The residents of Bukit Koman in Raub are suffering from health problems, which they blamed on a nearby gold mine.
The little village of Bukit Koman in Raub, Pahang, is the sort of place where people stop to have conversations with each other. Watching from the sidelines of a small, clean and airy coffeeshop, a man stops by a sundry store for a loaf of bread and stays for the length of time it takes to smoke a cigarette and then some.
The people here are a vociferous lot, but good-naturedly so, calling out to each other from across the street, inquiring mostly after each other’s health. It is a grudgingly cliched picturesque place, which, in better times, would look perfect on touristy pamphlets.
But there are no souvenirs to take home save for watery, itching eyes, a throat that feels sorely scratched and lungs that labour to breathe, courtesy of the Raub Australian Gold Mining Sdn Bhd (RAGM) company. This is an Erin Brokovich-type story – art imitating life, minus the glamour and trappings of a Hollywood production.
A recent survey done by Bukit Koman villagers revealed that 78.1% of the residents in surrounding areas were suffering health problems, which is believed to be related to cyanide used in RAGM.
Woon Soon Fatt, a 36-year-old mechanic, has been suffering from a skin condition over the last two and half years. His forearms are dotted red with angry-looking welts and there are scabs from where he has scratched too hard. For Woon, the misery began in 2009 when RAGM started operation. Suffering also, in varying degrees, are his wife and four children aged 15, 13, seven and five.
His youngest child is in bed with fever for the second time this week and his third bears the worst brunt of the affliction.
Woon says that sometime this April, six health officers, mostly nurses, paid Bukit Koman a visit to check on the condition of the villagers who were advised to go to the Raub Hospital for treatment. A specialist who met with Woon told him that the abrasions were the cause of an allergic reaction to soap and certain foods.
“I told him that I had been using the same soap for years and eating the same food without any undue reaction until the mine began operations. The doctor was adamant and insisted that I change the soap I was using and refrain from eating certain foods. I complied, but the condition has persisted and if anything, had become very bad,” he says.
‘I’m scared of cyanide’
To make matters worse, Woon says he has been experiencing headaches, dizziness, watery eyes, and extreme lethargy.
“I used to be able to work throughout the day, stopping for a lunch break. But now I find that I have to take a nap because I am extremely tired by mid-day. Today, my head is pounding but I have to get to work because I have five other mouths to feed.
“I’m not scared of hard work and pushing myself, but I am scared of the cyanide. I can protect my family from many things, but I cannot protect them from the poison that is coming out from the mine,” he says.
When asked if he would consider moving to a nearby town, Woon gives out a hollow laugh and says he wants to but finances don’t allow it.
The irony for Woon and family lay in the fact that to escape the air in Bukit Koman, they occasionally make trips to Kuala Lumpur where he says the air is so much cleaner.
Even the plants at Woon’s house are not spared. Even with daily watering and care, they still turn brown and yellow, most of them dying.
“I plant my own vegetables,” Woon says, pointing towards some yellowing leaves, “but I am afraid to eat them. I implore those responsible to close the mine and let us get healthy again.”
This is a plea echoed by 45-year-old Wong Yee Chong who worked in the plant some two years ago when the containment tanks for the mine were being built.
Wong says that promptly at 9pm, workers would place what he believes to be cyanide pellets in these mammoth tanks that average three stories in height and 20 feet in width.
Wong, who is a Bukit Koman resident, says that his skin condition began four months ago, which was also diagnosed as an allergic reaction.
“I had come home one afternoon, ate nothing unusual and then the next day I began to see these red spots on my body,” he says, lifting his shirt to show the red bumps not unlike mosquito bites.
“It gets even worse when I sweat and when I get caught in the rain, my skin flares up very badly. The only medicine I was given were some anti-histamines to stop the itch. This brings me temporary relief. I am grateful that my wife and children are spared, but I don’t know for how much longer this will last,” he adds.
This cannot be said for 42-year-old Chong Ngik Chin who looks on wistfully at every passing motocycle she sees. This is something she used to be able to do but not anymore since her exposure to the fumes has led to gnarled hands and feet.
Once a saleperson at a supermarket, Chong now is now jobless, living with her brother in a house which is directly opposite the RAGM plant.
It was in 2009 that she realised she had a skin problem. It would turn flaky, peeling, leaving wet bleeding sores on her arms and legs. A couple of months after this, shortness of breath followed and she began to experience stiffening in her joints, mostly in her hands and feet.
“I went to a doctor who told me that I had psoriasis and arthiritis. I was very active before, riding my motorcycle, going to work, lifting things. Now,” she pauses for breath, “I can’t even lift a finger.”
Chong’s condition is so severe that there are days when she is unable to get out of bed. When she does, it’s mostly to the nearby coffeeshop to buy lunch. The distance between the two is roughly 500 metres. What would take an average person no more than 10 minutes to walk the distance, Chong completes this in an agonising 30 minutes, sometime more with the aid of an umbrella which doubles up as a walking cane.
It is heartbreaking taking photographs of her hands and feet. She tries to undo the cuff buttons of the peppermint green long-sleeved shirt she’s wearing, but apologises when the effort proves futile.
“I can’t do so many things on my own. I can’t even do my gardening anymore and I really miss this. I miss a lot of things,” she says. At that moment, a woman rides up with her motorcycle and Chong looks away abruptly.
Bukit Koman is in danger not only from the chemical exposure but also from being forgotten. There is a good chance that after a visit, some might walk away with watery red eyes; partially from the RAGM factory, but mostly from seeing how a small group of people are fighting the good fight, at the expense of their health and the basic right to live.