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Destruction of environs is destruction of country

I am sitting here on a fine Sunday, reflecting on the front page news in T he Star (May 19, 2013), "Hills in Cameron Highlands ‘raped' at an alarming rate", and I was compelled to write this to the editors of all papers, with the aim of expressing my continued disappointment on how this country, rich in natural resources and heritage, is slowly wiping itself out of the surface of this planet.

Now that the political drama in the country has somewhat simmered down, I hope that this is the right time to help build a progressive and forward thinking nation, especially when it comes to ensuring that Malaysia is managed sustainably for the future generations.

In Pahang, we have seen what the media has called the "rape" of the century. For the last two decades, and in my experiences in local environmental issues, Cameron Highlands has gone from bad to worse. Property developers are rushing in to build so called eco or highland resorts.

There are a few dams scheduled to be built on the same highland. Meanwhile, land clearing for agriculture is rampant, and landslides aren't something new.

Indigenous communities, meanwhile, and as usual, are sidelined. Their voices almost deafened by other so-called urgent agenda. Don't believe this? Google Tasik Chini.

On top of that, it is also known amongst the public and those savvy with green issues that gold mining in Pahang still uses cyanide.

Whether cyanide still pervades the communities of Bukit Koman or not, only the strong probes of the sophisticated machines used by the Department of Environment are able to tell us the truth.

What is perplexing is this - whether cyanide is pervasively used or not in Pahang, and whatever is it that comes out from the mouths of the politicians, what is stopping academicians or chemists in this country (private or government) to go down to the ground and be a CSI and measure and tell the truth.

It's bad enough that the media only reports what certain individuals or politicians say, so come on Malaysians, where are the chemistry experts in this country?

Can't you the least help us verify the content of the air, soil and water in Pahang ?

While you're at it, work on a comprehensive study to measure the entire health of the country from water and air quality, to the presence of toxic chemicals in food and so forth. I believe the public wants to know all this.

Kelantan and Kedah are not far off in their range of environmental problems. Similar to Pahang, the hills have fallen to the wraths of loggers and so-called plantation owners.

Under the pretext of opening up more land for agriculture, the irony is that the logs that are removed are probably more lucrative than the proposed agriculture crops.

Kedah has made a bold move by announcing that it is placing a halt on all logging activities. I applaud them AGAIN as this is not the first time this commitment has been made public.

Now let's see in the next five years if the government will really walk the talk.

Today, as you drive up the North-South highway, you know you are entering Perak when you also witness the massive rape of its limestone hills.

What was once the pride of the state remains a massive eyesore. I pride myself as a "Ipoh Mali" person.

And those days when you said you are from Ipoh, the impression is that your skin is smooth and clear, your health is superb and so forth. Myth or legend, whichever way you like it, has it that the waters in the Ipoh valley are kept pristine by its natural environment and limestone hills. So pristine that even the bean sprouts that grow and thrive in Perak are bigger, crunchier and tastier.

A person born and raised in Ipoh Valley is said to be lucky as he or she gets the cleanest and best drinking water. Today, all that is probably just hearsay.

In Sarawak, a state which has the most valuable amount of natural resources, many of which would keep other states green in envy. Many of us have watched the recent video by Global Witness.

We can choose to ignore it. We can also choose to be woken up by how dirty politics, poor and unethical governance, and monopolisation of power has transformed what is supposedly the richest state in the country, to one that is gradually losing its treasures.

The Bakun dam, the Murum dam, and the other 10 or more dams in the state will change the landscape of the state permanently.

What is worse is the fate of the indigenous people, whom we conveniently place aside. Lack of access to the media, and lack of empowerment, our indigenous people will never be like the Maoris in New Zealand or the Red Indians in Americas where their rights are now acknowledged.

We are sidelining them in all areas and have forced them to be the "in-betweens" in the country.

What is the point of subscribing to the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People (Undrip) when we clearly are not observing the roles we have to play in protecting them?

Our indigenous relatives in this country hold the key to many secrets of our natural resources. Yet we manipulate them, we ostracise them, and we tell them that we are more Malaysians than they are.

The voices of the origin bumiputera and Malaysians of this country have been drowned ever since we proclaimed our so called independence. Is this the makeup of a democratic nation?

In Selangor, and also many states that are facing water woes, the magnitude of water accessibility and quality is further exacerbated.

For the last fifteen years, academicians, water experts, irrigation professionals and engineers have all heard of "integrated watershed (river basin) management".

In Selangor we even have a council called the Lembaga Urus Air Selangor (Luas) established to look at better ways of management and improvement of water accessibility and quality to the rakyat.

After all that, till today, we will don't see much integration and holistic enforcement on the ground. River ways are thought of as separate entities as land use patterns.

We work to supply water but fail to educate the public on the most suitable ways to conserve, and reduce usage of water.

I have flown in a helicopter around the Selangor river basin. That was in 2000 when I was working as a freshwater ecologist for an international environmental organisation here in Malaysia.

I thought the issues on the ground were horrific, and when I saw with my own eyes how land was misused and how that physically altered the morphology of rivers, I couldn't phantom how we a nation which we pride today as being more intellectual, can't work holistically to address these water woes.

Yet daily, more homes have no choice but to save money to purchase water filters because seriously, no one would ever dare drink off the tap today. Not like those days anymore.

Similarly to energy, Malaysians consume some of the highest amounts of water and electricity in the region. Instead of focusing on reduction of consumption, our country loves the notion of feeding the masses by continuously building and supplying to the needs of the nation.

Say hello to nuclear energy. My question is this: what if the needs of the nation are flawed and not sustainable?

In Penang, there is much that still needs to be improving although perhaps among all states in the country, this little island exemplifies more progressive green efforts than the rest.

Yet, hillside development, water conservation and waste management are still top areas of concern in this state. Despite that, I have some confidence in Penang to champion better green efforts.

I believe and correct me if I am wrong, the current chief minister did made public that he wants a greener Penang.

That will keep us NGOs on our toes as we observe his actions on the ground in the next five years.

In Sabah, a state that prides itself in its surreal islands and amazing lush forests is not without any environmental problems.

Early this year, some twelve (and maybe more) Pygmy elephants were poisoned to death.

After all the hoo-ha on the urgency to find the culprits, the devastating news about the death of these animals, today, the issue(s) seemed to have been swept under the carpet.

In Bolehland, wildlife suffer in the wild and so too in captivity.

Now we know that our wildlife, no matter where they are, would still have their lives threatened by Malaysians. We know for a fact that enforcement is seriously lacking in wildlife crimes.

We have forest rangers that trek huge areas of forests with old defense weapons and we are not the least interested to beef up the skills of the rangers and their method of protection against poachers, instead, we choose to spend money to purchase wildlife that is not native to this country.

Am I the only one who sees an oddity in this prioritisation of funds for local wildlife protection?

Meanwhile, Sabah also prides itself in its beautiful diving spots. Have you been to one of those posh areas yet? Better still, have you dared yourself to travel to the "other side" of the islands, and observe the local communities there?

Not only are locals not engaged much in the local tourism industry, they are occasionally in worse states when it comes to accessibility to water, education and employment.

Malaysia prides itself in being a part of international initiatives. We subscribed to the Kyoto Protocol. Oh yes, and the Montreal Protocol too. Oh wait, there's also the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People (Undrip), and so many more.

We also told the entire planet that we will reduce the country's carbon emission intensity by 40 percent, of which many of us, and even government agencies, have no clue how far we have fared in this.

Now is the time that government agencies should put their barriers down and work hand-in-hand with communities, and environmental and social NGOs to address and solve environmental problems.

There is nothing we can do about this if we remain hostile towards each other.

There is, however, a gazillion positive activities that can be driven if we all work amicably and start by shaking our hands, and acknowledging that we, Malaysians, will all have to work together, regardless of race or political beliefs, if we truly intend to salvage what is left of this country.

Communities are not happy today with what they see. They might not be scientists nor are they academicians but they have lived to see the big difference in the changes to the environment. Yet we cannot ignore their concerns and voices and sweep them all under the carpet.

Where is the midway where communities, NGOs and government agencies can sit together in a civilised manner and tackle environmental issues holistically?

We pride ourselves in being the smartest species on this planet, yet we find it so difficult to communicate, solve issues and live harmoniously.

I would rather be spending my Sunday with my children tucked away in some waterfall away from the city. This Sunday, I mourned at myself and my country, as I read about all the kind of man-made destructions we have intentionally made under the pretext of economic gains.

My questions are:

  • 1.Will the present government now take a real look at their manifesto and acknowledge that there is a serious need to engage all stakeholders, to come together to address a very critical issue - will there be a future for Malaysia? And HOW are they going to do this? It's ok if they don't know how because we have a lot of eager and knowledgeable Malaysians, here and abroad, whom will be very willing to help as long as the intention is clear and honest - to build a safer, cleaner and better environment for our children.
  • 2.When are we going to seriously look at "development" from the eyes of sustainability? How do we make development authorities, corporate players and academic institutions play more engaging roles? When will we see a national blueprint for all industries in this country to work progressively towards a sustainable future?
  • 3.If we all agree that the current environmental laws are inadequate, and that environmental enforcement is almost ineffective, then maybe we should consider (amongst all the money we spent in this country) to establish an independent environmental monitoring agency. Like the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States of America. We need some kind of independent, reliable and trustworthy entity that we all know can help us protect the environment, and subsequently, the health of its people. We need some kind of entity that will help put the people's quality of life first, and by that I don't mean monetary gain. I mean the right to be breathing in clean air, swimming in clean rivers and so forth.
  • 4.When will all the big corporates, investment agencies, and political parties, start looking at the bigger picture of building a nation that is able to provide clean air, water and food for its own people, without being held at ransom by some economic tool?
  • 5.Why is it so difficult to make any violation to the environment a criminal act? If we seriously want to take giant steps towards protecting our backyard, the rivers, the waterfalls, the trees, then we should looking at criminalizing those who pollute our waterways, air and health. Slap them fines, because we are good at it, and the government will see a new source of revenue which can be driven to initiate more conservation or rehabilitation activities on the ground.

I hope what I have written will stir some of you to think outside your comfort zone. It is intended to be so.

Globally we cannot turn our backs on data that has shown that the atmosphere has not reached its critical level in terms of CO2 concentrations.

We cannot deny the fact that the planet IS getting warmer. We cannot sit back and ignore the stories that we are filling up landfills faster than we can recycle.

We cannot turn a deaf ear to the plight of 180,000 (at least) indigenous people whose land, homes, resources (water, food) are gradually taken away from there, rendering them to abandon their thousand year old traditional knowledge, culture and heritage.

We also know that among all our neighboring countries, Malaysians use an extra 100 litres or so daily, way above the global average of usage per person.

Brace yourselves Malaysians. This is only the tip of the iceberg. You can choose one of this two.

Remain silent. Or start making some noise for positive reinforcements for the environment.

YASMIN RASYID obtained her undergraduate degrees in marine biology and contemporary religion from Duke University (USA), a MSc in biotechnology (Malaya) and is now pursuing her PhD.


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