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Keynote Address: The Future of Sustainable Mining in Malaysia

Articles, Blog /

* Delivered by Puan Yasmin Rasyid, Founder and President of EcoKnights at the Sustainable Mining Development and Practices Symposium, March 1st 2018, Faculty of Sciences, University Malaya.

INTRODUCTION

Malaysia is rich and diverse in its people, culture and race. The country is also very rich in minerals with over 33 different mineral types found with a value of several billion in economic potential. These mineral types range from metallic to non-metallic and energy minerals. Diversity in this country is found both above and below the ground.

I grew up in a very mineral rich town called Ipoh where as a young born and bred Perakian, we take pride in being a state that contributed the most for the country’s economy in tin mining and resources. I remember visiting the old tin dredge in Batu Gajah and in Tanjung Tualang when I was small. That massive and majestic metal structure still captures my awe today in terms of how it functions and performs. However, tin was not the only mineral that was mined in Perak. As I grew older and into my teenage years, we heard fewer stories on tin mines, perhaps due to the declining availability of the mineral and also the fluctuation of prices which you know, makes it hard for tin mining companies to sustain itself. That was when I saw and noticed the growth of other mining industries in the Kinta Valley – lime and cement. Although my mother noted that both the limestone and cement industry was already in Ipoh even when she was a little girl, in my perception, the Kinta Valley was more than just a place called home, it was a place where richness in resources was very evident and that  there are many companies that have their eyes on these resources. If you drive pass Ipoh towards Penang, you would not miss the sight of the huge YTL cement factory on the right-hand side of the highway. It was there since my mother was a child, and it’s still there. Similarly, as we approach Ipoh from KL, and Gua Tempurung is on your left, you would not be able to miss the sight of half cut hills exposing marbles and lime, which end up becoming flooring and furniture in homes today.

People like me are saddened when I see the intensity of the mining industry on the environment, but part of me remains in a big dilemma as well as I also understand that consumers, you and me, are one of the main drivers of the mining industry. Our obsessions with marbled walls, bathrooms and flooring; our insatiable appetite for electronic gadgets like mobile phones; the never-ending process of construction and building development we see today in cities – all these contribute to the rising demand for minerals today.

Nonetheless, I believe the feel of the mining fraternity is that the mining industry is sluggish and may continue to remain so due to reasons like lack of mine exploration and development and the issue of the capacities of the local industry players in remaining competitive and attractive. There are so much more opportunities for mining development in the country, yet there are also many challenges hurled towards the industry today. Some of these challenges will be addressed today in the symposium through the experts and researchers we have lined up.

In this symposium organized jointly among not-for-profit environmental NGO, EcoKnights, in collaboration with Waseda University (Japan), University of Malaya (UM) and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), and with the amazing contribution from MCOM (Malaysian Chamber of Mines), the main aim of this conference is to advocate and encourage more discourse and discussion on balancing mining development, with environmental needs, and that of the people or community who live near mining areas.

Ever since the infamous bauxite mining fiasco we saw in the last two years, it brought national and media attention to Pahang as we saw how global demand and prices catalyse the mad rush for bauxite mining. It went slightly out of control, and I mentioned slightly as an understatement, and resulted in the very visible impact of bauxite mining on the environment specifically in villages, at the port, and subsequently affecting the livelihood of the folks in Pahang especially for fishermen, farmers and the small business owners. It was clear that we didn’t like the idea of living on Mars. And something had to be done. It was also clear that the sudden rise in bauxite demand also saw the rise in competition among old and new mining companies and what the media reported as a severe case of corruption, abuse of power and violation to environmental sensitivities.

The dilemma was how do you balance mining development with the voices of the people and the unheard cries of nature? Is sustainable mining development plausible and practical to achieve? How will today’s mining companies align itself to fulfil national and international commitments to meet the needs of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? We have to respect and acknowledge that minerals are finite and at some point, our needs for consumer products will be the driving force that will deplete us of these minerals. So where is this balance of consumption and production? And how do we ensure that local communities are engaged and informed of all mining development efforts? Where is the check and balance in economic, social and environmental sustainability? How much about the mining industry does an average Malaysian understand?

These are some of the areas which will be covered in the symposium.

But first allow me to highlight some of the areas in which will be touched today in the symposium, while many areas of mining development still need to be further discussed among all the relevant development actors, including communities. So allow me to perhaps focus on some of the challenges faced by many of us in and outside the industry.

INDUSTRY TRENDS & CHALLENGES

PRICE

It is clear that the global pricing of minerals affects the industry. And we have seen how falling prices can result in the collapse of the industry. However we need to recognize and this is my personal opinion, that consumption drives production. And our consumption patterns are dependent on many variables our there driven by companies that consistently come up with new products that bag for our attention. What we need to see is a drive towards balancing this and no doubt, I honestly don’t have the answer to address this aspect but I do know that it takes innovation, and a whole lot of concerted efforts among the government and the global industry players to address the challenge of pricing. What I do know is that – everyone makes the profit. But how much profit is enough for a company? And at what cost to the environment? We talk about the need to make mineral prices competitive, however, who does this for Mother Nature?

EXPLORATION

There have been new and progressive efforts to revive abandoned mines and to intensify mining exploration in the country. The section below further shows the effort of the State and Federal government in amendment to legislation and regulations. With the recent bauxite rush in Pahang, it was clear that mining exploration must be controlled and regulated. The Malaysian media reported that there were issues related to abuse of power and corruption in Pahang as more new companies were formed for bauxite mining and enforcement and monitoring were inadequate.

MINING AND MINE PLANNING, PROCESSING, TRANSPORT AND LOGISTICS

Today many of the mining processes are automated and as such the reliance on labour and as such the costs involved, may gradually decline. And of course over the years we have seen some great innovations in mine processing and planning, however, I believe in the past, the concept was to mine, and mine until we exhaust the minerals and abandon it and open up a new area. But that needs to change today, as we are aware that the impact of mining development is not just on the location of the mines, but also on the surrounding community, in terms of the environment, the health of the people, job opportunities and so forth. In addition, mining companies today need to also be more cost-effective in ensuring that the processing, transport and logistics of their business demonstrates a sustainable approach. With the rise of social media and public awareness on the impacts of mining development, I think the eyes are on the industry and the government to take the bold steps to transform the entire chain to incorporate a transparent and sustainable approach to mining.

CHANGING LEGISLATION AND REGULATIONS

The mining industry comes under the purview of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE), however since mining involves land, and land is under the purview of the State, as such mining-related applications is empowered to the respective States in consultation with the federal agencies under the purview of the NRE such as the Department of Minerals and Geosciences (DMG), and the Department of Environment (DOE). The Federal Government in 1998 established a National Mineral Council (NMC) to coordinate mineral related matters, co-operation between the Federal and State Governments and oversee the overall integrated development on the mineral industry.

In 2009, the National Mineral Policy 2 (NMP2) was revised and formulated (a revision of the earlier policy was formulated in 1994) by the Federal Government to revive the mining industry, especially for abandoned mines. The idea is that the NMP2 would facilitate in the development of an effective, efficient and competitive regulatory environment for the mining sector. Under the NMP2, an emphasis is also given to rehabilitation, environmental protection, sustainable development and the management of social impacts. The country’s environmental aspects of mine development are regulated by the Environmental Quality (Prescribed Activities) (Environmental Impact Assessment) Order 1987, which is a subsidiary legislation to the Environmental Quality Act of 1974. Under Order 1987, a mining lease application for mining leases that are larger than 250 hectares must include and environmental protection plan that is approved by the DOE.

Currently the MNRE is revising the EQA 1974 in which there will be tighter regulations. For the mining industry as elements that will be included include “industry green practices”, “higher penalty for environmental polluters”, and more. This it would be an interesting time in the next few years to see the transition of the mining industry to adopt, embrace and practice greener initiatives.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS

Many of you may not have heard of this or remember this by our first environmental and human health concern in the country occurred in the 1980s. Many of the audience today were not even born yet so allow me to share with you, the emergent environmental concerns from mineral processing.

The Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE) was commissioned to extract yttrium, a rare earth, from monazite. While it was welcomed by the people of Parit (Perak) as this new industry  promised new jobs to the locals. Processing rare earth produces radioactive waste and it was decided that the waste will be stored by the Perak State Government to be used as a potential source of nuclear energy. (What is interesting is that the nuclear plant the country is expected to build will be located in Perak, so it is timely that this is happening as the waste can be useful). When the health of the rare earth plant workers and the community that lived near the plant started to deteriorate badly and reported high incidences of frequent bouts of coughs and colds, but a sharp rise in the incidence of leukaemia, infant deaths, congenital disease and lead poisoning.

A few years of its operations and despite numerous complaints, the voice of the community grew stronger with NGO interventions and escalated the issue to the media. And this is the 1980s where the internet and social media were not present yet, but the protests and voices of concern escalated to a global audience. Those who remembered the rare earth plant issue in Perak raise the same concerns when a new rare earth plant was built in Gebeng, Pahang just recently. Except today, the internet and social media escalated the concerns faster and to more people.

REBRANDING MINED AREAS FOR THE BENEFIT OF TOURISM

In the last five decades, old mining areas have been revived and touched up to benefit from potential tourism opportunities. From the MINES Resort City to Sunway Lagoon, Taiping Lake Gardens and Titiwangsa Lake Gardens, old mining areas have been creatively used to create park and green spaces for the public. The latest would be the Tanjung Tualang Tin Dredge project. This demonstrates the opportunities in which abandoned mines can be revived to provide economic gains to the country and for the people.

CONCLUSION

Rising consumer demands will still contribute to a vibrant mining industry and if consumption and production of minerals is sustainably managed, the mining industry can be maintained for many generations to come. However, fluctuating prices, higher working costs, and increasing pressure from the public and government to be environmentally responsible, will continue to place the ever-increasing pressure on mining companies and the mining experts to urgently come up with innovative solutions to ensure its acceptability and competitiveness in international markets. Small incremental improvements in mining practices and technology are NOT going to be enough. In fact to be competitive and to brand and position the mining company to one that meets the need of the industry without compromising the needs of communities and the environment would require a steep change to take the mining industry to a new level of productivity, cost-effectiveness, environmental sustainability and harmonize communities throughout the mining chain. The Symposium today aims to address this and aims to connect the people who care, who want to make positive and sustainable changes, and who want to progress towards a fair, just and sustainable future – and I believe radical changes can come about if the appropriate level of lateral thinking is applied today in the symposium. There are no bad or good guys here today. Just people, whether academicians, NGOs, industry players, media or government, who are all passionate and compelled to do something today for their sustainable future.

I wish all the speakers the best in presenting their work and message. I wish all the participants the best in gaining knowledge, information and the opportunity to be engaged in discourses throughout the day. To Assoc. Prof Dr Che Wan Jasimah, Dr Zeeda Fatimah Mohamad, and Dr Mohd Istajib bin Mokhtar, Suhaila Jamaludin from the Department of Science and Technology of University Malaya, I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart in agreeing to this collaboration. To the team from Waseda University and with the support of the W-Bridge funds, we are able to make this symposium a reality. To UTM especially Dr Shazwin Mat Taib and Assoc Prof Dr Fadhil Mat Md Din and their team, thank you for being part of this collaboration.

With this, thank you very much and wishing everyone a successful symposium.