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Can local govt elections protect public interest and the environment?

THREE weeks ago, 10,000 protesters rallied against a gold mine in Raub, Pahang. Separately, indigenous people from Sarawak submitted a petition to the state’s chief minister to oppose the Baram dam on 19 Sept 2012. The next day, activists protested in front of rare earth miner Lynas Corp‘s headquarters in Sydney.

From Pahang to Sarawak, local environmental activists are capitalising on the window before the 13th general election, which must be called by June 2013, to highlight their causes. This weekend, another rally is being planned against a multi-billion ringgit petrochemical project at Pengerang, Johor.

The main entrance to Raub Australian Gold Mining Sdn Bhd was barred with razor wire on 3 Sept 2012. (All pis by Gan Pei Ling)

The main entrance to Raub Australia Gold Mine Sdn Bhd was barred with razor wire on 2 Sept 2012 (All pix by Gan Pei Ling)

The rise of environmental activism in Malaysia was highlighted in an article in The New York Times. It is unlikely the Malaysian government would be flattered with such coverage. But what could it have done to prevent these protests? What could it have done to secure better public buy-in?

Navigating public consent

One common grouse between the local communities in Raub, Kuantan, Baram and Pengerang is the feeling that they were not properly consulted and informed about a project’s environmental, health and social impact prior to the projects’ approval.

Villagers in Bukit Koman, for instance, did not know that the Department of Environment (DOE) had given the green light to the Raub Australian Gold Mining Sdn Bhd in 1997. The factory, which uses cyanide to process the ore, is located right next to the Chinese New Village. But the locals only found out about it in 2006 and only got hold of the Preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment (PEIA) report in 2007.

The villagers filed for a judicial review in 2008 only to have their case thrown out by the High Court in 2009, again by the Court of Appeal in 2011, and most recently by the Federal Court on 6 Sept 2012. The grounds of rejection was that they should have launched court action within 40 days of having knowledge of the PEIA approval. But as policy adviser Yin Shao Loong rightly pointed out in an opinion piece, the residents would have needed more time to look for the help of sympathetic experts to understand the technical report and the project’s impact.

In the case of the rare earth refinery in Gebeng, Kuantan, local residents were also not consulted about the project. The miner was only required to carry out a PEIA instead of a detailed environmental impact assessment (DEIA). The key difference is that the public is able to scrutinise and provide feedback on a DEIA report before the DOE decides to approve or reject it.

Environmentalists have complained before that their views were not taken into account and that flawed DEIA reports have been approved. But I think the public feedback process remains crucial as it allows public access to the documents. It has enabled activists to highlight major gaps in the DEIA to the media, and to further raise public awareness about a project’s problems.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people attended the peaceful rally against the gold mine on 3 Sept 2012.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people attended the peaceful rally against the gold mine

Yin also proposed that consultants be hired by the DOE via a blind fund financed by various developers to carry out DEIAs. Developers should not hire consultants directly, as is the practice now, to prevent a conflict of interest. I second this proposal because the financial independence of consultants would likely increase public faith in the DEIA process.

The case for autonomous local governments

I have wondered if the local authorities of Gebeng, Raub or Pengerang willingly gave planning approval to the developers. If our local governments were truly autonomous, local councillors could have blocked projects deemed to be against public interest.

In Japan, 73 current and retired mayors spoke out against the federal government’s plan to restart two nuclear reactors. The Japanese government reactivated one nuclear reactor on 1 July 2012 despite public protests. But what struck me more was that the elected local officials dared to go against their federal counterparts. Now that is a functioning democracy.

Back in Malaysia, were the local authorities properly briefed about the gold mine in Raub or the petrochemical complex in Pengerang? Or were they pressured to issue the planning approval regardless of their concerns over the environmental and public health impact?

The ultimate aim of development is to improve the people’s lives. But no project should be shoved down people’s throats if the communities affected are staunchly against it. If we could bring back local government elections, councillors could at least be held accountable for giving the nod to the projects without the communities’ knowledge and approval.

Youtsh doing a Gangnam-style dance as a protest at the Raub rally on 3 Sept 2012.

Youths at the rally

Some may argue that it would be chaos if local governments started blocking state and federal development plans. I beg to disagree. If a development project does bring prosperity and better quality of life to the rakyat, a responsible elected government, at any level, would not want to risk public outrage to sabotage it.


Gan Pei Ling thinks much more needs to and can be done to improve environmental governance in Malaysia.

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