Why is Malaysia allowing forest-destroying mining to take place in a forest reserve?

In the Dabong district of the Jentiang forest reserve area, which is home to rare wildlife and flora, plans are afoot for a gold mining project spanning nearly 200ha – about the size of 185 football fields.


One of the beautiful waterfalls found at Gunung Stong State Park in Kelantan. A park in which environmentally destructive mining will be allowed to take place. PHOTO: 123RF/ THE STAR

October 9, 2023

KUALA LUMPUR – Deep in the Kelantan hinterland, by the small town of Dabong, are pristine forests, majestic mountains, cascading waterfalls and mysterious caves, as well as rare wildlife and flora such as the giant Rafflesia. Here you can find Gunung Stong State Park, cited as one of the country’s top ecotourism destinations for its natural beauty, with its lofty peaks and seven-tier waterfall with a 990m drop.

Not far from this vicinity, in the Dabong district of the Jentiang forest reserve area, plans are afoot for a gold mining project spanning nearly 200ha – about the size of 185 football fields. News about the project surfaced last month when its environmental impact assessment (EIA) was released for public viewing by the Department of Environment.

The idea of disrupting this pristine forest area with mining – which bears a heavy environmental impact – is deplorable.

The EIA report reveals more. Long before the report was done and proper approvals secured, activities were already being undertaken for the project, which is led by a firm with links to official state figures. In September 2020, a field inspection found exploration activities had already begun, although adequate monitoring of the mining site had not been done.

The EIA warns that gold mining activities will impact the forest reserve’s rare wildlife. Many endangered species in this unspoilt area – such as the Sunda pangolin, Malayan tapir, Malayan sun bear, and rhinoceros hornbill – are threatened.

Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) president Meenakshi Raman points out: “How can gold mining be allowed in a permanent reserve forest? Mining is not a forest product under the National Forestry Act.

“Questions abound that require further investigation. What is most appalling of course is [activities] already proceeding without EIA approval! This is breaking the law.” 

Alarmingly, all of this is not exceptional; rather, the project follows a series of other controversial mining projects in forest reserves, alongside EIAs with dire warnings.

In 2021, the EIA for a manganese mining project near Gua Musang, also in Kelantan, warned it could cause water pollution and impact local communities, and threaten the habitat of 105 protected species, with some potential “irreversible impact”. SAM echoed concerns over water pollution, noting the Lebir water treatment plant was just 1km downstream from the project site.

The 2021 EIA for a project in Pahang’s Jerantut area to mine iron ore warned of ecosystem disruptions in the country’s Central Forest Spine (CFS), an important backbone for conservation that links fragmented forests together.

Also sited on the CFS was a project to mine tin in Kerunai, Hulu Perak, which is in a water catchment area where tributary rivers flow into Sungai Perak, the potable water source for 45% of the state. Another project in Kenering, Perak, was a rare earth (lanthanide) mining project in the CFS and one of the country’s largest and oldest continuous forests.

Last year, NGOs urged state governments to ban mining in permanent reserve forests and environmentally-sensitive areas such as the CFS, which Meenakshi says should be a “no-go zone” for activities such as mining.

Why are our forests so vulnerable? Aren’t there national policies to protect them?

Some policies do exist. But our Federal Constitution gives state governments authority over land and forests, which are prized assets for revenue. A mentri besar can decide to excise part of a permanent reserve forest (yes, it’s not really “permanent”) and convert it for other uses, such as mining.

This opaque process in the hands of a few local officials does not bode well for protecting forests. Some say that some projects are actually a pretext for lucrative logging.

Accurate data on deforestation is tricky – monoculture plantations such as oil palm are included in “forest cover”, conflicting with calls to count only “natural forests”. Clearly though, substantial forest loss continues – in 2013, satellite images developed with Google showed Malaysia had the world’s highest rate of forest loss between 2000 and 2012, amounting to an area larger than Den-mark. Further, a study by the NGO RimbaWatch found that 2.3 million hectares – an area 100 times the size of Kuala Lumpur – has been set aside for future deforestation.

SAM has called for increased federal funding for states to preserve forests, including by tapping international funds for climate change and biodiversity.

Meenakshi says state governments should respect the Federal Government’s 2022 amendments to the National Forestry Act which imposes limitations to degazetting permanent reserve forests.

“Otherwise, it makes a mockery of federal policies to advance our commitments internationally,” she says. “Public inquiries must be held beforehand and any replacement of alternative sites must be of the same quality and nature.”

States ultimately hold the power to choose to adopt the amendments.

Meenakshi adds, if states focus on “short-termism and political considerations”, then “we will all lose in the long term, as states become blinded by so-called profits over sustainability”.

Public pressure may be the force needed to push states to preserve our forests. You can view and provide feedback on the EIA for the Jentiang gold mining project here until Oct 18.

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