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In Malaysia, environmental defense and health concerns by communities are responded to with legal accusations of defamation, trials, police arrests and eventually prison. The criminalization of protests prevails. Several environmental defenders of Bukit Koman, Raub district, in the state of Pahang, Malaysia, can attest to that.
The local community has carried out several demonstrations to express their concern over the potential health impacts of a gold processing plant that uses sodium cyanide in the process to extract gold from the existing tailings. The plant began operating in February 2009, and from that moment on the population started to suffer from skin rashes, eye conditions and respiratory problems, among other things. Their main demand? Investigations that explain the reasons behind their illnesses and whether these symptoms can be linked to the plant´s operation.
From September 21-25, the environmental federation Friends of the Earth International conducted a solidarity mission in Bukit Koman about the persecution of environmental defenders. Real World Radio participated in this tour. There, we interviewed several people. Among them four members of the local group Ban Cyanide in Gold Mining Action Committee (BCAC) created in 2006: Wong Kin Hoong, Chang Kem Min, Wong Pak Foh and Hue Fui How. All of them, one way or the other, have had to face the police and/or the legal system due to their peaceful demonstrations and legitimate claims.
A new plant for an old business
Around 3000 people live in Bukit Koman, most of them of Chinese origin, who have inhabited the area for generations. Gold mining in the 19th and 20th centuries was key for the local economy, until it stopped in the 60s.
However, the company Raub Australian Gold Mining Pte Ltd (RAGM), subsidiary of British company Peninsular Gold Limited, started to build in 2008 the gold processing plant using cyanide to obtain the metal and the activity in the old mine restarted in 2009.
The local community started to express their rejection to the project from 2006 and the health conditions of the population have been evident since the beginning of the plant´s operation. Wong, accused of defamation by the company and of participating in "illegal assemblies" said that the aim of the Ban Cyanide in Gold Mining Action Committee is to have necessary studies to explain what is causing the health problems on the local community. They also want to know if these conditions correspond in some way to the operations of the plant. They are extremely concerned about the use of sodium cyanide and other chemicals in the plant. "If it is the company (that is affecting us), then they should move", said Wong.
The people we interviewed told us that at least 150 people are suffering from similar symptoms: dryness in their eyes, skin rashes, itching and respiratory problems.
Before the plant was installed, the community asked the company to build it further away from the town. But their answer was superb: "We won´t move an inch", they said, according to the people we interviewed.
SAM - Friends of the Earth Malaysia is outraged that the community has not been able to effectively voice their concerns on the health problems they are facing without either being arrested and charged for ‘illegal assemblies’ or being sued by the company for making so-called defamatory statements.
Many quarters believe that RAGM is a very powerful coporation whose activities are supported by the government and some leading political parties.
The resistance against the plant has been strong, some years ago demonstrations and actions were extremely prominent and the media reported on the issue.
However, the criminalization of the protest, the oppressive laws that limit civil liberties such as the freedom of speech and assembly, the accusations of defamation, and the continuous persecution, especially after 2008, aim to make a dent among the Malaysian environmental defenders.
What the community says
In a country with a constitutional monarchy, a king, nine sultans (in nine of the thirteen States) and a Prime Minister, with a population of around 30 million people, the small area of Bukit Koman is far from the huge pressure of the so-called development. A little over two hours from the overwhelming Kuala Lumpur, capital of the country, Bukit Koman seems like a different country. It is dominated by fruit production and the presence of small cottage industries, such as tofu and peanuts. Most of the local people are senior citizens that want the peace and quiet they once had.
The presence of Raub Australian Gold Mining Malaysia, with mostly foreign workers changed life in the area. When speaking with the local inhabitants, there are two things that call the attention: the strong actions of environmental defenders by the company and the national government.
In the interview with Wong, Chang, Wong Pak Foh and Hue, two of whom have been slapped with defamation suits by the company, some data about the case could be deemed humorous if it wasn´t cynical and dangerous. For instance, Malaysia does not have ambient air standards of an acceptable level for hydrogen cyanide in the air. So there isn´t a legal parameter to comply with. Last year, for about 11 months, the Malaysian government placed an air quality monitoring machine in a school in Bukit Koman for the local community to know the pollution level. The air quality monitoring machine measured a number of paramaters of gases but only one was publicly recorded and that was the hydrogen cyanide gas. However, the machine was removed in December last year.
The Ban Cyanide in Gold Mining Action Committee requested through their state political representative that the machine be returned. The government answered in the negative stating that the machine is under repair and maintenance. While the government didn´t provide adequate information that could explain the pollution levels indicated, the community feels that if levels were constantly monitored, they would know how much pollutants are in the air and can continuously pressure the government to investigate into these levels. Additionally, they can also push the government to develop good and internationally acceptable standards for the country.
The sick local people, who explain their symptoms to anyone who is willing to see them, are not being treated. Those who have are the people who have their own means to seek medical attention. Some local doctors have shown concern over these cases, but this doesn´t seem enough.
While the Health Ministry started about a year ago to gather evidence with the local community, and took blood, urine and even hair samples, the results of the tests, if conducted, were never made public. The lack of transparency is alarming.
Wong, Chang, Wong Pak Foh and Hue said that if there were some report by the Health Ministry that linked the health conditions in the small population with the plant´s operation, the mine would have to be closed down and the mining company would have to leave the area.
The people interviewed highlighted the actions by some members of parliament who did listen to their case. Demonstrations and media work have helped in this way. The representatives have put the issues on the table, but the government has not adequately addressed the problems and to resolve them once and for all.
The legal path was not useful either for the mobilized Bukit Koman residents. In March, 2008, they requested the Kuala Lumpur High Court for permission to review the approval of a preliminary environmental impact study submitted by Raub Australian Gold Mining and for a new detailed environmental impact assessment to be conducted as the preliminary one was done and approved in 1997. After a long process, in September 2012, the local inhabitants lost the case at the Federal Court which is the highest court in Malaysia on the sole reason that the community came to court too late in requesting for a review of the decision of the government. Friends of the Earth Malaysia believes that in the interest of justice, the judiciary can always play a useful role in balancing competing values between communities’, government and corporations.
Although, the struggle seems lost, like a David vs. Goliath situation, the Ban Cyanide in Gold Mining Action Committee will not stop challenging the authorities. While the latest demonstration was held in 2012, amidst legal persecution by the government and the company, the mobilized inhabitants continue to express their concerns to anyone willing to listen to them. They have continued organizing denunciation spaces through, for instance, many meetings with members of parliament and authorities. And they plan to continue resisting.
When they are asked what they want from the international community, their request is simple. "We would like them to get to know our case and send experts to carry out studies, because the government is not supporting us".
Imagen: FOEI / Víctor Barro – www.fotosconletra.com
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