Hulu Jelai rare earth mine project needs scrutiny

The lives and livelihood of the Semai Orang Asli Community in Pos Lanai, Kuala Lipis, Pahang are in danger, once again.

Pos Lanai is home to Semai Orang Asli communities. They have lived along this Central Forest Spine area connecting the Hulu Jelai forest for hundreds of years. Their home is constantly destroyed and threatened by timber logging, agricultural activities, and recently — mining projects to fulfill the demand for “green tech”.

In 2020, there were plans to mine lanthanide from the Jelai forest, covering an area as large as 924 football fields. Despite the area being classified as Rank 2 environmentally sensitive, it was reported that the state government has already issued three mining leases.

Since then, the Orang Asli communities have protested, worked with activists to launch campaigns, and filed a civil suit against the state and federal government.

In March 2021, the Department of Environment (DOE) rejected the mining company’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) on the mining project. Subsequently, Pahang MB Wan Rosdy Wan Ismail also refuted the allegations, saying there was no standard operating procedure (SOP) for such mining activities.

After that, there was no further action or EIA resubmissions from the company, bringing the issue to a temporary end.

Today, the civil suit of Pos Lanai is still ongoing, they are determined to defend their land against rare earth mining from the government and mining companies.

In July 2023, Natural Resources, Environment, and Climate Change Minister Nik Nazmi said that  Malaysia has some 16.1 million tonnes of rare earth elements worth about RM809.6 billion — a sign of what’s to come.

In May 2024, the Pahang state government approved 220ha in Sungai Wang, Hulu Jelai, to be used for a pioneer non-radioactive rare earth elements mining project. Led by the Pahang Land and Mines Director’s Office (PTG) and Pahang Mining Corporation (PMC), the project is in its final phase of refining the rare earth mining SOP.

The Pahang state government also said they welcome mining companies and investors to carry out non-radioactive rare earth elements exploration in Pahang, even considering opening an non-radioactive rare earth elements processing plant.

While we understand the need to generate state revenue through rare earth mining, we must seriously consider the impact it will have on our people and environment.

  1. Environmental and social impact

The proposed lanthanide mining activity will use the in situ leaching method, which involves building injection holes and collection tunnels, followed by pumping ammonia underground to extract the rare earth elements.

Research shows that the in-situ leaching mining method reduces the removal of land vegetation and topsoil, but it neglects the risks of groundwater, river and soil pollution. This method is new to Malaysia, but it has caused controversy in China due to its devastating environmental impact. 

Mining activities will forcefully displace the Orang Asli community and face wildlife encroachment due to deforestation. The people of Pahang also risk drinking poisoned water as important river basins such as Sungai Telom and Sungai Chanung will be polluted with untreated chemicals from leaching ponds.

We must not place profits before our people’s health to avoid the tragedy of Bukit Merah Asian Rare Earth development.

  1. Economic impact

Mention rare earth elements and people will conjure images of highly profitable electric vehicles and green technology components, but in reality, Malaysia cannot reap the economic profits of these products.

In Pahang, in-situ mining is only a process for extracting rare earth carbonates — unprocessed, unrefined, low-value rare earth elements. Since we do not have the splitting technology required to separate rare earth elements from the sediments, they will be shipped overseas to China to be processed into valuable rare earth elements. In-situ mining requires clearing forests to obtain low-value elements that bring limited economic value to us. It seems we are missing the forest for the trees mines!

As a tropical country with frequent rainfall, rain also poses a challenge for mining operations. In the event of extreme weather or heavy rain, it can flood mines, destroy roads, and cause landslides that damage equipment and trap miners underground. Even though mining may generate short-term revenue for the state, the people of Pahang will suffer the effects of chemical contamination, water pollution, and disasters.

The environmental destruction inflicted on our forests largely outweighs the economic benefits we stand to gain — the answer is clear on whether it is worth it or not. 

  1. Transparency and accountability

The standard operating procedure of non-radioactive rare earth elements Mining in Malaysia document states, “NRECC (The Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change) will not support or approve any mining activities involving non-radioactive rare earth elements resources in the conservation areas such as permanent forest reserves, protected areas as well as specifically gazetted areas including water catchment or environmentally sensitive areas.” (p. 153).

Although the state government did not specify the location of the mining project, we highly suspect it is situated in Ulu Jerai Forest Reserve. The thing is, mining activities are not allowed in forest reserves — is this not a breach of the SOP? Why did the government proceed with the project?

Although there are detailed steps in the report for land stabilisation, soil improvement and vegetation restoration (Section 8.3.3, p. 94 – 95), its impact is small. While forest restoration is important to protect our biodiversity, forest preservation is much more effective. Preserving mature, biodiversity-rich forests will typically avoid about 100 tons of carbon emissions, while reforestation can only mitigate 3% of that volume.

We want to hold the ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change and the state government accountable by asking them these questions:

  1. What are the companies involved in Hulu Jelai’s rare earth mining project?
  1. Did the authorities get the EIA from the mining company? If yes, where and how can the public access the EIA report? 
  1. We learned that the project site is situated in the Ulu Jerai Forest Reserve, but the SOP rare earth elements published in February 2023 clearly stated that The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability does not allow mining activities in forest reserves. How can this happen?
  1. Did the mining company obtain free, prior and informed (FPIC) consent from the community, especially the Orang Asli community that has inhabited the areas for centuries?
    Did the mining company obtain free, prior and informed (FPIC) consent from the community, especially the Orang Asli community that has inhabited the areas for centuries?

Bureau of Environment and Climate Crisis
Parti Sosialis Malaysia