but, by all accounts, it may prove to be too little, too late.
The area most damaged by irresponsible and unregulated mining is Kuantan, a city in Pahang. The city is caked with red bauxite dust. The rivers and streams run red with it. Locals have been inhaling the mix of toxic heavy metals, including mercury, cadmium, arsenic and chromium, for over a year. They’ve been drinking it in their water and eating it in their food. Breathing problems and headaches have been common since almost Day 1 of mining. Children can’t play outside because the air pollution is too strong. It’s too early for cancers to be diagnosed, but those are certainly on the horizon.
What have the local farmers received for their troubles? At first, it seemed like a great deal – RM100,000 (US$23,762.92) in down payments for allowing illegal miners to mine their lands goes a long way for a poor farmer who may only make a few thousand ringgit per year. The miners promised more, lots more, if the ore was good. The palm trees, which had previously supplied the farmers’ livelihood, had to be felled, but they believed the money they’d make on bauxite would more than make up for it.
What the illegal miners didn’t tell their victims is that their land would be unusable for growing crops after they were done mining it without the proper rehabilitation procedures. Bauxite mining releases chromium into the soil, which negatively alters the germination process, and inhibits growth of roots, stems, and leaves, and that harms the overall output of plants that are able to grow and take root. As pointed out by Professor Jamal Hisham Hashim, a research fellow for the UN, “rehabilitation isn’t likely, especially not by illegal miners”, leaving most farmers without their livelihoods for decades to come.
In addition, Malaysia’s illegal miners exploited a loophole in the already weak mining laws to keep farmers in the dark: on plots smaller than 250 hectares, no environmental assessment detailing the potential harm to the land is required. As a result, the likelihood that any of Pahang’s farmers, most of which operate on just those sorts of plots, would possibly know of the devastating effects mining would have on their land is vanishingly small.
It’s not as though any Malaysian law would have stopped the miners, though, as lax enforcement by an understaffed state government branch doomed the undertaking from the start. According to sources in the state government, each and every mine in the Felda Bukit Goh oil palm plantation is illegal. The only sanctions the ineffective Lands and Mines Office has been able to carry out is against individuals operating heavy equipment or trucks in the area on the off-chance that they are found. Pahang’s Chief Minister Adnan Yaakob says, despite several attempts, not a single illegal miner has been arrested.
What the illegal miners could not have known, but might have expected after ravaging Indonesia’s land, is that the government would step in and call a three-month time out in mining. The farmers are now doubly the victims. Unable to use mining land for palm oil farming, the ban has put a stop to any lucrative mining activities there as well, stopping royalty payments to the landowners in the process.
As the ban goes on, the inviolate laws of supply and demand inexorably grind the future of the already exploited farmers into the blood-red dust. Scarcity of the ore leads to an increase in the price of what ore there is on the market, so when the ban expires in mid-April, the pump will be primed for an exploitation of the now idle mines on a scale like never before seen. At current rates of extraction, Malaysia’s bauxite reserves will only last for a scant five years.. That, however, is not the worry of the illegal miner who has already violated the land and people. “This [moratorium] is a blessing in disguise for the players,”laments Yaakob. “If I were them, I would enjoy this moratorium period.”
All in all, the disaster to the land and its people is complete. “Greed and corruption, coupled with poor regulations and enforcement, have led to an environmental disaster,” points out Kuantan’s PM Fuziah Salleh. “This environmental catastrophe will take years to rehabilitate.” The government is working towards implementing marginal safety improvements to prevent further contamination, like barriers around wharfs to prevent bauxite from falling into the bay and a closed conveyor system that may be in place after 1-1/2 years, but none of this offers much help to farmers that have been taken advantage of so far. The federal government is drawing up more regulations, but the burden of enforcement remains upon the state and its eighteen overworked employees in the Lands and Mines Office.
And the land and the people that work it will be victimized yet again by the greedy miners in pursuit of their filthy red lucre.
*Hariette Darling is originally from London, has a BA in Economics and currently resides in Singapore while working as a freelance environmental risk researcher for a local consultancy and runs a blog on Daily Kos.