UNTIL recently, Kuala Juru was a typical fishing village in the northern part of Peninsular Malaysia. Isolated at the mouth of the Juru River, far from the country’s highways, the village carried on a life it had known for over a hundred years.
The 300 residents lived in wooden houses propped up on stilts; their catch of fish, lobster, prawns, crabs and other water creatures in turn propped up their simple village economy. As fishermen they used the traditional methods of net and sampan (rowing boat) and applied skills passed down through the generations.
Then in 1968 progress caught up with Kuala Juru. A bridge was built further up river to accommodate increased road traffic to a recently-built industrial estate. The bridge was effectively a dam that redirected— and consequently slowed down — the flow of the river. Slow-moving water caused silting, so the river soon dropped from 25 feet to seven feet at its lower stretches. The Jeru and its estuary became too shallow to sustain normal fish life and in fact became unnavigable at low tide.
The nearby Prai Estate factories produced various goods ranging from textiles and roof tiles to oil extracts and agricultural chemicals. Most of the factory wastes went straight into the river. The water’s surface was soon a floating mass of foul-smelling, multicoloured effluents. the few remaining fish swam at the surface as if drugged or drunk.
Daily fish catch dwindled. Incomes plunged from as high as $160 a month to $40. The village sundry shop lost business as even basic necessities became too expensive.
The misfortune of Kuala Jurn is not unique. Industrialisation and modernisation have sparked environmental problems everywhere in Malaysia — from city dwellers and villagers to the most simple communities deep in the forests.
Kuala Kedah, a rice farming district, was severely stricken with air and water poisoning from a pesticide factory. The ‘padi’ became diseased, together with coconuts and bananas. Poultry died. Villagers had sores on their bodies after using the nearby stream for washing.
Another hard-hit group are Malaysia’s cattle-rearers who sell fresh milk on their bicycles and motorcycles. As modern development seeps into the furthest corners of the country, urban planners cordon off open land and the cattle-rearers lose their grazing land. In Penang the new international airport forced cattle-rearers to resettle where grassland and water are scarce. Hungry cows chew patches of grass along the roads causing traffic problems which have landed many cattle-rearers into jail.
Says Satpal Singh, an affected cattle-rearer, ‘My monthly earnings are down to $45 compared to $200 before being resettled two years ago. My cattle have had no access to water. I have applied to install water pipes, but the government is not responsive at all.’ In Penang, a spectacular $350 million bridge linking the island with the mainland will also bring a highway along the eastern shore of the island to cater for the increased traffic. The ten-mile highway project now threatens the livelihood of 50,000 people who live or work in the area Among these are 2,000-3,000 workers in ten small boatyards whose land is being expropriated for the new road. Several fishing communities will also be destroyed.
In the cities, the side effects of industrialisation affect shop-floor workers most severely. Three to four hundred of Malaysia’s 200,000 industrial workers die on the job yearly. Another 13,000 are disabled.
Slow, sometimes unrecognisable, killers are decidedly more sinister: poisonous chemicals, gases, dusts and excessive heat, noise and vibrations.
Malayawata Steel Mill in Prai Industrial Estate is jointly owned by the government and Japan’s Nippon Steel Corporation. Workers here wrap up their heads in towels to try to escape black smoke and iron dust from the furnace. A study was recently conducted by the Science University at Penang on 88 Malayawata workers. It revealed a high incidence of gastrointestinal problems related to heavy metal poisoning, heat-related ailments such as kidney stone, muscle-cramps, fatigue and hypertension.
Diamond Shamrock Corporation, an American company in Malaysia’s booming capital Kuala Lumpur, makes herbicides from arsenic which is imported from Sweden. Studies by the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration show that workers in such factories are three times more likely to develop lung cancer— many after less than 12 months on the job.
In the US, the arsenic is moved automatically by a screened-off conveyor into a vat. At Diamond Shamrock, masked workers personally dump the arsenic. It doesn’t seem strange then that workers complain of skin rashes, dizziness, nausea, diarrhoea and chest pains.
Life in Malaysia’s dense tropical forests is suddenly changing with the country’s incredible rate of logging, Even Malaysian Premier Dr. Mahathir Mohammad admits the 130-million year old jungle could be completely depleted of timber in just eight years if logging persists at the current million-acre-a-year rate.
The seemingly simple act of logging has serious side effects in the tropics — including soil erosion, silting of rivers, flooding and crop and property damage.
Elephantine projects also intrude into the usually peaceful life of the jungles. A massive hydroelectric dam in the Taman Negara National Park will submerge 130 sq km of the Park’s lowland areas which are famous for their flora and fauna Friends of the Earth Malaysia aims to prevent the displacement of 2,000 — 5,000 people in native villages both along the rivers and in the deep jungle.
Frequently huge development projects adversely affect the very people in whose name they are proudly launched. Indeed, Malaysia’s five-year development plans have never ceased to stress the importance of eliminating poverty and creating an equal society.
But the environmental impact of many projects and politics is simply ignored in the development equations of bureaucrats.
All too often no proper studies are done to weigh the costs and benefits of a project A bridge linking Penang island to the mainland will really benefit only the privileged owners of motor-vehicles. The victims are those whose occupations or homes come in the way and whose uprooting becomes a necessary ‘cost’ of development.
Encik Osman, 65, is a fisherman due to be resettled when the bridge is built, Clad in his traditional sarong, he looks fondly at his allap house and out towards the nearby sea:
‘This house was handed to me by my father. I was born and have always lived here. I have been a fisherman for over 50 years. It’s the only thing I do well. What am Ito do now.
Most development projects that clash with the environment are part and parcel of the overall strategy to increase exports and GNP. Production is indiscriminate, emphasising quantity not quality. The goal is to provide a climate hot enough to attract foreign investment but cool enough to prevent the workforce from demanding too much pay or safe working conditions.
The compensation for the victims of progress, if such compensation can be quantifed at all, rarely makes up for the loss. Says cattle-rearer Satpal Singh: ‘The government took our place and gave us a house one mile from the airport. But without water or electricity how can I feed my cows 100 gallons of water per day. What good is a place to stay, if our cows have no grazing land?’
Bakar bin Din, a padi farmer in Kuala Kedah, remarks, ‘The authorities treated us like footballs to be passed from one department to another. Some of us got compensation not related to losses suffered. Some didn’t get a cent. Anyway, the pesticide factory is still giving off pollution. It has come to stay.’
Big prestige projects like the Penang Bridge are in reality white elephants conjured up to provide glamour or else to give psychological cover to an insecure government seeking visible symbols of progress.
For a developing nation still plagued by poverty and inequality, it is ironic that Malaysia’s development strategies seem based more on luxury projects and prestige, rather than the basic needs of the people —including the simple need for a good clean environment.