KUALA LUMPUR — I had no idea what to expect from Malaysia when I accepted an assignment from Mongabay to report on the consequences of a prodigious wave of infrastructure development that is remaking this country’s economy and geography. What I’ve found is a nation contending, like so many others, with political disruption, but fully competent to develop the new muscles and bones to support the contemporary needs of this century.
People here are suspicious of their leaders. But the questions about corruption and competence of Malaysia’s political leadership are infinitely easier to answer than those being asked in the United States about America’s ruling class. The notion that the U.S. is exceptional isn’t a ruse. It’s just changed radically in the last several decades. We’re such a rich nation. But we don’t deploy our wealth to enhance civic well-being. The U.S. is exceptional now for the miserable way our political system has crumbled, our public schools and infrastructure have deteriorated, our sense of confidence and purpose have weakened.
The American century likely ended on 9/11. The Asian century began soon after. It’s more than apparent in Malaysia.
For a journalist who’s spent a decade reporting on ecological and economic transformation around the world, I have one overriding observation about Malaysia. Malaysia is different than China, India, Mongolia, the Philippines and several more countries that are determined to achieve western-level measures of growth. Malaysia did not wreck its land, water, air, and marine environments getting there.
Clean rivers still flow here. Half of the country’s tropical forest cover is intact and will remain so under commitments Malaysian leaders made in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Near shore marine environments have not been ruined by mining disasters, as they were in the Phillippines, or soiled in tides of fetid urban wastewater, as they have been in India and China. Continue reading “Malaysia. Where’s Malaysia?”
I looked back in my photo archive to find a picture of Dennis Pace, my dear friend who died last week. I found I’d photographed Dennis solely in the winter while we skied or skated. Strange since Dennis and I spent a lot of time together during every other season, as well. He was a bike rider, a soccer and basketball and tennis player. We ran the Sleeping Bear dune trails and sailed on Crystal Lake. We shared good meals and drank beer on his deck and mine. We talked a lot about the ideas of the day. All the kids loved him.
Though he was raised in the Phoenix desert and educated at the University of California at Berkeley, Dennis very clearly ventured East to discover a region that fit his soul. Benzie County, near the top of Lake Michigan, is a one-stoplight forested county where no town holds more than 1,000 residents. Young people like Dennis arrived in the 1980s and early 1990s to build lives far from the places where they were raised.
Dennis landed in Benzie County in 1988. He, his wife Kate, and their two children, Isabel and Dakota, joined a community of caring people who formed a circle of trust and experience that he found delightful and absorbing. During the next 29 years Dennis built a lot of other good circles in Benzie County.
His passions were his children and grandchildren, his parents and friends, music, sports, and his community. When his kids were young he was a fixture playing midfield at every soccer game, center at basketball games, and wing at hockey games. After Isabel and Cody and all the other kids grew up, Dennis managed the Benzie Area Youth Soccer Program for nearly 20 years. He raised funds to keep the Benzonia ice rink open in the winter. He joined the board of Beulah’s Darcy Library. Trained as an optometrist, Dennis cared for us at the Scarborough Family Eyecare office in Beulah. The Betsie Current newspaper published a really nice piece on Dennis two years ago.
He loved music and played with friends every Thursday at his home in Beulah. He sailed and anchored a sweet and agile boat on Crystal Lake. He liked small parties and dinners with friends. He cooked an impressive brisket feast. Dennis was generous with his time and his affection. He liked the steadiness of firm schedules and easy events, like basketball games on TV at the Hahn’s, breakfast every morning with Jonathan Clark at L’Chayim Delicatessen, and coffee with friends every Saturday in Beulah. Continue reading “Dennis Pace Loved His Life in Benzie County”
Gina Lopez, the former Philippines Environment Secretary, sent a message here this week that updates her activities following the Congress decision in May to remove her from office.
“I’m now into this movement called ILOVE: Investments in Loving Organizations for Village Economies. The goal is to build the country from the bottom up. I am in the midst of collaborating with 20 million youth as a citizen’s lawsuit is filed against the government. Will send you the details. I’m meeting the student leaders today.”
MANILA — Valentino de Guzman, the energy campaigner for the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, guided me to Mariveles to interview leaders of Limay Concerned Citizens. Guzman, a well-educated activist, once taught college level math before joining the Philippine climate justice movement. The citizens group on the Bataan Peninsula, across Manila Bay from the capital region, has been protesting the air pollution and disruption to their groundwater reserves caused by SMC Consolidated Power Corporation. The company’s 600-megawatt coal-fired power station is under construction along the Manila Bay shoreline in the community’s backyard.
On the way to Limay — a village of packed dirt, shade trees, and clustered homes — Guzman briefed me on the situation that the Philippines and much of the rest of southeast Asia faces. Government campaigns to build coal-fired power plants, and import most of the fuel from Indonesia, are running straight into the global energy revolution. Solar powered electrical generation is cheaper, easier to build, and prompting far less social resistance than coal-fired electricity. India is shifting to renewables. So are China, the United States (despite the Trump administration), and Europe.
For the time being, though, coal has the upper hand in the Philippines, and in Indonesia and Vietnam. Guzman said 26 coal-fired plants are operating in the Philippines and produce almost half of the country’s electricity. Thirteen more are under construction and 36 coal-fired plants are in the pipeline.
In some communities, Guzman said, public resistance is so keen that the plants are not likely to be finished. In other instances, companies and the government are reappraising the cost of building coal-fired plants relative to solar, which currently accounts for scant generating capacity in the Philippines.
Environmental resistance is dangerous. More Philippine environmental activists have been murdered over the last decade than in almost any other country, according to Global Witness, a London group that compiles an annual report.
The situation in Limay is emblematic of most of the frontline struggles. The ten men and women waiting for me around a big communal table in the shade of a pitched roof described their frustration with the new power plant. Fly ash from preliminary operations contaminated the soil, and their gardens were no longer were productive. People were coming down with strange skin ailments. Some neighbors had respiratory illnesses.
One of the leaders of the anti-coal movement on the Bataan Peninsula was Gloria Capitan, president of United Citizens of Lucanin Association, a community that has been peacefully opposing the operation and expansion of coal plants and open coal and ash storage facilities in the Mariveles region. Auntie Gloria, as she was known, had focused her work on a big ash storage pile on a coal loading dock along the shoreline in her community. Ash from the pile was causing respiratory difficulties and dirtying the homes of nearby residents.
Capitan was gunned down on July 1, 2016 by two men on a motorcycle. The murder occurred at Capitan’s roadside store and bar near Mariveles. Capitan’s eight-year-old grandson was grazed by a bullet. Like so many other killings of activists around the world, the police have no suspects.
The Philippine and local governments had paid some heed to the resistance. The coal ash pile that Gloria Capitan opposed was enclosed in an immense metal building soon after her murder. Not far away, due to activism from Limay Concerned Citizens, their village’s water supply was switched from groundwater to municipal water. In December 2016 and January 2017, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, then led by activist Gina Lopez, served SMC with notices of violation for haphazard fly ash management and for air pollution. SMC said it would send doctors to Limay and would stop dumping ash. The doctors never showed up, said the citizens group, but the ash dumping did stop.
The Philippines is one of the world’s largest nickel ore producers and exporters. Global nickel ore prices soared on the news of Lopez’s order, with the expectation that the country’s go-go industry would be shackled. Mining stocks plunged.
In August, with early findings in hand of rampant air and water quality violations, Lopez suspended operating permits for 10 mines, most of them nickel producers. Lopez said her concern for Philippine watersheds, the “madness” of rapacious open pit mining, and the consequences to rural communities justified the audit campaign. “I want to make it clear I have no beef with the mining industry,” Lopez said at a news conference. “But I am vehemently against the adverse effects that may happen, that are happening in some of the situations.“
Lopez then took on coal miners and the coal-fired utility sector, which accounts for over 40 percent of the country’s electrical generating capacity. She called on her government colleagues to put coal-fired power aside and more aggressively pursue the 7,700 megawatts of renewable generating capacity that were proposed in a 2015 government plan.
“I’m going renewable because it’s for the Filipino people,” she said to reporters. “If they benefit, well, other people can also benefit. My thing to the businessmen, go renewable so you can also benefit.”
The Philippine Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi wasn’t so enthusiastic. “We cannot just discount coal,” Cusi fired back.
It is not at all clear, though, how much longer Lopez’s green crusade will survive. Nine months after she joined the Duterte government, Lopez’s mine audit program certainly produced globally important results. With evidence of wanton disregard for safeguards to air and water, Lopez ordered 26 mines closed. She also suspended 75 of the country’s 339 mining licenses.
One of the affected projects is the proposed $US 5.9 billion Tampakan copper and gold mine on the southern Island of Mindanao. Lopez’s orders mirrored similar recent directiives to control mining pollution. In 2014 the National Green Tribunal shut down northeast India’s coal mines in Meghalaya. Earlier this year El Salvador banned gold mining.
Called Before A Review Panel
I first became interested in Lopez last summer when I heard about her appointment and learned about President Duterte’s green streak. In her first months in office Lopez exhibited a passion and fearlessness that is all too rare among the world’s environmental secretaries. With Duterte’s consistent applause her position appeared secure.
But in March, following months of protest from mining executives and other critics, her job security began to be weighed by a high-profile legislative group that reviews presidential cabinet appointments. After two days of questioning, the 25-member Commission on Appointments, which includes legislators backed by the mining industry, declined to approve Lopez as environment secretary.