Bauxite in Malaysia | Will the Ban Bring Relief?
Malaysia's recent ban on environmentally disastrous bauxite mining will mean a break from scenes like this - will the relief be temporary or will the government properly regulate the industry? Photo Credit: GERAM
Malaysia is now the world’s top producer of bauxite. Go back just 18 months, and the country barely had a bauxite mining industry at all.
The meteoric rise from zero to powerhouse producer of this necessary ingredient in aluminum production has come with fantastic environmental repercussions for Malaysia – problems that were unheeded by a profit-driven industry and a recession-racked government leaning on this new boost to economy. For a year and a half, putting the brakes on rampant mining activity seemed to be put on the backburner, but finally, a temporary ban on bauxite mining has been declared.
For three months as of January 6, no bauxite will be mined in Malaysia. After so much government inaction, this ban hopefully signals a recognition of how important industry regulation is when it comes to bauxite.
Though perhaps new to government, the importance of this regulation – and the consequences of its absence – are well known to those living near bauxite mines.
In the port town of Kuantan, bauxite has seen country roads go from quiet byways to improvised thoroughfares teeming with ore-hauling trucks. Local cars, homes and trees have accumulated a thick layer of red dust kicked up by these ‘lorries’ that causes skin irritation when touched and increases the risk of cancer when ingested. Fruit orchards and small oil palm farms, sold to mining contractors, have been transformed into giant red gashes in the earth. And rivers in the region have gone from clear to red – stained with arsenic and heavy metal pollution washed down from the open-pit bauxite mines.
These changes have caused massive damage to public and environmental health. Water samples taken near Kuantan have tested alarmingly high for arsenic, mercury and many metals. Increased respiratory cases have been noted at clinics in and around Kuantan. During the rainy season, the open-pit mines greatly increase the risk of mudslides and landslides. And recently, water quality has gotten so bad that Kuantan residents have been advised to avoid direct contact with river water – even after it’s been boiled. Citizens became so frustrated that at one point, five bauxite trucks were set ablaze within a one-month period.
These consequences were heeded to some degree last year by Malaysian governments. The state of Terengganu has become progressively more strict with bauxite regulations since September 2015. Pahang, the state producing by far the most of the mineral, revoked the licenses of 34 bauxite contractors back in June. These actions and others like them evidenced some care, but the government was seen to be by and large dragging its feet and offering inadequate solutions.
Judging by the environmental damage done to Pahang, that opinion is valid. The bauxite ban came on the heels of a terrifying development: fifteen kilometers of Pahang’s coastline were stained red with arsenic and heavy metal pollution that got washed from open-pit bauxite mines into the sea. Marine scientists have now warned of potentially catastrophic damage to the ecosystem off the coast of Pahang.
As it stands, what’s done is done, and Malaysia must now look to the future. Many are hoping the bauxite ban will be extended indefinitely, but most speculate that mining will resume after the three-month hiatus. What will be important is how the mining is conducted. Environmentally-responsible bauxite mining is entirely possible – for example, one need look no further than Australia. Most mining operations in that country are certified sustainable.
That certification requires great care taken for the environment and the rules state that precautions must be taken before, during and after mining to ensure that the area used doesn’t suffer from the extraction process. Topsoil contamination is minimized, and the land used for mining must be able to support native plants after mining is complete. The displacement of local people is also kept to a minimum, and those displaced are compensated for their losses. Most importantly, the entire area used for mining is rehabilitated after use.
So far, Malaysia’s experience with bauxite has been nearly opposite.
“The greed, the need, of certain people, outweighed welfare of the common people and the authorities allowed it,” said Kuantan member of parliament Fuziah Salleh. “And I think there is a lesson to be learned.”
Malaysia’s ban on bauxite gives hope that perhaps that lesson has been learned. Government officials have promised to develop effective ways to regulate the industry during the ban. Within this period, Malaysia may be able to develop a bauxite industry that can support the economy while respecting the local populations and the environment.