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Who’s Shitting in My Backyard?

  • October 27, 2005

By Erick Chiew

Bravery in Broga

I stay in Puchong. Some time back, I was asked to sign a petition protesting the building of an incinerator nearby. I asked the person holding the petition form, “How do you know the incinerator is bad?” She said it’s because her boss said so. I asked her again, “What is so bad about the incinerator?” She answered that the incinerator will release harmful chemicals like dioxin, carbon monoxide and other cancer causing gases. I explained to her that the dioxin can only be released if incomplete burning of plastic occurred and if the temperature in the incinerator was not properly controlled. Carbon monoxide, on the other hand, will be released no matter what you burn, but it can be controlled using a scrubber system which should convert the gas into carbon dioxide. As for the carcinogenic compound… she actually asked me what “carcinogenic compound” was. I told her it refers to the cancer causing agent. In the end, she was pissed off with me as my friends and I (8 of us) refused to sign.

Do people always know what they are protesting? I found myself wondering this again when I was watching Clean Shit/Alice Lives Here, directed by Ong Ju Lin (15 Oct 2005, University Malaya), which won first prize in the amateur category at the Freedom Film Fest 2005. The first thing I noticed about this documentary was how poorly made it is, technically speaking. The content is a different case; I found it interesting how a woman named Alice had become the centre of attraction. The documentary showed Alice, a clerk at a furniture company, and her transformation into a community spokesperson – she’s fighting to abort the building of the incinerator, which had been moved to Broga in Negeri Sembilan, where she stays. It’s her life on centre stage – it felt very personal.

No doubt it’s part of the documentary’s purpose to show how the idea of the incinerator had disturbed the peace of this village, but the point is, as I asked during the question and answer session, how well do the people of Broga, and by extension the audience of this documentary, know the incinerator, the need for it and the technology behind it? I’m not saying it is right to build an incinerator behind anybody’s backyard, and I do sympathise with the Broga residents, who will surely be affected by the socio-economic impact of the project, but are they aware of the consequences of preventing the incinerator altogether? The documentary doesn’t question that, nor does it show you much about the incinerator except that it is bad for everybody if it is allowed to exist.

I don’t mean to criticise the documentary or anyone who is protesting against the building of the incinerator. I used to work in an environmental consultant company which is involved in the site selection and writing up of the Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIA) for some of the waste management facilities in this country (but not this particular one). So I’ve read up on the function of the incinerator and its advanced technology. I believe that the incinerator is a necessary part of waste management, though it should definitely not be the sole solution to our waste management problems.

The cycle should start with recycling (which is not promoted enough in Malaysia), and then to the Transfer Station, where waste is segregated for composting (organic) and incineration (non-organic), and then finally, to the landfill. They are all essential parts of the cycle. But while the technology of the incinerator may be advanced and safe, it can only be safe if it is well managed and the safety measures strictly followed. This is obviously where some of the potential glitches are.

Alice claimed that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) had not been done before the clearing of the surroundings had started at Broga. If I’m not mistaken, the EIA had been approved, but for its initial site at Kampung Bohol, Puchong. But when the Puchong residents threatened not to vote for the Ahli Dewan Undangan Negeri at the next election, he managed to get the government to move the incinerator elsewhere. And so it moved to Broga, where it would be within 2km of the nearest residential area. At Puchong, it was 10 – 20km. The guidelines from the Department of Environment (DOE) within the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment stipulate that the distance should be at least 50km. But the DOE approved both sites anyway!

Due to the urgency of the project, they could have simply provided a supplementary EIA, which should include the socio-economic impact, environmental impact and other important issues, on top of the existing EIA. Though, as Alice pointed out, technically, a new EIA should be provided. But neither a new EIA nor an addendum was done. The DOE should therefore have rejected the site selection in the first place. (Don’t the people in that department read the guidelines which they themselves had published?) There are obviously loopholes within the Environmental Act, the selection of sites and the writing of EIAs that the documentary could have investigated.

So, instead of giving a balanced view, the documentary focused on the protest and the protestors who seemed too busy trying to get an answer from the company building the incinerator, which remained elusive. But have they also tried to question the people who prepared the EIA? Usually, at the back of an EIA report, you can find the names of the specialists who wrote the report, most of them are well known academicians. They could have been interviewed. The protestors could have questioned the Department of Environment itself. But all I saw was Alice and her life. Yes, her intentions are good and she does make people more concerned about the situation. But it’s easy to take the side of the underdog. Is the incinerator really harmful? Are the few incidents highlighted that had negative impact on people’s health not due to bad management of the incinerators rather than the incinerators themselves? What are the alternatives and how safe are they? If Clean Shit could show both the pros and cons, giving us evidence of more disadvantages than advantages, then maybe it would be more effective.

Anyway, I find it interesting to compare the Broga residents with the Puchong residents. The Broga residents protested against the existence of the incinerator because they perceived it to be a danger to everyone living in this country, whereas the selfish Puchong residents simply wanted it moved to to their neighbour’s backyard. The best thing about the documentary is that it showed at least some Malaysians care about others. Maybe one day they can make the government and corporations care too.

Timorous in Temengor

While Clean Shit/Alice Lives Here took the controversy head on, Temengor: Biodiversity in the Face of Danger, produced by Mohamed Harun of Novista, went the opposite way. The makers said they wanted a “non­-confrontational approach” and this approach managed to win them the Best Documentary Award at the recent 18th Malaysian Film Festival. The documentary was technically amazing and really mesmerising in the way every detail of the Temengor rainforest (in Perak) was captured. I can’t even fully describe the feelings of seeing such beauty. But the documentary’s non confrontational approach made me wonder if it’s the best way to bring attention to the plight of biodiversity in Temengor.

The documentary aimed to educate the public and policy-makers on the importance of safe-guarding Temengor for all Malaysian. While the documentary showed us the beauty and importance of the rainforest, it failed to show us the dangers faced by it. There was a brief shot of piled up logs as well as a close up of muddy red earth to depict soil erosion, but the serious devastation left by logging activities went largely uncaptured. The filmmakers claimed they were obstructed from shooting the logging, but if they were serious, they could have found creative ways to get the footage. In the end, the filmmakers were trying too hard to be uncontroversial, and to preserve the air of pristine beauty they were trying to capture.

The question and answer session later discussed the logging activity that is moving fast ahead. Someone pointed out that the state’s natural resources are one of its few sources of income – so there seem to be few options except to exploit the rainforest. In order for people to understand the danger faced by Temengor, the public and policy makers should be given the chance to see how we all contribute to the threat itself.

The documentary should therefore feature the logging more boldly. It should also expand its coverage to include the Belum forest reserve to the north, which is separated from Temengor by the East West Link highway. In an interesting political-financial move, the state had decided to gazette Belum but not Temengor though they are technically the same forest. Perhaps the state hopes that gazetting Belum would appease the nature lovers, who would then leave the loggers alone to do what they like with Temengor.  We need to see the symbiosis that occurs between both forests so people will know how absurd it is to preserve one but not the other.

The Malaysian Nature Society presentation later by Lim Aun Tiah about hornbills made a better case. As the presenter pointed out, all 10 species of the hornbill are found in Temengor, some of which are endemic as well as endangered. This is one of the strongest reasons for the government to protect the forest. It struck me that the main reason that research work on the hornbill is slow is the lack of funding. Isn’t it funny that our local universities have the funds to study Antarctica but not our own rainforests?

This screening was organised by Malaysian Nature Society.


Erick Chiew has done environmental, medical and educational research at UM.

First Published: 27.10.2005 on Kakiseni