Sixteen concerned residents of Kuantan travelled all the way from Malaysia to Sydney to protest at the November 28 shareholders' annual general meeting of an Australian rare earth mining and refining company.
Lynas Corporation's toxic refinery in the outskirts of Kuantan (population 700,000) on Malaysia's east coast is deeply unpopular with local residents and other concerned Malaysians who, together with Australian supporters, have mounted protests in Sydney at the past four AGMs.
This year's protest, outside the plush Sofitel Sydney Wentworth Hotel, was organised by the Kuantan-based Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL) group and the Australian-based Stop Lynas Campaign. It was dubbed “RIP Lynas” in reference to the collapsing share price and chronic debt of Lynas.
Lynas shares have crashed from a high of $2.55 to just over 5 cents, mainly because Chinese and other producers of rare earth elements have boosted production. Lynas' refinery, which cannot cover its production costs at present prices, has suffered technical problems and faces hostile and well-organised opposition from local residents.
Before last year’s AGM an environmental movement from Malaysia, Himpunan Hijau, staged a three-day occupation outside Lynas corporate headquarters in Sydney as well as a protest outside the AGM. They also presented a petition with more than a million signatures calling for the plant to close.
Protesters have also taken their objections and questions into the shareholders' meetings using share proxies. SMSL chairperson Tan Bun Teet, who went to the 2014 Lynas AGM, told Green Left Weekly that the outgoing chair of the Lynas board of management Nick Curtis was forced to apologise to shareholders for the collapse in the share price.
“This is the first time that he ever said sorry and I believe it sent an ominous message to those who had once believed in the dream that Lynas would become a great company. Yet he still insisted that it has a social licence from the local community to operate the plant.
“I told the AGM that if Lynas had started its business in Malaysia with prior consultation with the local population, had been more transparent and accountable and willing to provide the relevant information, SMSL would not have existed and I would not have to be standing there asking them questions.
“Curtis repeated his lie that I had refused to engage with them although they had extended an invitation to do so. That is not true.
I reminded them of a recent incident where the Institute of Engineers Malaysia Pahang had organised a dialogue with Lynas but my name was struck off the list of participants at the last minute at the request of the Lynas management.
“This proved that they were not sincere in wanting to engage the stakeholders, especially the organisation that represents a large section of the community here. I challenged Lynas to meet with SMSL, and experts in the field, in an open dialogue to resolve the issue once and for all.”
Tan noted that a large group of representatives of Sojitz, the Japanese corporate partner and major creditor of Lynas, was seated in the front row at the AGM.
Natalie Lowrey, a prominent Australian-based environmental and social justice campaigner, also attended the AGM with a share proxy. Lowrey, who was arrested and detained in Malaysia earlier this year along with others participating in a peaceful protest outside the refinery, told GLW:
“Lynas promised its shareholders a dream but instead they sit on a sinking ship which the captain Nick Curtis has effectively now abandoned. While Lynas CEO Amanda Lacuze pushed her company's creative accounting to try and hide the desperate financial situation the company is in, several shareholders were clearly angry.”
Lowrey said that local opposition was as strong as ever despite facing arrests, violent police and thug assaults and an unprecedented court-imposed gag order that was only recently overturned on appeal.
Lowrey added that just the day before, activists had held a meeting with the Japanese Embassy in Malaysia to present a memorandum signed by Himpunan Hijau, Suaram (a Malaysian human rights group) and the Stop Lynas Campaign in Australia to call for an end to Japanese investment and corporate partnership in the Lynas refinery.
Among other things, this memorandum noted a gross double standard in Lynas' approach to the impact of its operations on the environment in Australia and Malaysia.
Lynas mines its rare earth ore in Mount Weld, Western Australia where it has adopted a total waste water containment policy and practice in its concentration plant.
However, its refinery in Malaysia will discharge between 500 and 700 tonnes of waste water into a river that is an important mangrove habitat in Malaysia and which flows into rich fishing grounds in the South China Sea only a few kilometres away.
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Photos below of the protest at the 2014 Lynas AGM in Sydney by Peter Boyle.