From Peter Leong
In Part 1, we looked at how quarrying within permanent forest reserves (PFRs) became Selangor’s “accidental cash cow”.
Six quarries within the Bukit Lagong forest reserve (BLFR) became top earners following the 2010 logging moratorium, spawning a new forest revenue strategy and leading to 28% of the BLFR being apparently designated as an “exclusive quarry zone”.
In Part 2, we will examine BLFR’s treasure trove of biodiversity and its intrinsic ecosystem values, the quarrying-impacted communities (in particular the Orang Asli) and why the state government should stop allowing forest quarrying to be the “easy prey” of the rock-based industries sector.
BLFR’s quarry belt, plus swathes of clearings bordering the forest reserve, form an arc along the KL-Kuala Selangor Expressway (Latar) from Rawang to Kuang and then eastwards, touching the forest reserve’s only smallish sector of virgin PFR.
BLFR is a biodiversity haven and consists predominantly intact, high quality primary forest which has not seen degradation from before 1985, despite having been mostly classified as production (sustained yield timber) forest through to the onset of the moratorium.
It boasts an impressive array of wildlife species rivalling the forests of the 93,000ha Selangor State Park (beginning “across the road” at Templer Park).
The quarrying-affected parts of Sungai Buloh, Kuang and Rawang have over the years attained some semblance of a stable, perhaps even “bearable”, equilibrium.
New quarries would see new access routes that spread their dust, noise and runoff to a new set of receptors, upsetting that equilibrium and striking deep into the heart of the high quality primary forest.
Residents of the two closest Orang Asli villages – Kampung Hulu Kuang and Kampung Sungai Buloh, both within a kilometre of existing operational quarries – get clean water from streams flowing down from where the future quarries would be. The sound of rock blasting happening daily like clockwork is a constant reminder.
While the leaked plans for quarrying in BLFR appear to show “buffer zones”, they fail to address many key concerns such as native rights for forest use/cultivation, ancestral lands and, above all, the sanctity of clean water sources – key components of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to which Malaysia is a signatory.
The Kuang Orang Asli community has already voiced out to the media their fears and concerns, not just for themselves but for their future generations.
Time to re-think quarrying in forest reserves
Rawang, at the northern edge of BLFR, is home to Malaysia’s first industrial-scale cement plant which opened in 1953 and is still in operation. Supply chain infrastructure, much of it railways-based, sprouted up to connect Rawang, Kuang and Batu Caves, making the cement and aggregates sector ubiquitous in the area’s industrial landscape.
Similar expansions followed. In Rawang alone, cement production capacity grew 10-fold and more. What is most disconcerting, though, is how this has encouraged a mindset of wantonly pushing along “lines of least resistance”, of which quarrying forest reserves is a prime example.
Selangor tops all states in having the largest economy by GDP. It is also typically at or near the top of the “overhang” (unsold properties) statistics across all categories, with property development running much ahead of actual demand on forward assumptions of migratory and investment influx.
Seen in this context, a policy reform on quarrying should be a component of a wider rebalancing of development strategies, something we rightly expect the state’s economic planners to be already seriously considering with a view to affecting, for example, land use, sectoral and environmental policies.
Meanwhile, the quarry industry’s primary concern in the social sphere seems to be in mitigating “negative public perception” and working around the NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitudes of “mainstream” communities.
This lack of articulation by both government and industry mirrors the wider malaise on sustainability issues facing the extractive industries. We see this industry exhorting such goals as energy efficiency and workforce safety but not on how much and where extraction should (or should not) occur.
Moving away from the line of least resistance
The truth is that there are always rock deposits available outside PFRs, and that Selangor, if it so chooses, can refocus itself on “proper” quarrying instead of pandering to the quarrying industry’s desire for “getting milk without buying or owning any cows”.
The issuing of PFR quarry licences is almost always at the expense of the relatively “voiceless” indigenous peoples – another pathway of least resistance which spares the townspeople in their NIMBY comfort zones.
In the long term, it may also contribute towards making “softer targets” for the quarrying industry, excusing them from investing in best-in-class, environmentally sound technologies.
Compliance cost impacts the market prices of construction aggregates, and so it should. The bulk of Selangor’s rock supplies are presently from “proper” quarries anyway, so why not all quarries be proper? The price should be the price, let market forces decide it. This is the only pathway to economic and environmental sustainability.
Without knowing much of quarry economics, I would expect a Selangor policy decision to stop all forest reserve quarrying to only cause some smaller profits to be seen in the annual reports of a few public-listed operators, and nothing too impactful for the economy as a whole. That’s quite OK, isn’t it?
There appears to be a dearth of contemporary government policy discourse and industry think-tanking on the question of what “sustainability” should mean for the quarrying industry (and, for that matter, sand mining, too, which is another story in its own right).
Only state government resolve in setting regulatory boundaries (such as “no more additional quarrying of PFR, and all existing forest quarrying to stop by year 20xx”) can create the impetus for the industry to coalesce around new business/operating models that can deliver “sustainable rock supply at an acceptable cost”.
As the nation’s most developed state, Selangor has the opportunity to shape policy for what will undoubtedly become a major national issue in the long term.
Peter Leong is a committee member of Kota Damansara Community Forest Society.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.