Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Letter to the Editor: Mosquito Fogging Is Ineffective, Even Harmful


Following close on the heels of the rainy season are the mosquito fogging operations carried out by contractors engaged by the Ministry of Health and State Health Departments. We put up with these malodorous operations even though we can already see for ourselves that fogging is ineffective and provides only a false sense of security. 

Fogging continues to be a popular way of mosquito control because it is visible and creates the impression that the relevant authorities are doing something to combat mosquito-borne diseases, but studies have shown that fogging is effective only when the chemicals come in direct contact with the mosquitoes. I have witnessed for myself how the mosquitoes fly up to my apartment window screens when fogging is carried out at ground level, and cunningly fly back down when the coast is clear. There are concerns that frequent fogging may even increase mosquitoes’ resistance to insecticides, giving rise to strains of super mosquitoes that are hard to destroy. 

 Fogging does not reduce mosquito populations because it does not kill mosquito larvae or pupae. If fogging were an effective mosquito control method, we would see a decrease and not increase in dengue cases in Malaysia. 

Fogging is not only ineffective in controlling mosquito populations, but potentially harmful to human health. The chemical pesticides used in fogging and spraying are neurotoxins that can adversely affect the nervous systems of humans, companion animals, and birds, among others. Fogging also kills beneficial insects such as ladybirds, and pollinators such as butterflies and bees, and frequent fogging operations can harm biodiversity and cause ecological imbalance. 

There are inexpensive and pesticide-free methods of mosquito control advocated by biologists and researchers, and these often involve getting premise owners and cleaning contractors to identify and eliminate mosquito breeding sites, including less-expected breeding sites such as the bracts of flowers and plants, septic tanks, gutters, and damp bathroom floors. Increasing biodiversity in parks and gardens by bringing in native fish, frogs, dragonflies, and bats that feed on mosquitoes and their larvae can help to reduce mosquito populations and restore degraded ecosystems. 

The release of genetically-modified mosquitoes to either suppress pathogen infection or mosquito reproduction also seems to bear promising results, although it may be a few years before we can conclusively attest to their safety and effectiveness, and assess their impact on ecosystems. In the meantime, the best and safest method of mosquito control is still the elimination of breeding opportunities. 

I conduct community clean-ups and often find municipal rubbish bins, recycling bins, and construction waste bins filled with stagnant water and mosquito larvae. There should be a requirement for all such bins to have drainage holes at the bottom to allow water to flow out. Local councils should ensure that abandoned vehicles are removed, and construction sites and illegal dumpsites are cleared regularly as these spaces often trap water and create places for mosquitoes to breed. 

The elephant in the room that few want to address is the role of single-use plastics and other disposable packaging in creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes, besides being a blight on the environment. While our government continues to hem and haw over whether or not to ban single-use plastics, mosquitoes continue to breed in discarded cups, bottles, plastic bags and food takeout containers. A ban on single-use plastics combined with a bottle and can deposit system would go a long way towards reducing litter, encouraging recycling, and keeping these mosquito nurseries out of the environment and landfills, but there seems to be no political will to implement it in Malaysia. 

The other elephant in the room is the link between deforestation and the rise in mosquito-borne diseases. The Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases has documented the steep increase in malaria cases in areas in East Malaysia where forested land has been cleared for agriculture. Larvae-sustaining puddles are formed where there are no longer tree roots to control soil erosion and water runoff, and mosquitoes and other pathogens proliferate in forest edges where the boundaries between human habitation and forested areas become blurred and primates and other disease carriers wander into human habitation. To protect citizens from mosquito-borne diseases, the government needs to look at all the different factors contributing to the rise in mosquito-borne diseases, and implement agricultural policies that may include banning the clear-cutting of forests, practicing shade and mixed cultivation, and increasing biological pest control measures such as bringing back native fishes, frogs, bats, and birds to degraded areas. 

We need a responsive and responsible government that focuses on disease prevention and implements measures to identify and eliminate mosquito breeding sites and opportunities. Fogging is, at best, a piecemeal attempt at appeasing local communities after a dengue outbreak. These disruptive fogging sessions cannot be allowed to continue at the expense of our comfort, health, and safety. Citizens already know that mosquito fogging operations harm nothing but taxpayers’ wallets. It’s time we stopped pretending they are effective and redirect our resources to actual solutions. 


(Photo Credits: Sze Huei Yek)

Monday, 11 November 2019

Letter to the Editor:Environmental Education Not A Substitute For Real Action


Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mukhriz Tun Mahathir’s recent announcement that Kedah will soon establish 36 eco-schools is one that would be received with good cheer by most Malaysians, as this move appears to affirm Malaysia’s position as a country that is pro-science, pro-environment, and serious about climate change. 

As we applaud this initiative, we must remember that environmental education can never be a substitute for real action. Those with the economic and political leverage to make a difference and to improve the state of Malaysia’s natural environment are not taking the necessary climate change preparation and mitigation measures, but are instead merely investing more in awareness and education programmes. 

The trouble with the lopsided focus on environmental education as a climate change mitigation strategy is that we are assuming we have 20 years to sit around and wait for the younger generation to graduate and solve environmental problems. We do not have the luxury of time. There is growing consensus among climate scientists that we have no more than 18 months to ensure that global emissions of carbon dioxide peak by 2020 to keep global temperatures within the safe limit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, carbon emissions will have to be cut by 45% by 2030. Since countries usually develop strategies in 5 to 10 year blocks, this would mean that the next 12 to 18 months are critical for the international community to develop firm and binding strategies to cut carbon emissions. It is unfair and irresponsible to expect the younger generation to clean up the environmental mess created by adults and governments. Creating an environmental curriculum and putting out more public service announcements while climate change is threatening food security, political and economic stability, and human health and safety is nothing short of an abdication of governmental environmental responsibility. 

Malaysia has been stuck in the ‘awareness’ and ‘education’ phase for over two decades. As someone who has been active in the environmental movement for that length of time, I regret to report that most governmental environmental education initiatives fall into the category of Arts and Crafts activities such as poster contests, stage plays, recycling competitions, and cute public service announcements, and do not constitute actual solutions. 

Instead of legislating and banning single-use plastics and getting manufacturers to commit to waste reduction targets, we are teaching children to stuff plastic wrappers into PET bottles, and to build structures nobody wants or needs with these ‘Eco Bricks’. We are still playing into the hands of the powerful plastics industry lobby by refusing to stem the tide of single-use plastics, and instead pretending that the problem is littering and lack of recycling. 

We are teaching children about the benefits of clean renewable energy, but not providing them with options to purchase electricity from clean energy providers. TNB’s monopoly in the Malaysian electricity market ensures that only those wealthy enough to own landed property and install solar photovoltaic panels can afford to switch to renewable energy. While other countries such as the Republic of Ireland and Norway are divesting from fossil fuels, and university student-led fossil fuel divestment campaigns resulted in universities and companies making commitments to replace fossil fuels with clean renewable energy, 96-97% of Malaysia’s energy consumption still comes from fossil fuels, and the fossil fuel industry still forms a powerful lobby, so powerful in fact that they are allowed to claim in educational materials and science discovery centres that petroleum has not only promoted economic growth but also environmental safety and food security. The Economist Intelligence Unit reported in September that Malaysia aims to increase its total electricity supply output from renewable sources to 20% by 2025, but this goal is too small and unambitious compared to that of Singapore, the Philippines, and other countries in the region. There are also concerns that judging by current consumption trends, it would simply mean that Malaysians will consume more of everything – more fossil fuels, more renewable energy, more private vehicles, more driving, and more air travel. 

We teach children about the benefits of taking public transport and carpooling, but we fail to provide an affordable, reliable, and punctual public transport service to those outside of areas served by RapidKL. We claim to care about the natural world and wildlife, yet we continue to approve and construct more highway projects through environmentally-sensitive areas, and have commenced the production of a third national car that nobody had really asked for, thus effectively encouraging more private vehicle ownership and more driving. 

We teach children to take shorter showers and to turn off the tap when brushing their teeth, but we don’t tell them that non-revenue water loss in Malaysia is calculated to be at the rate of 5,929 million litres per day of treated water, through no fault of children or ordinary consumers. We tell children that water shortage and drought is the result of climate change, but we don’t tell them that in Malaysia this is usually due to the logging and destruction of tropical rainforests, which serve as vital water catchment areas. We don’t tell them that the government has repeatedly failed to gazette and protect watersheds, or has been slow to replace leaking and unsafe water supply pipes. 

We teach children to plant vegetables in their school gardens, but we don’t take significant and decisive action against farmers who use excessive amounts of pesticides and herbicides, thus threatening food safety and human health. The rivers in Cameron Highlands are severely polluted due to agricultural activities, and three of the rivers are declared biologically dead, and no number of mini gardens in school yards can restore the ecosystem of these rivers or produce enough safe food to meet the nutritional needs of Malaysians. 

We teach children to plant trees in parks and school compounds, despite knowing that a tree will only begin to be effective in absorbing carbon in its tenth year, despite knowing that the carbon sequestered through tree replanting is almost negligible. At the same time, we continue to clear and log forests for development, infrastructure projects, and plantations. 

We teach children to ‘love our forests’, but when schoolchildren put up a play linking deforestation to oil palm cultivation, they faced harassment and intimidation from government ministries. Malaysia has lost 7.29 million hectares of tree cover to oil palm cultivation between 2001 and 2017 alone, and oil palm expansion is linked to the human-wildlife conflict, wildlife deaths, and the loss of indigenous lands, yet any call to produce palm oil and agricultural products without deforestation is met with hostility and allegations of treachery and lack of patriotism. Students are permitted to love our forests only as long as this love does not challenge our government’s stand on environmental issues. We cannot expect children to grow up to be problem-solvers if they are not allowed to think critically and question the status quo. 

We teach children that we need to cut down on carbon emissions if the Planet is to survive, but we in Malaysia are coy about letting people know the truth about animal agriculture and climate change. While entire schools in Brazil, Sweden, the USA, and the UK have gone fully vegan, students in Malaysian educational institutions have difficulty finding vegetarian and vegan options, and some have reported of being actively denied or refused vegan food in order to protect the business interests of school caterers and canteen operators. We pretend that abstinence from meat is a religious practice and that eating meat is a religious and cultural right, without providing citizens and students with objective and truthful information about the unsustainability of livestock and poultry farming, and the depletion of our oceans due to overfishing. At environmental events organised or hosted by government departments and agencies, guests continue to be served non-vegetarian food and bottled drinking water, despite requests from environmental organisations for vegetarian and planet-friendly food and beverages. We let our taste buds overrule our conscience, and we make decisions that are damaging to the environment against our better judgement in favour of temporary whims and desires.  

As adults and leaders, what we do must be aligned with what we say. We cannot solve the climate crisis by organizing poster displays and colouring contests. Environmental degradation is outstripping the pace of environmental education by a hundredfold. Environmental education cannot cope with the scale and rapidity with which the environmental crisis is growing. We cannot expect to mitigate and reverse the environmental harm caused by our political inertia by doing the bare minimum and encouraging children and citizens to make personal lifestyle changes, when the onus is on those with political and economic leverage to make firm decisions to secure the future of our planet. 


Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Letter to the Editor: Plantations Are Not Forests


It was with bewilderment that I read the letter, “Oil palm plantations are jungles too” (26 August 2019) and my bewilderment grew when I realised that the writer, a purportedly educated man, was not being sarcastic but in earnest. 

Plantations cannot fall into the category of ‘jungles’, or more accurately, forests, because they consist of monoculture crops, that is, only one type of crop in a given area at the same time. A diverse forest ecosystem provides natural checks-and-balances to keep soil and plants healthy. In contrast, a monoculture plantation has to use large quantities of synthetic herbicides, insecticides, bactericides and fertilisers to replicate some of the ways nature uses to protect crops. Over time, pests, weeds and fungus evolve to be resistant to chemicals, and farmers end up applying more and more chemicals to monoculture crops, and this in turn adversely affects natural ecosystems and human health. 

In a monoculture plantation, there are no varieties of plant that naturally provide nutrients to the soil, such as nitrogen-fixing legumes, or ground cover crops that improve the nutrient content of the topsoil, or a variety of plants with different root depths to reduce erosion. There are fewer species of microorganisms and beneficial bacteria in the soil, and no range of insect species to ensure that a single population does not get too large and damage too many plants. 

Plantations are a direct threat to forests. In monoculture plantations, ground cover crops are eliminated, so there is no longer any natural protection against soil erosion. Degraded soil becomes unusable for agriculture after a few years, so it is a fallacy that plantations are sustainable because you can grow crops on the same piece of land over and over again. Forests are then cleared to provide new agricultural land, starting the damaging cycle all over again. Published scientific studies show that up to 300 football fields’ worth of actual forest are cleared every hour to make room for oil palm plantations. 

Without topsoil to improve moisture retention in the soil, monoculture plantations require huge amounts of water to irrigate the crops. This means that water is pumped from rivers, lakes and other water sources to irrigate plantations, depleting natural water sources. This is on top of the pollution of water sources by agricultural chemicals. A forest, in contrast, serves as a watershed area and improves water quality by minimising erosion and filtering pollution. 

The writer claimed in his letter that ‘critics say that plantations contribute to climate change’. This is not merely a claim by ‘critics’ but backed up by science. Plantations don’t just appear out of wastelands, forests are cleared to make way for plantations. Between 2001 and 2017 alone, Malaysia has lost 7.29 million hectares of tree cover to oil palm cultivation. Not even comparing our ‘superior’ plantations to the grasslands and wheat fields of Europe can change the fact that plantations are a main driver of deforestation. 

The writer also claims that 54% of Malaysia is ‘virgin jungle’. Not even our Prime Minister would dare to corroborate such an outrageous claim. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reported Malaysia’s primary forest to be at 18.7% in 2010. The writer’s claim that oil palm and rubber trees are ‘jungle trees’ is also grossly inaccurate as these are introduced species that would not support local wildlife, birds, and plant diversity. Further, a monoculture plantation, even of local species such as durian and merbau, can never qualify as a forest because of all the factors explained above. 

The writer praised plantations as being “sustainable sources of food, rubber, timber and employment” without understanding the meaning of the word “sustainable”. Because plantations deplete and pollute water supply and degrade the soil, more and more land and water are required for the next round of planting, and abandoned plantations never fully recover. The average life of an oil palm plantation is 25 years, after which the abandoned plantation is practically a desert. There is also no ‘sustainable employment’ in plantations when there is widespread abuse and exploitation of workers, many of whom do not have formal employment contracts and are unaware of their rights as workers. 

Plantations are net emitters of carbon, and not absorbers of carbon as alleged by the writer. Old-growth forests store carbon for centuries, whereas plantations are actually net emitters of carbon due to disturbance of the soil and the degradation of the previous ecosystem. Scientific studies show that oil palm plantations store about 50-90% less carbon over 20 years compared to the original forest cover. The impact is even worse if the plantation is established on peat lands, which store vast amounts of carbon that are released when the peat is drained. If the use of fertiliser and emissions from processing crops are factored in, the climate impact of converting natural forests to plantations is even more devastating. 

We have to admit that monoculture crops, especially oil palm, have a problem, and the problem isn’t just one of image. Oil palm can be cultivated without deforestation, peat development, or worker exploitation, but it will cost more, and the international community can help palm oil producing nations protect their forests and human rights by paying a fair price for certified sustainable products. The Malaysian government, plantation owners, and consumers will need to work together to protect our remaining peat lands and natural forests, and develop a credible supply-chain tracking mechanism and certification process for palm oil and other agricultural products. Agriculture is inevitable, but there are many ways of making it more sustainable. And it starts with recognising that plantations should not be passed off as forests. 


Monday, 29 July 2019

Letter to the Editor: Consider Alternatives To Groundwater Extraction


Minister of Water, Land and Natural Resources Dr. Xavier Jayakumar’s proposal to tap into Malaysia’s groundwater supply to meet growing water demand is baffling, considering that there are many other less costly and destructive means of meeting our country’s water needs. 

That the Minister reported of forests in Kedah catching fire due to drought is precisely what environmentalists and concerned citizens have been warning the authorities about for years – protect water catchment areas, gazette the Ulu Muda Forest Complex, and end deforestation, or we will face a water crisis. 

A fully-grown tree releases 1,000 litres of water vapour a day into the atmosphere. Thus logging leads to higher temperatures and a decline in rainfall due to the reduced ability of a cleared or decimated forest to absorb solar energy and release water vapour. The 2016 drought affecting the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia is directly linked to logging activities in the Ulu Muda forest complex, which affected climate and water cycle patterns, resulting in a massive decline in dam water levels and a postponement of the paddy planting season. 

Now that a water crisis is imminent, the Minister has made the alarming proposal to drain other sources of water, rather than manage the resource that best ensures a sustainable and consistent supply of water – our tropical rainforests, which act as vital water catchment zones. It is essential that we protect our remaining forests and maintain the health of our rivers, wetlands and water catchment areas to ensure that water resources are safe for us and can be sustained for future generations. 

Tapping into our groundwater supply while failing to protect water catchment areas, manage water demand, and end non-revenue water loss, is like withdrawing funds from an already overdrawn bank account. The sustained pumping of groundwater can lead to groundwater depletion and deterioration of water quality. As water levels in lakes and rivers are also linked to groundwater seepage, the excessive drawing of groundwater can result in a decline in the water levels of lakes and rivers and the loss of riparian vegetation and wildlife habitats. 

When groundwater is continually pumped out of the earth, it can result in land subsidence, namely, the collapse and sinking of soil. This can result in disasters such as the opening up of sinkholes and surface cavities such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the tilting and cracking of buildings such as in Mexico City, and severe flooding such as in Bangkok. Studies have shown that land subsidence can continue for decades even after groundwater pumping has been stopped, as was observed in Arizona. 

The Minister should instead seriously consider water conservation measures while options are still available to us, before our water supply has dropped to crisis levels. 

We can learn from the example of the State of California, which faced a drought and water crisis in 2015. In April 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown ordered a 25% reduction in urban water use. Amazingly, within one month of the water reduction law being implemented, California's water usage went down by not merely 25% but 29%. Their water conservation measures included emergency adoption of building codes to conserve water, rebates for water-saving devices and landscape conversion and irrigation, water-efficient landscaping, imposing a fine for water wastage, local outdoor watering restrictions, statewide regulations requiring businesses to serve water to customers and launder linens and towels only when specifically requested, and hefty penalties for farmers who pump water from drought-stricken rivers. In a world where clean water is becoming increasingly scarce, it is important that we adopt the best and most cost-effective water conservation practices from around the world such as those implemented by the State of California. 

The solution to our country's water problems lies not in tapping into underground water reserves, the construction of an infinite number of dams, or in water rationing for domestic users, but in protecting vital watershed areas, repairing and maintaining the existing water supply infrastructure to minimise non-revenue water loss, and to promote and enforce more efficient water use. 

By the Minister’s own admission, non-revenue water loss in Malaysia is calculated to be at the rate of 5,929 million litres per day of treated water, which is sufficient to meet the water demand in both Selangor (3,316 million litres a day) and Johor (1,320 million litres a day). Surely the priority of the Minister should be replace leaky and damaged water infrastructure and end water theft, rather than to extract water from an ever-increasing number of natural sources? 

As for the argument that watershed conservation, water-saving measures, and the replacement of old pipes and water supply systems to plug non-revenue water loss will burden the rakyat, it is submitted that constructing yet more dams and groundwater extraction infrastructure will cost taxpayers even more. Given the choice between paying for a temporary solution to water shortage issues (i.e. dams and groundwater wells that will result in environmental destruction or will eventually dry up) and a more durable solution to protect water security (i.e. protection of watersheds, replacement of unsafe and leaking water supply pipes with safer and sturdier pipes, tiered pricing system to penalise only water wastage and heavy water use), I believe most taxpayers and consumers would make the rational decision to spend their money on the latter. 

A responsible government is one that makes decisions that will protect the safety, health, and food and water security of its citizens, and environmental and ecological integrity for generations to come, regardless of who will hold political power then. 


Friday, 5 July 2019

Letter to the Editor: It's Time To Get Serious About Single-Use Plastics


The purported plastic straw ban has been in effect in KL, Putrajaya, and Labuan since Jan 1, and in Selangor since July 1. Yet, apart from signs in eateries stating that straws are only available upon request, there has been no marked decline in the number of straws used and disposed of. In many eateries, straws are given by default, and when I asked the eatery staff why plastic straws continue to be inserted into beverages by default, the response is that customers often scold the eatery staff and demand straws, so inserting straws by default will save them the additional trip back to the drinks counter. 

This clearly shows that the purported straw ‘ban’ is not a ban but merely an advisory. It will have no actual impact on reducing plastic production, consumption or waste in Malaysia, and is merely a publicity exercise by governmental agencies to create the impression that they are doing something about the issue of plastic waste. There is no binding force to this advisory, no enforcement of the restriction against plastic straws, and no penalties or charges for those who wish to continue using plastic straws. It neither reduces the demand for plastic straws nor increases the demand for reusable alternatives such as steel or bamboo straws or compostable alternatives such as plant-based or paper straws, since no alternatives to plastic straws are offered at eateries, and no fee is charged for those who insist on being given straws. 

The risible advisory is also ineffective because plastic straws, as well as other single-use disposable plastic and styrofoam products, are still available for sale in retail outlets and supermarkets. Further, the purported ‘ban’ does not extend to cover hawker stalls, catering services, or even beverage shops such as the mushrooming bubble tea shops. A March 2019 survey by YouGov Omnibus reports that although 91% of Malaysians expressed the opinion that environmental conservation is important, 22% admitted to using plastic straws daily and 24% use plastic bags daily. From the survey, it is also clear that although the survey participants were aware of the need to reduce the use of single-use items such as plastic bags and straws, 44% believe that the onus is not on them but on the government to protect the environment. This survey, as well as the findings from outreach work done by various environmental NGOs in Malaysia, reveals that there is no lack of environmental awareness in Malaysia, only a lack of a sense of responsibility. Knowing this to be the predominant mindset amongst Malaysians, the government’s half-hearted attempt to limit the use of plastic straws is doomed to fail. 

However, recalcitrant and apathetic consumers are not even the main reason the ‘no plastic straw’ campaign is doomed to fail. This campaign, like the one against the free distribution of plastic bags, is and will remain ineffective because the focus is almost entirely on consumers and end users. The onus is on consumers to give up straws and single-use plastics and find their own alternatives. Compliance is higher among urban and educated populations, but for lower income individuals, any charge or ban on plastic bags and straws is seen only as another burden. 

In the battle against plastic waste, the government’s focus needs to shift from the end users to producers and businesses. There is currently insufficient pressure on plastics manufacturers to declare their plastic use, set plastic reduction targets, and redesign products and packaging to use less plastic. The existing governmental campaigns have no effect on plastics manufacturers’ production levels or profit margins. 

Plastics manufacturers love these types of ‘awareness’ and ‘voluntary reduction’ campaigns, because there is no obligation on them to reduce production. If a campaign or initiative fails, they can blame consumers for failure to comply with advisories, for littering, for being ignorant or recalcitrant, and for not recycling enough. Plastics manufacturers also love initiatives such as beach cleanups and recycling drives, because it creates the impression that they are doing something to address the issue of plastic waste without actually reducing production or changing the way they do business. More and more resources will then be poured into awareness and education campaigns and recycling drives in schools, when the crux of the problem is that our planet cannot cope with the amount of plastics already in the biosphere and the amount of plastics that will continue to be produced. 

The World Economic Forum reports that we use 20 times as much plastic as we did 50 years ago, and this will continue to rise with incomes and industrialisation. Worldwide, plastic production and use is growing at a 10% rate, but in the developing world and most Asian countries, it is growing much faster than that, and this is more than the existing waste management infrastructure can handle, leading to over 9 million tons of plastics dumped into the oceans each year. What the plastics industry does not want us to know is that recycling is not the solution, because most single-use plastics are never designed to be recycled. They are designed for low cost, light weight and convenience. As a result, even the best global efforts can only achieve a 10-20% recycling rate. Even when collected and separated for recycling, the low grade and low recyclability of these single-use plastic items means that they will be landfilled and burned. Existing recycling technology isn’t good enough, largely because of limitations in how plastics can be sorted by chemical composition and cleaned of additives. Most plastics that are recycled are shredded and reprocessed into lower-value plastics, such as polyester carpet fibre. Only 2% are recycled into products of the same quality. As long as decision-makers keep the focus on consumer behaviour, plastic manufacturers can continue carrying on business as usual and flooding the market with more and more low-grade, non-recyclable plastic packaging and products. 

The Pakatan Harapan government started off their term saying the right things and showing determination to end the scourge of plastic waste in Malaysia. Despite many promising-sounding announcements, there has been no concrete and measurable action taken to reduce plastic production and waste in Malaysia apart from yet more ‘awareness’ campaigns. For awareness and educational campaigns to work, there must be a corresponding ban on the production, import, sale and use of single-use plastic packaging, a higher focus on and incentive for switching to reusable and compostable alternatives, and a setting of reduction targets for manufacturers and businesses. 

Science journal reported in 2015 that Malaysia is among the top 8 highest offending ocean plastic polluters globally. Malaysia then signed the December 2017 UN Resolution on microplastics and marine litter, but has not really treated the issue with urgency or done anything with measurable outcomes to date. Consumer awareness campaigns and “request a straw only if you really need one” advisories are not measurable because no targets can be set or measured for such campaigns. Holding X number of roadshows and issuing X number of public service announcements cannot be translated into X tonnes of plastic waste reduced. 

One of the most effective ways to bring about an actual, measurable reduction in plastic waste within a definite timeline is to get manufacturers and businesses to set and meet reduction targets. Due to consumer and investor demands, many companies including Nestle and Pepsico are under pressure to disclose their annual plastic packaging use, set reduction goals, and transition to recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging and products. Nestle and Unilever have already pledged to make its plastic packaging fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, Adidas and Dell are manufacturing products and packaging using recycled ocean plastics, and new start-ups are introducing everything from edible cutlery to sauce and seasoning sachets made of seaweed that will dissolve in water. Companies should not just be focusing on facilitating and encouraging recycling, but on reducing the amount of plastics used and designing their products and packaging out of recycled plastics or compostable materials in the first place. This is the kind of measurable reduction target we want to see in Malaysia. We should incentivise these kinds of innovation, by increased consumer support, or through governmental tax rebates and Research and Development funds. 

We have only a small window of time left to deal with plastic pollution and its harmful impact on biodiversity, climate, human health, and the economy. Malaysia cannot achieve pollution and waste reduction targets by waiting for consumers to do the right thing and by protecting manufacturers and the plastics industry. Karnataka State in India has banned several types of single-use plastic items and banned manufacturers from producing these products. Kenya has implemented a nationwide ban on plastics bags, which also covers distributors and producers. Vanuatu has outlawed plastic bags and many single-use plastic items, and is moving towards banning disposable diapers. Malaysia must move beyond advising customers to ask the waiter or go to the counter if they need a straw, and calling this measure a ‘ban’. 


Saturday, 18 May 2019

A Farewell to S.M. Mohamed Idris, A Man of Principle


S.M. Mohamed Idris stands out in the memory of most Malaysians not merely because he was at the forefront of two leading grassroots organizations, namely, Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) and the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), but because he is a man of principle who never put personal interest before the environment, workers’ rights, and consumer rights. This is unusual indeed in a society where politicians and activists can be bought and sold like so many commodities, and where campaigns often descend into a tangle of personal attacks. 

I was first introduced to the noble work of S.M. Mohamed Idris as a child in the 1980s through Utusan Konsumer, the official newsletter of CAP, of which my father was a subscriber. I read the newsletter diligently, and it cultivated in me an awareness of local environmental issues, consumer rights, and workers’ rights. I never failed to observe how S.M. Mohamed Idris backed up his assertions with solid facts and figures, rebutted arguments objectively and fairly, and stayed the course in relation to the issues he was championing regardless of criticisms and setbacks. He never wavered, and never apologised for putting the environment and human rights first. 

I remember the role S.M. Mohamed Idris played in the evolution of Malaysia’s tobacco control laws, which eventually resulted in the banning of tobacco advertising, including the sponsorship of competitions and sporting events. Although as a teenager I was disappointed that I could no longer watch tobacco-sponsored telecasts of NFL and NBA games, I came to appreciate that stringent prohibitions against tobacco advertising and marketing are essential to protecting public health and creating a cleaner, healthier future for all, and this objective must come before our personal comfort and convenience. 

Although I never had the privilege of meeting S.M. Mohamed Idris in person, I learned from those who have worked with him that he is an incorruptible, honourable man – steadfast in his principles and contemptuous of the “close one eye” mindset of many Malaysian enforcement bodies. He spoke up courageously and impartially for the environment, consumer rights, labour rights and good governance, regardless of who is in power, or who the government of the day is. His mind remained sharp and his reasoning sound until the very end, speaking up against all forms of harm and injustice, from monoculture plantations to extravagant infrastructure projects that did not benefit the people. S.M. Mohamed Idris was not against development, only against corruption, wastage, and the irresponsible use of public funds. He was not against harmless fun, but illuminated how advertising could manipulate impressionable minds. 

S.M. Mohamed Idris could have capitalised on his perspicacity and eloquence to become a very rich man, but chose to devote his life to protecting the vulnerable, whether it is the environment, consumers, or workers. He was wealthy in knowledge and spirit and lived an ethical life. Through his example, I learned, as I am sure many other activists and volunteers did, not merely to serve and contribute until we have exhausted all our resources, but to try to change the status quo, to try to reform the laws and systems that perpetuate social and legal injustice and environmental destruction. For his efforts in educating the public on their rights, he has done more for democracy and nation-building than many politicians and self-proclaimed patriots. 

It would be a fitting tribute to this great man if more Malaysians were to take up the cause of environmental and social justice, to protest corruption and abuses of power, to call out governmental authorities on destructive and wasteful development and infrastructure projects, and to educate the disenfranchised on their rights and options. He dedicated his life to educating us on our rights that we may carry on his work of creating a better Malaysia and better world. 

S.M. Mohamed Idris lives on in the lives he has changed, including mine. 


Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Letter to the Editor: Walking The Talk on Sustainability the Only Way


 Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok’s call to manufacturers to add a “Love MY Palm Oil” label to local palm oil products and for Malaysians to consume more palm oil (13 March 2019) is no solution to the European Union’s proposed ban on palm oil biodiesel linked to deforestation. 

The Minister’s argument that 40% of Malaysians in the palm oil industry are smallholders is also unlikely to move European parliamentarians. 

The issue is not that the European countries are unaware that the ban would disrupt the economy of the country and livelihood of smallholders. The European Union and its member states are proposing the ban precisely because they know economic pressure is the only way they can get palm oil producer nations to stop deforestation and prioritise environmental protection. Diplomatic persuasion has not worked, and voluntary consumer action takes too long to bear results. The proposed ban is their last resort in trying to influence environmental policies in palm oil producing countries. 

It is not disputed that palm oil is cheaper and more resource-efficient than other vegetable oils. Alternative vegetable oil crops such as rapeseed and soy may use up to 10 times more land than oil palm. However, merely pointing out that other vegetable oil crops are just as damaging and destructive as oil palm, and alleging victimisation and protectionism on the part of European nations is hardly going to influence European nations’ and consumers’ perception of Malaysian palm oil. We can only remove the stigma of deforestation by actually ending deforestation, not by pointing out that deforestation also occurs elsewhere. 

The appropriate response to the proposed ban is to take transparent, credible, and measurable steps to reduce deforestation and other environmental and human rights impacts of palm oil. The problem with both the Roundtable For Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification systems is that the international scientific and environmental communities do not endorse either certification as being trustworthy. 

The main criticism against the MSPO is that the organisation playing a vital role in its formulation and moderation is the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), which clearly is invested in oil palm cultivation and expansion, thus giving rise to allegations of conflict of interest and lack of independence and impartiality. 

As for the RSPO, only in late 2018 did it adopt new standards prohibiting the clearing of any type of forest for oil palm cultivation. Previous standards did not protect peatlands or landscapes with High Carbon Stock. Reports exist to support the claim of malpractice and corruption by RSPO auditors. Considering that the RSPO, which is the world’s only global palm oil certification system, is unable to achieve what it is set up to do – namely, ensure sustainability, human rights, labour standards, environmental protection and respect for the law – it is highly doubtful that the international community would perceive the MSPO as having higher standards of transparency and effectiveness in protecting the environment, indigenous communities, and wildlife than the RSPO. In fact, the findings of environmental organisations confirm that MSPO scores even lower than RSPO on safeguards pertaining to the fair treatment of smallholders, protection of indigenous communities and access to remedies. How is the MSPO labelling expected to inspire consumer confidence when its standards are even lower than that of the RSPO? 

Malaysia should instead adopt the independently verified standards that are being trialled by producers in the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), a collection of NGOs including Greenpeace and progressive producers that aim to provide independently verified, responsibly produced palm oil. These standards use the RSPO as a basis, but establish additional requirements on palm oil producers including to assess and protect peatland and forested areas in their concessions. 

The call to clean up the Malaysian palm oil industry is not a form of bullying or green protectionism or an attempt to undermine and destroy the Malaysian economy. Environmental organisations and indigenous communities should not be harassed and ignored in our attempts to highlight the environmental harms linked to oil palm cultivation. Environmental organisations are not calling for a halt on economic growth or the loss of employment opportunities, but the proper management of natural resources and protection of forests, wildlife, labour rights and indigenous rights. Malaysia has to recognise that there is a problem, not merely that of image or marketing, and rise up to be part of the solution. 

Satellite data does not lie, and reveals that logging and deforestation continue to take place wherever there is oil palm cultivation and expansion. Between 2001 and 2017 alone, Malaysia has lost 7.29 million hectares of tree cover to oil palm cultivation. Even local media does not shy away from reporting on wildlife deaths, including those of charismatic species such as tigers and elephants, linked to oil palm cultivation. And as recently as today (20 March 2019), news reports have surfaced of conflicts between indigenous communities in Sarawak and an oil palm company that was issued a permit to carry out logging next to the Mulu National Park. 

Until there is clear, solid and reliable evidence to support our claims of environmental sustainability and protection of human rights, no amount of labelling and marketing can alter how the international community perceives the Malaysian palm oil industry. Instead of issuing ultimatums and threats to European nations and trying to increase the domestic consumption of palm oil, Malaysia needs to prove to the world that oil palm can be grown and produced responsibly and make a genuine contribution to the Malaysian population and environment. A willingness to acknowledge the need to improve and to make sincere and genuine efforts to protect the environment, wildlife and human rights is a better indication of patriotism than merely a willingness to consume more locally-produced palm oil. 


Saturday, 23 February 2019

Letter to the Editor: Bauxite Mining Still Poses Clear and Present Danger


(Photo credits: Fuziah Salleh)

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Selangor is disappointed that the Ministry of Water, Land, and Natural Resources has made the decision to lift the moratorium on the extraction and export of bauxite in Pahang (18 Feb). 

The primary motivation for the decision appears to be the high market demand for bauxite and the economic gains to be made from it. The environment and public health and safety are merely secondary considerations. 

Although the Minister has indicated that there will be new standard operating procedures (SOPs) and tighter regulations in place, the public has yet to be informed of what these SOPs are and how they compare with previous and existing safeguards, and how transparent and effective the monitoring and enforcement measures will be. 

Even as far back as 2016, SOPs such as requiring bauxite to be transferred via safer pakamatic lorries, rerouting lorries to avoid heavily populated areas and setting up a designated bauxite stockpiling centre failed to stop industry players and enforcement agencies from flouting the regulations with impunity. What assurance is there that this time the same industry players and monitoring and enforcement agencies will not put personal interest and profits before the environment and people? 

Further, the proposed fine of RM500,000 and three months’ imprisonment under the Pahang State Mineral Enactment 2001 appears to be too lenient for such a lucrative industry. There appears to be no prerogative afforded to the enforcement bodies to shut down and ban industry players found to be flouting the SOPs. 

We must not lose sight of the reasons why the moratorium was imposed in the first place. Intensive bauxite mining and processing activities caused major contamination of water sources, air and soil pollution, and an increase in health complaints, particularly respiratory-related, from the local residents. The environmental and scientific community had also reported that bauxite mining and processing had resulted in the leaching of toxic heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and chromium into river systems, poisoning fish and aquatic life and posing a danger to the fishing and coastal communities. 

The public has so far not been informed of how wastewater and other waste materials from the bauxite mining and processing activities will be treated and disposed of, and from where the water for bauxite washing will be sourced. This raises concerns that there will be a growth in illegal dumping grounds for the waste generated from the resumption of bauxite mining and export activities. 

News reports indicate that the Pahang Mineral Operators Association would be regulating its own members and activities. This again will raise the question of how objective, neutral and effective they will be, considering that they have not demonstrated exemplary commitment to environmental protection and public health and safety in 2015 and 2016 prior to the moratorium. There must be greater opportunity and space for neutral civil society groups and environmental organisations to participate in the monitoring and reporting process, and independent environmental auditors must be engaged to inspect and report on the bauxite mining and exporting activities without fear or favour. 

MNS Selangor is not against development or state governments managing their natural resources to maintain economic growth. We are, however, in favour of the responsible management of natural resources and greater transparency and accountability. Economic growth cannot be sustainable or legitimate if it comes at the expense of the environment and public health and safety. 


Thursday, 17 January 2019

Letter to the Editor: Orang Asal Communities Deserve Greater Voice and Representation


Pakatan Harapan candidate M. Manogaran’s statement that the Malay community “would not even buy kuih from the Orang Asal, let alone vote for an Orang Asal candidate”, may be tactless and distasteful, but is less of a denunciation of the Orang Asal communities than an attestation that our society has unequivocally failed Orang Asal communities. 

That a significant percentage of mainstream society would not vote for an Orang Asal candidate is not a sign that the candidate is unqualified or incapable, but a sign that we as a society have so systemically marginalised and ‘othered’ the Orang Asal that we mistake injustice and a denial of rights for protection and concern. We have normalised paternalism and oppression, and passed it off as safety and stability. 

That a significant percentage of mainstream society “would not even buy kuih from the Orang A(sal)” is not a sign that the Orang Asal are not capable of running their own businesses, but a symptom of the pervasive religious indoctrination that depicts non-believers as unclean and uncivilised infidels. 

That Pakatan Harapan senator Bob Manolan Mohamad’s threat to stop the payment of stipends to the Tok Batin of Orang Asal communities had sparked public indignation is not a sign that the Orang Asal communities are unable to survive without governmental handouts and public donations, but a sign that the government has denied the Orang Asal self-determination and self-sufficiency and offered them handouts as a miserable compensation for the same. It is a sign that protectionist laws, policies and government agencies have disenfranchised the Orang Asal and given them welfare in the place of rights. Land and property laws and policies have demoted the Orang Asal from the position of stewards and guardians of their customary land to the position of squatters and tenants-at-will, to be evicted by property developers and state governments and displaced and relocated at the convenience of the authorities. 

Our Orang Asal are not living museum pieces to be objectified and ogled at by tourists and anthropologists, or passive recipients of government handouts. Orang Asal communities do not need our condescension, interference, religious proselytisation or cast-off clothing and toys. They need representation, the right to be heard and the right to control their own destiny. They cannot continue to be patronised and treated as wards of the government and mainstream society, but must instead have the opportunity to exercise their autonomy, structure their own solutions and make decisions related to their land rights, political rights and the fate of their communities. 

Our Orang Asal are not a homogenous cultural group but consist of many different ethnic subgroups with distinct languages and cultural and religious beliefs and practices. Therefore, what is needed is more Orang Asal representatives to bridge the divide between Orang Asal communities and government decision-makers, and more Orang Asal activists speaking up for each community and their specific needs. What Orang Asal communities need and deserve are representatives in parliament, governmental agencies and non-governmental organisations who can advocate for their communities and make decisions without fear or favour and without being coerced into converting their religion or becoming sycophants for political parties. 

Fielding and voting in more Orang Asal candidates would create opportunities for the Orang Asal communities to participate in decisions that would affect their rights, lives and fates. If there were actual and adequate representation and autonomy for Orang Asal communities, they would not have to resort to measures such as blockades and petitions just to get their voices heard. Nobody enjoys having to participate in blockades and marches to Parliament – farms, families and villages have to be left unattended when Orang Asal activists are away and income is lost. Fielding just one Orang Asal candidate does not make us an inclusive and diverse society any more than giving handouts to Tok Batins of Orang Asal communities make us a caring and compassionate society. That we are not fielding more Orang Asal candidates is not an indication that the Orang Asal communities are uninterested in politics or that there are insufficient qualified candidates, but an indication that we as a society have been deaf and blind to the rights, needs and concerns of the Orang Asal for too long. 

The first step to recognising the rights of the Orang Asal for us as a society is to prioritise the security and control of the Orang Asal over their native customary lands, and to include and consult the Orang Asal in any discussions on land use and any development and education processes and policies that affect them. We need to implement and enforce laws to ensure Orang Asal land rights are protected. We need to recognise the Orang Asal communities’ role in conservation and learn from them. Until we have more Orang Asal voices in positions of leadership, the fielding of token Orang Asal candidates by political parties and coalitions amount to nothing more than insincere and empty gestures.