On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Sprouting of overnight greenies

Housing developers, loggers, plantation owners and local authorities have found themselves subjected to greater scrutiny. This writer, being the group chief editor of this newspaper, has had to take angry calls from both sides of the political divide when these politicians deem certain news reports as being negative to them.

Instead of confronting the problems, some preferred to resort to political attacks with the hope of diverting the issue. Some hoped these problems would blow away while others simply accused the messenger of having an agenda.

When this newspaper highlighted the excessive hill development issue in Penang, we were accused by the DAP-led state government of having an agenda. Yet, when a public forum was held, the 500-odd people present passed a resolution asking for a halt to such hill cutting.

It was convenient to accuse us of selective coverage but our records over the years show otherwise.

In recent weeks, we prominently highlighted such stories, which include the destruction at Bukit Kiara in Kuala Lumpur, Tasik Chini in Pahang, attempts to alter the landscape at the Taiping Lake in Perak and the effects of forest clearance to the green corridor in Johor.

Last week, we front-paged the logging activities in a forest reserve in Mersing, Johor. We never spared on reporting the Johor authorities for failing to stop illegal sand smuggling. To put it bluntly, all these incidents are under the Barisan Nasional.

In Perak, we put on the cover the story about uncontrolled exports of limestone. Likewise, we also highlighted the logging near the water catchment area in Kedah, a PAS-controlled state. Going back further, we fought for the Belum and Endau-Rompin forests to be saved – at a time when standing up for such a cause was not fashionable.

But politicians, realising the increasing emotional impact of environment issues on middle-class Malaysian voters, have jumped onto the bandwagon. Last week, the same politicians – who accuse the media of having an agenda when they are questioned over an environment issue on their own turf – will travel to Bukit Koman, Pahang.

Many of these protesters would be brought in from outside to join a protest over the use of cyanide at a gold mine. The irony is that there has been no evidence of medical problems, and this has even been admitted by the NGO involved.

DAP vice-chairman Dr Tan Seng Giaw, a dermatologist, has said it is difficult to prove the link between skin problems suffered by some villagers to gold mining activities in the area.

The MP visited Bukit Koman last Tuesday upon the invitation of the Pahang Raub Ban Cyanide Action Committee. He examined about 20 villagers and advised some of those with more serious problems to seek treatment from a skin specialist. But in the news report, he also said the skin problem could be due to many causes, including hereditary.

Even the committee’s vice-chairman Shirley Hue reportedly told Malay Mail that they do not have any concrete evidence to prove that people became ill due to the cyanide used to process the gold at the mine.

So the protest is more political than about the environment. If anyone should be protesting loudly, it should be the villagers from Bukit Koman and those living in the surrounding areas in Raub.

This writer does not profess to be an expert in gold mining but we do know that “gold cyanidation” or “cyanide leach mining” is one of the more common ways used to extract gold from the surrounding rock.

As with all processes involving the use of lethal chemicals, there are health and environmental risks involved but there is still no conclusive evidence to settle the debate once and for all.

The Health Ministry has been monitoring the situation in Bukit Koman for years. The state health department conducts regular checks on the ground and have sent mobile clinics to the Bukit Koman village.

Officers from the ministry have even met with members of the action committee, who have claimed that they have on record 383 people who have skin problems due to cyanide.

The ministry, which has met the committee twice in the past two months, has repeatedly requested for the names of the affected so that tests could be done to help them. To date, however, there has been no response.

How can the ministry do its job when the committee, which alleges that hundreds are sick because of cyanide, is not able or willing to provide even one name to the authorities? How are the doctors supposed to do their job when the patients do not show up?

The action committee also claimed that its panel of experts has shown the link between cyanide and skin problems. The ministry then suggested that a joint committee be set up with experts from both sides to investigate the matter further. Again, nothing has come from the action committee’s side.

Signs are emerging that politics and money could be the real motive for the protest. Some grassroots leaders have purportedly talked of wanting a stake in the gold mining company while others see this as an issue to topple the Barisan Nasional in the coming general election.

The ministry has affirmed that even if the slightest evidence is found to support the action committee’s claims, the gold mine will be shut down. But no one has come out with any strong and clear proof and what we have swirling around Bukit Koman are mere suspicion and political rhetoric.

It would not be wrong to suggest that not everyone is really concerned about the health of the people in Raub. Many are more concerned about the political mileage this sort of protest brings.

Some of these politicians have enough environment issues in their own backyard. They should stop pretending to be overnight greenies when their record of speaking up on environment issues is near zero.

Logic and reason no longer seem important in a politically-divided Malaysia these days. Nobody cares about evidence when there are political points to be scored.