Early History of The Environmental Movement in Malaysia Up To The 1970s (Part 1 of Interviews with Dr. Hezri Adnan)

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In this series, we interview Dr. Hezri Adnan, a prominent researcher in the area of sustainable development and environmental policy, Senior Fellow at Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. This is the first in a multi-part series on Dr. Hezri’s take on the environmental movement in Malaysia.

In order to understand where Malaysia is in terms of civil society movements on environmental issues, we need to understand the historical development of events that brought us here. Dr. Hezri provides an overview of the movement, from the 1900s to the present. In this article we read about the early history up till the 1970s, and the rise of the Malaysian environmental NGOs after the Endau Rompin case.

So says Dr. Hezri:

Environmentalism in the Colonial Period

When you talk about the environmental movement, more often than not you think about the civil society side. But I think that environmentalism in Malaysia has got to be seen in a broader context, for instance, its deep historical roots in the colonial period, and the role of government in its evolution.

Did you know that our Forestry Department in the Peninsular state was established in 1901? A precursor to that was a forestry section in the Straits Settlements’ Directorate of Garden, formed in 1883. The idea that forests should be conserved for future utilization came from forestry practices in the British empire, particularly in India and Myanmar. So, the colonial leaders were just exporting the idea that the environment, or forests, should be protected. The early idea about the importance of the environment relates to the local climates and all that, and that idea came from forestry. Our first game (or wildlife) reserve was gazetted in Perak in 1902 – the Chior Wildlife Reserve.

This was way before people talked about pollution, which was a much later concern in the 50s and 60s, in frontrunner countries such as Japan and the USA. So it started with mainly “green” issues. (Note: “Green issues” are mainly conservation-based, like having protected areas, national and state parks. “Brown issues” are industrial-based, like pollution, waste management, and other things related to the industry.) This was because of the large-scale clearance of forests at that time, particularly within the Kinta Valley because of the expansion of tin-mining. A number of very environmentally aware Colonial foresters were very concerned, and said that you have to protect a tract of forests so that you still have stock for the future. Is this not environmentalism? I think it is.

NGO Movements in the 1970s

The first pollution control act, the Environmental Quality Act (EQA) was placed in 1974. It was in the same year when the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia (EPSM) was established by Gurmit Singh, as a watchdog for the EQA. The first “brown” environmental NGO was established in response to this piece of legislation. We have to see the government as part of the movement as well.

The nature lovers’ club, the Malayan Nature Society, was established much earlier, in 1940. Its membership was mainly expatriates then, but later on they also absorbed locals, who were interested in bird-watching and such activities.

The emergence of environmental NGOs was driven by land clearance in the country. The first large scale transformation of land in the 1900s was caused mostly because of rubber and tin-mining, mainly spearheaded by the colonial government and the planters who were not from this region. But the second phase of large scale land degradation, in the late 1960s and 1970s, occurred because of state (government) investments to open up land for agriculture.

Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), a major NGO at that time, established a sister organization called Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth) in 1978. That is known by some as more aggressive in its orientation and its practice as well, in opposing development projects considered environmentally damaging. They held protests in the form of logging blockades, which was not a feature of EPSM then, for instance.

That is the environmental civil society side. You have EPSM, Sahabat Alam Malaysia… and we also have to pay some respect to the consumers’ movement, even if they don’t call themselves environmental organizations, but a lot of environmental issues in the 1970s were seen from the consumerist perspective. CAP, Fomca, ERA Consumer, Consumers International… They move easily from the green issues to the brown issues, because they’ve been on the ground, and worked across sectors.

The Endau Rompin Case in 1977

And then you have a number of landmark cases of environmental conflicts. One that is often mentioned, is the Endau-Rompin case in 1977. A number of NGOs were involved in a protest against the decision of the Pahang State Government to log the Endau-Rompin forests, which had earlier on been earmarked to be a National park. It’s an interesting one because prior to that, Malaysian Nature Society (still called Malayan Nature Society at that time) was known but not that visible. But starting from the Endau Rompin case, they went around to universities and wrote in main newspapers, for instance, to get more people to participate in the campaign against logging in Endau Rompin.

Interestingly enough, it also points to the big problem – still a big problem now – of the federal-state issue. Because land, as you know, is a state matter, according to the constitution. In 1977, the state of Pahang decided to log an area which the Federal government wanted the state to reserve for wildlife protection. In fact, it had been stated in the 3rd Malaysia Plan, in 1976, that this area is very important for the country, as a corridor for wildlife. But without much qualms, the state government then decided to just issue a big license to a syndicate from Singapore and some individuals to operate there. Malaysian Nature Society, together with WWF, Malaysia Zoological Society, National Geographical Association of Malaysia, Malaysian Society of Marine Sciences, and some other organizations, placed a half-page advertisement in New Straits Times. That started a debate, an unprecedented debate in Malaysia.

And mind you, you have people from Universiti Malaya’s Social Science Department at that time, writing something as articulate as this [he reads from an article]:

“We would like to point out that the welfare of the people cannot be so easily separated from the welfare of the natural environment. Human population and the environment are linked in a complex system, so that change in any one component affects the welfare of every other component.”

This statement was made way back in 1977 by two social scientists. I think they were ahead of their time. This was in response to the statement made by the Pahang State Secretary then. He said,

“We are all lovers of nature, but when it comes to choosing between human welfare and animal survival, the state had to opt for the former.”

So, a debate started in national media. It was discussed in the parliament. It was an exceptional debate for that period in our history. And in fact, in 1978, one Umno politician or parliamentarian, proposed the federal government to sanction the state of Pahang. Of course that didn’t happen, but the federal government decided not to buy logs from the state government. This was a strong enough message, and an unprecedented one. And mind you, this was not in 2008, or 2010, when you have different governments from different political parties managing federal and state governments. This was BN versus BN.

The Endau Rompin conflict put environmental NGOs on the radar, that they are a force to be reckoned with. They’re not just a bunch of romantic birdwatchers, and all that – they also stand for something more – an environmental goal that concerns the rest of the society. And they could mobilize the society. I think 5,000 petition signatures were collected, which is a lot for that time, without the Internet. So that was the Endau Rompin, which set the scene for more organized movement, or antagonism on the part of civil society.

To be continued…In this series, we interview Dr. Hezri Adnan, a prominent researcher in the area of sustainable development and environmental policy, Senior Fellow at Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia. This is the first in a multi-part series on Dr. Hezri’s take on the environmental movement in Malaysia.

In order to understand where Malaysia is in terms of civil society movements on environmental issues, we need to understand the historical development of events that brought us here. Dr. Hezri provides an overview of the movement, from the 1900s to the present. In this article we read about the early history up till the 1970s, and the rise of the Malaysian environmental NGOs after the Endau Rompin case.

So says Dr. Hezri:

Environmentalism in the Colonial Period
When you talk about the environmental movement, more often than not you think about the civil society side. But I think that environmentalism in Malaysia has got to be seen in a broader context, for instance, its deep historical roots in the colonial period.

Did you know that our Forestry Department in the Peninsular state was established in 1901? Before that, 1896 in the Straits Settlements. The idea that forests should be conserved for future utilization came from forestry practices in the British empire, particularly in India and Myanmar. So, the colonial leaders were just exporting the idea that the environment, or forests, should be protected. The early idea about the importance of the environment relates to local climates and all that, and that idea came from forestry.

This was way before people talked about pollution, which was a much later concern in the 50s and 60s, in countries such as Japan and the USA. So it started with mainly “green” issues. (Note: “Green issues” are mainly conservation-based, like having protected areas, national and state parks. “Brown issues” are industrial-based, like pollution, waste management, and other things related to the industry.) This was because of the large-scale clearance of forests at that time, particularly at the Kinta Valley because of the expansion of tin-mining. A number of very environmentally aware foresters were very concerned, and said that you have to protect a tract of forests so that you still have stock for the future. Is this not environmentalism? I think it is.

NGO Movements in the 1970s
The first pollution control act, the Environmental Quality Act (EQA) was placed in 1974. It was end of 1974 when the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia (EPSM) was established by Gurmit Singh, as a watchdog for the EQA. The first “brown” environmental NGO was established in response to this piece of legislation. We have to see the government as part of the movement as well.

The nature lovers’ club, the Malayan Nature Society, was established much earlier, in 1940. It was mainly expatriates then, but later on they also absorbed locals, who were interested in birdwatching and such activities. The first large scale transformation of land in the 1900s was caused mostly because of rubber and tin-mining, mainly because of the colonial powers. The planters were not from this region. But the second phase of large scale land degradation, in the 1970s, occurred because of state (government) intervention.

Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), a major NGO at that time, established a sister organization called Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth). That is known by some as more aggressive in its orientation and its practice as well, in opposing development. They held protests, which is not a feature of EPSM, for instance. They don’t do blockades, for instance.

That is the civil society side. You have EPSM, Sahabat Alam Malaysia… and we also have to pay some respect to the consumers’ movement, even if they don’t call themselves environmental, but a lot of environmental issues were seen from the consumerist perspective. CAP, Fomca, ERA Consumer, Consumers International… They move easily from the green issues to the brown issues, because they’ve been on the ground.

The Endau Rompin Case in 1977
And then you have a number of landmark cases of environmental conflicts. One that is often mentioned, is the Endau-Rompin case in 1977. I interviewed a few people to prepare a paper on environmentalism in Malaysia. It’s an interesting one because prior to that, Malaysian Nature Society (still called Malayan Nature Society at that time) was known but not that visible. But starting from the Endau Rompin case, they went around to universities, for instance, to get more people to participate in the campaign against logging in Endau Rompin.

Interestingly enough, it also points to the big problem – still a big problem now – of the federal-state issue. Because land, as you know, is a state matter, according to the constitution. In 1977, the state of Pahang decided to log an area which was reserved for wildlife protection.

In fact, it had been stated in the 3rd Malaysia Plan, in 1976, that this area is very important for the country, as a corridor for wildlife. But without much qualms, the state government then decided to just issue a big license to a syndicate from Singapore and some individuals to operate there. Malaysian Nature Society, together with WWF, Malaysia Zoological Society, National Geographical Association of Malaysia, Malaysian Society of Marine Sciences, and some other organizations, placed a half-page advertisement in New Straits Times. That started a debate, an unprecedented debate in Malaysia.

And mind you, you have people from Universiti Malaya at that time, writing something as articulate as this [he reads from an article]:

“We would like to point out that the welfare of the people cannot be so easily separated from the welfare of the natural environment. Human population and the environment are linked in a complex system, so that change in any one component affects the welfare of every other component.”

Way back in 1997 by the Social Science Faculty. I think they were ahead of their time. This was in response to the statement made by the Pahang State Secretary then. He said,

“We are all lovers of nature, but when it comes to choosing between human welfare and animal survival, the state had to opt for the former.”

So, a debate started in national media, it was discussed in the parliament, big debate at that time. And in fact, in 1977 or 1978, one Umno politician or parlimentarian, suggested to sanction the state of Pahang. Of course that didn’t happen, but the federal government decided not to buy logs from the state government. Which is a strong message, it was unprecedented. And mind you, this is not in 2008, or 2010, when you have different governments from different political parties. This was BN versus BN.

That put environmental NGOs on the radar, that they are a force to be reckoned with. They’re not just a bunch of romantic birdwatchers, and all that – they also stand for something more – an environmental goal that concerns the rest of the society. And they could mobilize the society. I think 5,000 petition signatures were collected, which is a lot for that time, without the Internet. So that was the Endau Rompin, which set the scene for more organized movement, or antagonism on the part of civil society.

To be continued…

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