KUALA LUMPUR • A year and a half after banning bauxite mining to force miners to meet environmental standards, Malaysia's exports to its main customer China are again growing, raising public anger over illegal mining.
Residents and politicians in the bauxite-mining east coast region are calling for a total export ban of the aluminium raw material, but industry figures and analysts say shipments are likely to continue.
Malaysia halted bauxite mining in January last year, but allowed exports to continue to deplete vast stockpiles at ports where run-off after monsoon rains had polluted waters and led to a public outcry.
But 18 months later, the stockpiles are the same size as they were at the start of the ban, even as Malaysia has exported more than nine million tonnes of bauxite to China, according to Chinese import data.
"For the last six months, we've received reports from residents about the presence of fresh excavations... That is why the volumes of the stockpiles are not going down," said Ms Fuziah Salleh, the Member of Parliament for Kuantan.
"There will still be contamination with the dust and erosion of stockpiles into the water."
Malaysia was briefly the largest bauxite supplier to top buyer China.
Largely unregulated miners failed to secure stockpiles of bauxite, and run-off from monsoon rains turned rivers and the sea red, contaminating water sources. This led to the mining ban in January last year; but in recent months, exports to China have picked up again, hitting 719,614 tonnes in May.
"The bauxite goes out at irregular hours, from day to night. There are no fewer than 200 truck delivery trips a day from the mining sites to the port. How can the stockpiles go down like that?" a 50-year-old resident of Kuantan, the capital of Pahang state where the bauxite is largely mined, told Reuters over the phone.
Malaysia last week extended the mining moratorium for another six months, its sixth such extension. But industry figures and analysts say the ban has not been effective.
" Mining margins are still there, so people will continue to mine illegally," said a manager at a mining company, who declined to be identified as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, who noted the stockpiles had not diminished, said the government would consider stricter enforcement, including 24-hour surveillance, but declined to comment directly on calls for a total export ban.
"I'm concerned only about the environmental impact of the mining activities, and to ultimately stop them will impact the economy of the state," he told Reuters.