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‘How did a forest farm become a durian plantation?’ Transparency of Malaysia’s EIAs under scrutiny

Controversy surrounding a durian farm in northern Malaysia, which has been linked to deadly floods, has reignited calls from environmentalists for greater transparency into Malaysia’s environmental impact assessments.

Tekai River forest cover loss
An aerial view of the suspected constructed site of a dam in the Tekai river area, in which the pink areas show forest loss after 2014 based on Global Forest Watch data. The patterns of forest loss match original proposed plans from 1982 for a dam, says Rimba Disclosure. Image: Rimba Disclosure Project

Controversy surrounding a durian farm in the northern Malaysian state of Kedah, which has been linked to disastrous floods in the surrounding area, has sparked renewed calls for greater transparency into Malaysia’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) process.

“The plantation in Baling which has been linked to deadly flooding received EIA approval, and the public deserves to know who was responsible for greenlighting that project,” Rimba Disclosure Project (RDP), an independent forest monitoring initiative, told Eco-Business.

Approved in July 2013, the EIA for the 52-hectare mountain-top plantation had specifications that did not factor in durian planting. Hybrid durian trees, like that of the Musang King species, also known as Mao Shan Wang to Chinese locals, were not supposed to be at the site, according to Malaysia’s Department of Environment, yet the project went ahead anyway. An investigation led by the Energy and Natural Resources Ministry is underway. 

RDP, however, charged that the EIA process needs to be looked into. “For maximum accountability, the Department of Environment should improve transparency on the internal processes surrounding EIA approvals, and list down which committee and/or individuals are involved in EIA approvals,” said the group.

Data on EIAs are essential for us to monitor projects, such as logging and land reclamation, mining and quarrying, infrastructure and others. These projects are of public interest as they may potentially involve environmental destruction, impacts on communities, exacerbate climate change and have exposure to corruption.

Joint statement by Malaysia’s civil society organisations and environmentalists

On 4 July, 12 villages in the town of Kupang, which is in Baling district, were inundated with the worst floods on record, killing three people and displacing more than 1,400 others. More than 800 houses were affected, with 16 houses being swept away and 18 others destroyed, according to local reports.

RDP has been at the forefront of a list of Malaysian civil society organisations and activists that are calling on authorities to increase transparency surrounding EIAs, making data on EIAs transparent and freely available on the internet with immediate effect. 

In a statement published 7 July which was endorsed by 53 civil society organisations and four individual environmental activists, RDP called on the authorities to update its online database on a daily basis and ensure that its public databases include historical EIAs dating back at least 10 years.

“Previously, the Department of Environment had an EIA portal available on their website. While this portal had many limitations in terms of the availability of data, in February 2022 the department redesigned their website and this portal, the only government database on new EIA submissions and approvals has now disappeared, and replaced by a new database on the website,” the statement said.

This new database has been deemed inadequate as it does not appear to be regularly updated or maintained, it added. A check by Eco-Business on 27 July revealed that the latest EIA was posted nearly a month ago on 23 June. 11 EIAs had been posted since February 2022.

“A number of EIAs appear to be missing from this database, based on a cross-check with RDP’s own data,” RDP said. The group maintains a publicly accessible EIA database on their website, which draws on information from the Department of Environment, other web-based sources, and data sent to them by the public.

One such project for which the EIA remains unpublished is the Tekai hydroelectric project in Ulu Tembeling, Pahang, according to RDP. The group conducted an investigation into the area following “suspicious patterns of forest loss”, and found that Global Forest Watch data appeared to indicate that a dam was being built.

“We were not even initially aware that a massive dam had been approved in the forests of Ulu Tembeling. Evidence of an EIA could only be found online when this was listed in the curriculum vitaes of the consultants involved,” RDP said, adding that the lack of transparency is inconsistent with the Department of Energy’s own set of EIA guidelines updated in 2016. 

What should be made public?

According to the EIA guidelines, the Executive Summary of all EIAs conducted, at the very least, are required to be displayed online. Public participation and public display of the reports, however, are only required for activities which fall under the Second Schedule, which are larger scale activities typically covering land areas of 500 hectares or more, depending on the activity’s sector.

“The soft copy version of the Executive Summary shall be submitted to the Department of Environment together with the soft copy of the full EIA Report. The softcopy will be uploaded to the Enviro Knowledge Management Centre (EKMC) and website of the department for public display,” the guidelines stated.

At the time of writing, Eco-Business was not able to access the EKMC via the link posted on the Department of Environment’s website, although a search revealed that the centre’s website was live via a different link and contains executive summaries of the listed EIAs. Questions sent to the Department of Environment by Eco-Business were still pending response at the time of publication.

Civil society organisations including RDP have called for all First Schedule and Second Schedule reports to be made publicly available in full and downloadable online.

“Data on EIAs are essential for us to monitor projects, such as logging and land reclamation, mining and quarrying, infrastructure, and others. These projects are of public interest as they may potentially involve environmental destruction, impacts on communities, exacerbate climate change and have exposure to corruption,” the statement reads.

RDP highlighted to Eco-Business that Second Schedule EIAs are typically only made available on the Department of Energy’s website during the public consultation period, during which members of the public can make objections to the EIA via a Google Forms link, after which the full report is often removed.

“By right, all EIAs should be available in full on the internet, and the public should have a chance to object to both First and Second Schedule EIAs,” RDP said.

EIAs in Malaysia, similar to practices in neighbouring Singapore, are often made available for public viewing only in physical offices. This method of public access is inadequate, RDP argues, especially since offices may restrict access to and photography of EIAs.

“This lack of transparency makes it very difficult for non-governmental organisations and the public to act as check and balance to the environmental regulators, as we are left in the dark about what projects have been approved and are being planned in sensitive areas,” the group said in its statement endorsed by other Malaysian civil society organisations.

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