World

A modern-day 'gold rush' in Malaysia

Rise in bauxite mining in M'sia

Malaysian farmer Surin Beris' oil palm plantation has been razed and bulldozers are tearing into its red soil, releasing potentially hazardous dust into the environment - yet he could not be happier.

Mr Surin, 67, is reaping a windfall from a modern-day "gold rush" in Malaysia's Pahang state for the high-grade bauxite that lies in its soil.

Demand for bauxite, which is used in aluminium production, is soaring, fuelled by Chinese imports.

The boom is a "gift from Allah", said Mr Surin, who previously made about RM2,000 (S$650) monthly cultivating the plum-sized fruit that is squeezed to make palm oil.

He told AFP: "I made a million ringgit in less than six months. I thank the Almighty for being so generous."

Bauxite mining took off in Malaysia shortly after top producer Indonesia banned mineral ore exports in January last year to encourage domestic metals processing, leaving major consumers like China in a supply crunch.

Malaysia has helped filled the gap. But critics warn the mining is being done amateurishly and with little or no government attention to potential environmental harm.

Bauxite mining can release carcinogenic heavy metals such as strontium and other harmful substances, as well as low levels of radiation.

LORRIES

In Pahang, red dust swirls around the pits and along the roads on which bauxite-laden lorries rumble towards Kuantan's port on the South China Sea, where the ore is shipped to China.

Critics fear heavy metals could enter the water supply or food chain, affecting communities for years.

Environmentalists say local rivers and Kuantan's shores are frequently stained red from mining run-off, and residents complain of a rise in respiratory problems and skin rashes.

"My four-year-old granddaughter is in pain because she cannot breathe properly. We inhale dust every day," complained Mr Manap Muda, a village head near Kuantan who said authorities were turning a blind eye.

Mr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, the Malaysian natural resources and environment minister, told AFP that the mining activity worsened the water quality.

But Mr Mohamad Soffi Abdul Razak, chair of the Pahang state government's environment committee, dismissed the health and environment fears, saying authorities intend to let the good times roll.

"The bauxite rush is creating jobs. Pahang is blessed by God," he said.

Mr Surin admitted to mining without a permit, but dismisses the environmental concerns as envious fear-mongering.

Flush with cash, he sees a wealthy new era for himself, planning to eventually build and rent out homes on his cratered property.

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