Investing in Nature for a Golden Future
From a country perspective, having gold as a natural resource is a great way to further the development agenda. After all, the more gold you can trade on the international market, the more money you can make and afterwards channel towards economic and infrastructure development for the betterment of the people as a whole.
Yet gold, as essential as it is thought to be for economic development, has great repercussions for another essential commodity – nature.
The Gold Mining Project in Tawau is one such project that sparks the discussion of whether economic development in this case trumps environmental conservation. Is the economic benefit that gold offers here enough to offset the devastating environmental and health impacts that it might have in Tawau?
Tawau Gold Mining
In 2013, the previous State Government excised parts of the Class 1 Forest Reserves of Ulu Kalumpang and Mount Wullersdorf under Section 57 of the Land Ordinance Cap 68 and Section 16 of the Mining Ordinance No. 22 of 1960. The Proposed Gold Mining Project, divided into two phases, encompasses approximately 1,000 hectares of land area.
The Special Environment Impact Assessment (SEIA) report launched in 2016 for the Project claimed that the income to be generated from this proposed Project is estimated to be approximately RM600 million a year of which RM400 million will be contributed annually to the government and people, particularly to the locals in Tawau and the nearby districts of Semporna and Kunak.
In addition, the Project is expected to generate long-term income for the State Government through royalty payments. The Proposed Gold Mining (Phase 1) at Mt. Wullersdorf, Tawau, Sabah was approved in 2017.
While the income potentially generated from gold is definitely vital, it also important to examine what its impact means to nature and people.
Two rivers are potentially affected through this project – the Mantri River originating from Tawau Hills Park and the main Kalumpang River. In general, rivers not only serve as sources of water for both humans and wildlife, but also as irrigation for food crops.
More uncommonly known, these rivers play an essential role in the lives of the residents of Tawau. The water from both Kalumpang and Mantri Rivers ultimately feed into the water source of the Tawau people as the Kunak Water Treatment Plant is a mere 7.5 km from the site.
Devastating Environmental Impact of Gold Mining
While extracted gold is no doubt a valuable commodity, the process of extraction – by way of mining – is extremely harmful to the environment and can have lasting negative impact for society as a whole.
In order to extract and recover gold through the mining process, practices such as open pit mining and cyanide heap leaching are used. These processes destroy landscapes and create huge amounts of toxic waste. According to Earthworks, mining just one ounce of gold from ore can result in 20 tons of solid waste and significant mercury and cyanide contamination.
From a health perspective, gold mining’s biggest concern is cyanide contamination. Cyanide is traditionally used in mining to recover gold, could cause high levels of pollution in the nearby rivers – in this case, the Mantri and Kalumpang river. When ingested, cyanide is an extremely harmful substance for humans. Only 2% of cyanide in a teaspoon of water is enough to kill. This is because cyanide blocks cells from absorbing oxygen, eventually causing the death of tissues.
So detrimental is cyanide that the European Parliament has called for a complete ban on the use of cyanide mining technologies. This ban seeks to protect water resources and ecosystems from cyanide pollution.
Mining also involves moving large amounts of soils and rocks. This inevitably destroys the land in the area and with it, the habitat of a variety of wildlife inhabiting the land. The forests reserves of Ulu Kalumpang and Mount Wullersdorf are home to unique species including the Bornean gibbons, Bornean orangutans, and the sun bears who frequent these rivers as their source of water. Cyanide contamination in these waters will no doubt threaten the viability of an already declining group of wildlife.
Let’s not forget the Case of Mamut
Cyanide in mining is not yet banned here and Sabah already has a dangerous large-scale mining precedent. It is important that we learn from the Mamut experience as we consider gold mining.
The Mamut Copper Mine (MCM) was operational between 1975 and 1999. During this period, its open-cast mine generated a large amount of waste – over 250 metric tons of overburden and waste rocks and approximately 100 metric tons of tailings. These wastes were dumped at various sites near the mine pit. Tailings were deposited at the Lohan Tailing Dam (LTD), some 1,000 meters below the mine.
Mamut created many environmental issues during the 24 years that it was in operation. Chief among those is the pollution of water – the rivers around Mamut became dirty and was of poor quality – eroding the health of the river ecosystem and affecting those who utilised it.
However, Mamut’s most apparent problem was Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), producing acidic runoff. Today, some 20 years after the closure of the Mamut Copper Mine, the Bambangan River is now thought to be the most adversely affected, with a consistently high acidity of pH4.5 and an elevated concentration of dissolved metals.
The government has already allocated RM13 million to begin rehabilitation efforts at Mamut, but it will be years before the area is safe again. It is also estimated that the overall cost of rehabilitation will reach an upwards of RM200 million.
If things go wrong with gold mining involving cyanide, are we then willing to subject our future generations to pay the price for this devastation?
Sustainable Development and Good Governance
Development, though important for progress, should be sustainable, and not at the expense of the environment. Malaysia affirms the concept of sustainable development through the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as well as through the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012. This commitment to sustainability is further strengthened through Malaysia’s adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.
In line with this, it is of the utmost importance that the state government practice good governance when considering the implementation of development projects.
The Tawau Mining project was approved before an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out. The Forest Reserves were quietly excised in 2013, when the prospecting licenses were issued. This excision already suggests that the project would go forth with or without an EIA.
A project should not be approved before an EIA is conducted. The EIA is an important tool in assessing the severity of the environmental impact a project has. It provides guidance on whether a project should or should not proceed. If it is to proceed, the EIA will be able to suggest the mitigation that is required.
The EIA should not be regarded as mere formalities. When used wisely, the EIA will provide valuable input for decision makers to decide whether or not the economic return is worth the complete destruction of good forest and one that we will never get back.
“We strongly urge the government to reconsider The Tawau Gold Mining Project. The concerns for this project go beyond just nature conservation. The devastating impact that the Tawau Gold Mining Project has will not only risk the people’s quality of life, but their lives as a whole,” said WWF-Malaysia’s Conservation Director Dr Henry Chan.
“We also echo the Sabah Environmental Protection Association (SEPA) and the Task Force Against Kaiduan Dam (Takad)’s call to review the EIA. A relook into the current EIA process to remedy any existing gaps is essential so that the EIA can stay as an effective tool,” he further added.
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For more information, please contact:
Elaine Clara Mah
Tel: +6088 262 420 Ext. 121