by Meenakshi Raman
World Environment Day fell on 5 June, and this year’s campaign #OnlyOneEarth calls for collective, transformative action on a global scale to celebrate, protect and restore our planet.
Malaysia, which is blessed as being one of 17 mega-biodiverse countries in the world, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), must do its part to protect its forests, biodiversity and nature.
However, Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), is gravely concerned that despite the existence of various national policies, including on forests, biodiversity and the national physical plan, it appears that decisions are being made without respect for these policies.
Activities which should not be allowed in the first place in such environmentally sensitive areas are being permitted. Among the activities include those which are labelled as ‘sustainable mining’ and mega-land reclamation projects in these sensitive areas.
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The environmentally sensitive areas are clearly mapped in the national physical plan. They have been agreed to by both the federal and state governments, and they have been assigned rankings to limit what activities are allowed and what are not.
The disrespect for the national physical plan is clearly apparent in relation to the latest controversial lanthanide mining project in Mukim Kenering in the Hulu Perak district, close to Gerik, which involves an area of over 5,000 acres and includes the Central Forest Spine and areas classified and ranked as environmental sensitive areas rank 1.
How such a project could be allowed by the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources is mind-boggling, especially when it is this same ministry that is responsible for the protection of our forests and biodiversity.
Clearly, there exists a conflict of interest in this ministry, which is promoting the mining of natural resources on the one hand, and, on the other, the protection of forests and biodiversity.
Under the national forestry policy and the national biodiversity policy, the forests involving the Central Forest Spine are supposed to be protected. We are also most perplexed as to how the Department of Environment (DOE) approved the environmental impact assessment for the lanthanide project in an ESA 1 area.
A site with an ESA 1 ranking under the national physical plan prohibits development, agriculture or logging except for low-impact nature tourism activities, research and education purposes.
The claim by the energy and natural resources minister recently that lanthanide is a non-radioactive rare earth element and which dismissed SAM’s grave concerns has totally missed the point. The proposed activity has a high risk of increasing the concentrations of ammonium and thorium in the existing environment. Already the naturally occurring radioactive thorium (Th-228) of a tested soil sample from one of the land parcels reported in the environmental impact assessment is above the 1Bq/g, which subjects it to laws relating to radioactive material management.
The lanthanide ore by itself may not be radioactive, but the process of its mining and beneficiation will increase the concentration of naturally occurring thorium in the area. This must raise grave concerns and not be dismissed willy-nilly.
Further, the justification given in the environmental impact assessment that “the areas will remain green” and “no changes of land use from green to mining is needed” is also grossly misleading and baseless.
First, the proposed project in Perak involves the construction of seven hydro-metallurgical plants for the mining (involving an area of 40.7ha in total).
Second, according to a study on China’s ion-adsorption rare earth resources, mining consequences and preservation, although in-situ leaching does not require the clearing of vegetation and forests or the removal of topsoil, about one-third of the vegetation is still cleared and a significant amount of drilling slurry is produced.
The practice of in-situ leaching in China has revealed serious environmental problems, including underground water contamination, mine collapses and landslides. More than 100 landslides reported in Ganzhou region were attributed to in-situ mining and leaching practices, with significant human costs and losses of ion-adsorption rare earth resources.
Despite such grave findings, once again, the rationale appears to be the need for new sources of revenue at the expense of the environment and sustainability.
When will we ever learn that we cannot afford anymore to continue sacrificing the environment for the sake of short-term profits while undermining our sustainability in the longer term?
If the federal and state governments themselves do not respect the policies that are meant to protect our environmentally sensitive areas and the environment, who will then?
When will we say that enough is enough and stop plundering the environment for the sake of the promise of billions?
We cannot go on making such trade-offs between economic and environmental imperatives.
It is about time we realised we have reached the limits of what Mother Earth can take. If we continue to ignore the warning signs, we will face environmental calamites which will be hugely costly, both in human and economic terms, and worse, irreversible.
We need to reflect deeply and reverse its course so that we protect and restore our environmentally sensitive areas, and not allow them to be plundered.
Meenakshi Raman is president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia