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Malaysian bauxite rush brings wealth, and worries

Demand for bauxite, which is used in aluminium production, is soaring - fuelled by heavy demand from China.

[BUKIT GOH, Malaysia] Malaysian farmer Surin Beris's palm plantation has been razed and bulldozers are tearing into its red soil, releasing potentially hazardous dust into the environment - yet he couldn't be happier.

Surin, 67, is reaping a windfall from a modern-day gold rush in Malaysia's sleepy rural state of Pahang for the high-grade bauxite that lies in its ruddy soil.

Demand for bauxite, which is used in aluminium production, is soaring - fuelled by heavy demand from China.

The boom is a "gift from Allah", said Surin, a Muslim in a bright white skullcap who previously made about RM2,000 (S$653) per month cultivating the plum-sized fruit that is squeezed to make palm oil.

"I made a million ringgit in less than six months. I thank the Almighty for being so generous," he said.

Bauxite mining took off in Malaysia shortly after Indonesia, a top producer, banned mineral ore exports in January 2014 to encourage domestic metals processing, leaving major consumers like China in a supply crunch.

Malaysia has helped filled the gap. Previously an insignificant producer, there has been a sharp rise in mining, most of it illegal like Surin's.

Malaysian bauxite output more than quadrupled year-on-year in 2014, to nearly 963,000 metric tons, according to government figures, and is expected to rise.

But critics warn the mining is being done amateurishly and with little or no government attention to potential environmental harm.

Bauxite mining can release carcinogenic heavy metals such as strontium, cesium and other harmful substances, as well as low levels of radiation.

Since it generally lies just below the surface, extraction involves stripping off topsoil, leaving exposed pits.

In Pahang, where the landscape is dominated by tropical forests and agriculture, red dust swirls around the pits and along the roads on which bauxite-laden trucks rumble toward the port of Kuantan on the South China Sea, where the ore is shipped to China.

Critics fear heavy metals could enter the water supply or food chain, affecting communities for years.

Environmentalists say local rivers and the shores along Kuantan are frequently stained red from mining run-off, and residents complain of a rise in respiratory problems and skin rashes.

"My four-year-old granddaughter is in pain because she cannot breathe properly. We inhale dust everyday," complained Manap Muda, a village head near Kuantan who said authorities were turning a blind eye.

Fuziah Salleh, a Kuantan opposition parliament member, said legal loopholes allow small landowners to mine without approval and that many were "raping the land for profit".

"The people are greedy and are making massive money at the expense of public health," she said.

The government has begun to admit a problem.

Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, the natural resources and environment minister, gave AFP a government report stating that "high concentrations" of hazardous substances were found in water samples taken in August from the Pengorak river, near bauxite mining areas and Kuantan.

"Our findings showed that there was aluminium, arsenic, mercury, and manganese. The mining activity worsened the water quality," he said in an interview.

The river has been rendered unfit for drinking, irrigation, swimming or fish, the report said.

Malaysia's six-decade-old ruling coalition is routinely accused of paying inadequate attention to the environmental and social side effects of the harvesting of the country's rich resources.

Timber exploitation, for example, is a key source of political funding that helps sustain the coalition but which environmentalists say has contributed to the decimation of once-majestic rainforests.

Mohamad Soffi Abdul Razak, chair of the Pahang state government's environment committee, dismissed the health and environment fears, saying authorities intend to let the good times roll.

"The bauxite rush is creating jobs. Pahang is blessed by God," he said.

Wan Junaidi, however, said he would press for more sustainable mining and measures to prevent the release of dangerous elements.

Few expect the bauxite rush to be slowed, however.

"I have complained, but corruption is keeping illegal mining alive," said Manap Muda, the village head.

Ms Fuziah was infuriated when shown the government report on contamination. She called for an immediate suspension of bauxite exports.

"We should not toy with human life. It is shocking that the frightening water sampling data is released three months after the sampling was done," she said, warning of "irreversible" damage.

Mr Surin admits mining without a permit, but dismisses the environmental concerns as envious fear-mongering.

Flush with cash, he sees a wealthy new era for himself, planning to eventually build and rent out homes on his cratered property.

"I'll replant the oil palm trees and visit the holy land of Mecca again with my family," he boasted.