Malaysia's green movement gains momentum

15,000 attended a September 2 Himpunan Hijau (Green Gathering) protest against the use of cyanide in gold mining. Photo by Choo

The sleepy central Malaysian town of Raub was the focus of a 15,000-strong Himpunan Hijau (Green Gathering) national convergence of environmental activists on September 2.

The immediate focus of the convergence was to support local community opposition to the use of cyanide in gold mining operations near the town by the Raub Australian Gold Mine. But activists also came from another major environmental campaign, against a toxic rare earths refinery in that has been built by Lynas, an Australian corporation, near the city of Kuantan.

The Raub Australian Gold Mine gets its name from its origins as mine owned by a Brisbane-based syndicate between 1893-1962, after which it closed down because of low gold prices. The price of gold then was down to an average of US$35/ounce but today gold trades at nearly $1,700/ounce.

The mine was re-opened in 2009 by its current owner Peninsular Gold, whose chairperson and main shareholder is a politically well-connected Malaysian capitalist by the name of Andrew Kam. To the horror of local residents, especially those from the village of Bukit Koman, right next to the mine, Raub Australian Gold Mine began using cyanide in its operations.

Choo Chon Kai, a leading activist in the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) who attended the Raub convergence, and took the photos below, told Green Left Weekly that the Himpunan Hijau movement, like the Bersih movement for clean and fair elections, has been gathering momentum.

"The first Himpunan Hijau rally launched an 'Earth Charter' on a beach in Kuantan on October 9 last year. Then there was Himpunan Hijau 2.0, a 15,000-strong rally against the Lynas rare earth refinery in Kuantan on February 26 this year.

"Himpunan Hijau 3.0 was part of the giant Bersih 3.0 rally on April 28 and then there was Himpunan Hijau Raub.

"The green movement in Malaysia is picking up momentum as there are many pending environmental issues which attracted huge public attention besides Lynas. The Bukit Koman villagers fight against gold mining using cyanide is one of them and another is Pengerang residents fighting against a mega petro-chemical develepment project in the southeastern end of the Malayan peninsula.

"Like Bersih, Himpunan Hijau has become a rallying point of civil society groups and communities to fight against development projects that put the profit of the richest 1% over the lives and safety of the 99% and environmental sustainability.

"There are many young people -- from all walks of life – that participate in these rallies. There is a high consciousness about hazardous industries and protection of environment building up among Malaysian population."

Choo explained that the Bukit Koman villagers have been protesting against the use of cyanide in gold mining since 2006 and lead to the formation of the Ban Cyanide in Gold Mining Action Committee (BCAC), which co-organised this latest action.

"The crowd gathered at a field near Bukit Koman village. In a meeting prior to the rally, the police had promised that a representative from the company would received a memorandum from the Himpunan Hijau Raub committee during the rally. But the company representative did not turn up at the rally, so the organisers decided to march to the gold mine to handover the memo.

"The march was stopped by the police on the way and a representative from the company came to meet the marchers. But it turned out that the representative was not someone in top management just someone in-charge of security. The memorandum was then handed over to the Police District Chief who promised to give it to the mine management."

On September 6, Malaysia's Federal Court rejected an appeal against the Department of Environment's approval of the Preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment report submitted by the Raub Australian Gold Mine company.

Meanwhile the company has initiated defamation action against two independent online publications in Malaysia, Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today, which have been reporting in detail on the residents campaign.

This follows similar legal action taken by Lynas Corporation to try to silence activists and independent media organisations. On September 5, Malaysian authorities granted Lynas a temporary operating licence despite two pending legal challenges by residents near the refinery. Lynas claims it will be able to begin operating the refinery in October this year.

Activists in Malaysia are planning a protest outside the Court of Appeal in Putrajaya, near Kuala Lumpur, on September 10 when the court will hear objections by local residents to the granting of the temporary operating licence to Lynas. There are also calls for a mass blockade of the port of Kuantan to meet the arrival of ore from Western Australia for the Lynas refinery.

Meanwhile in Australia, activists are planning protests and possible legal challenges to try and stop the ore, mined in Port Weld, Weestern Australia, from leaving through the port of Fremantle. Shipments of ore are believed to be currently stored at a Bibra Lake warehouse near Fremantle.

A protest action will be held outside the Sydney corporate headquarters of Lynas on September 20 between 12.30-1.30pm at 56 Pitt st, Sydney, and another will hit the Lynas annual general meeting of shareholders in Sydney the following month.