Tasik Chini is a microcosm of Malaysia where environmental governance has failed, despite many efforts by civil society and some bureaucrats to save the country’s only Unesco biosphere reserve.
Tasik Chini is in the constituency of Pekan, Pahang. Its member of parliament is Najib Razak, prime minister of Malaysia. Najib has made many efforts to stop the collapse of Tasik Chini, the home of the Jakun, Najib’s voters. He has provided funds to Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) to clean up the lake.
But he has not been able to stop extractive industries like iron-ore mining, opening up of plantations and logging, close to the lake.
Obviously, Malaysia is unable to protect Tasik Chini as a Unesco biosphere reserve. When this lake, only one of two freshwater lakes in Malaysia was declared a Unesco biosphere reserve in May 2009, Malaysia agreed to peruse a programme of conservation, restoration, protection of the indigenous community living around the lake, the cultural assets and sustainable development.
Tasik Chini represents a microcosm of Malaysia where weak environmental governance, political control over natural resources and an economy still dependent on frontier development are hastening the collapse of the country’s ecosystems.
It does not matter who holds the political power in the states as both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan led states are extracting their last bastion of natural resources. Our lands, forests, rivers and lakes are being taken away for industrial development, logging, mining, plantations, dams and tourism in both Barisan and Pakatan led states in Malaysia.
Good environmental governance means transparency and accountability in decision-making processes by government, addressing corruption in land matters, forestry and mining, in protecting the rights of indigenous communities and future generations.
Malaysia is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). Articles 32 and 10, among others, assert the rights of indigenous peoples to determine their own development or use of their lands and resources and that they should not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories without their free, prior and informed consent.
In the constituency of the prime minister, the UNDRIP agreements are not being implemented.
What hope is there for indigenous communities elsewhere in the country?
Civil society, too, failed?
In the last 30 years, according to Nubi, a respected community leader and activist in Tasik Chini many non-government organisations (NGOS) and academics have visited Tasik Chini, researched and published articles and documentaries as well as launched campaigns to save the lake and the indigenous community. Adds Nubi, “Despite these efforts, the situation in Tasik Chini has become worse.”
Says Saripah also from Tasik Chini, “We are trapped. We turn left we face oil palm plantations, we turn right we face logging; we turn behind, we face mining; we turn to the lake, its dying..we are trapped without our land, forests and lake.”
Both interviews were recorded when Transparency International Malaysia and its Save Tasik Chini coalition partners joined the community at the lake on Aug 5, 2012 to launch the campaign.
At various consultations with the community since November, 2011. the Orang Asal of Tasik Chini had proposed key measures to save the lake ecosystem. These inputs together with recommendations from civil society including academics were submitted in the form of a Memorandum to Save Tasik Chini to Najib as prime minister on 10 April, 2012.
On Aug 12, 2012 TI-M and its coalition partners launched the Save Tasik Chini campaign in Subang Jaya to highlight the advanced stage of ecological damage to the lake. Between Aug 2012 and April, 2013 the government engaged with TIM, indigenous community leaders of Tasik Chini and its coalition partners to find various ways to save the lake from total collapse.
After 13 GE, Tasik Chini’s collapse accelerates
By all accounts. the decay of Tasik Chini has accelerated after the 13 general elections. I visited Tasik Chini and met with the community a few months ago. Mining, logging and plantations have increased. At a community meeting, Batin Awang Alok and others spoke of the prime minister’s visit to Tasik Chini a few weeks before 13 GE. Najib had urged the menteri besar of Pahang to address the decay of Tasik Chini!
Community leaders, further added, that TI-M had not continued with the Save Tasik Chini campaign activities with the indigenous community. In preparation for this article, I called up the TI-M office to speak to the forest governance project team on the progress at Tasik Chini. To my dismay, TI-M had not carried out activities in Tasik Chini with the community nor has it continued with the advocacy work with the prime minister or state of Pahang.
Worse still, I was shocked to learn the contracts of staff and experts of the forest governance project had not been renewed. The Save Tasik Chini campaign it seems ended. with no activities as planned and the loss of a staff team that had contributed significantly to the campaign.
Hope in PM as Asean chair in 2015?
Environment is a key area of the Roadmap for the Asean Community. 2015. Malaysia is the Chair for Asean. 2015.
Surely. Najib would not want a Save Tasik Chini campaign by Asean NGOs when Malaysia leads Asean. Najib must act now to save Malaysia’s only UNESCO Biosphere in his constituency of Pekan.
Najib must begin engaging with the right people - indigenous community at Tasik Chini, individual experts who have no interests in positions in government, globally renowned experts involved in saving lakes with track record and very importantly stop the impunity for the powerful.
JOSIE M FERNANDEZ is an Asian Public Intellectual Fellow, an environmental and social activist.