When I was younger, I remember watching a show called Captain Planet. For those of you who don’t know, it was one of those really cheesy old cartoons about a group of teens fighting to protect the environment with their superpowered pal Captain Planet.
It was a fairly wholesome show that tried to teach kids lessons like “recycling is good”, “we should protect wild animals” and “greedy capitalists will gleefully burn down the entire planet for the sake of a few extra dollars”. You know, basic lessons that every kid should know.
But once we grow up, how many of us actually remember these lessons? How often do we consider the effects our lifestyle has on the environment? When you’re busy with work or relationships, it’s easy to forget about how important it is to protect our environment too.
But while most of us have forgotten, some Malaysians have spent years fighting to preserve our natural environment.
Meet Jehan Bakar
Today, Noor Jehan Abu Bakar, the Chairperson of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Pahang branch is one of Malaysia’s foremost environmental advocates.
When she first joined MNS Pahang in 1998, Jehan wasn’t actually planning to get involved with environmental advocacy. Instead, she was involved in group trips and other fun outdoor activities.
“When I first joined MNS Pahang, it was more about trips,” she said. “Hiking, trekking, waterfall chasing, climbing mountains… but after some time you see that there are a lot of environmental issues that need to be addressed.”
After receiving the position of chairman in 2012, she became determined to be more active when it came to protecting the environment.
“Here in Pahang, at one time we had problems with bauxite,” she recalled. “We had problems with sturgeon — FELDA wanted to have a sturgeon farm in Taman Negara, which would have been very damaging to the environment. There were problems with loggings, rivers, deforestation…
And so the initial idea of joining MNS for the nature trips, hiking, trekking and so on turned into another form of activism. It became a platform for us environmental lovers to voice out about the transgressions against the environment.”
A Voice for the Voiceless
For Jehan, one of the most important parts of environmental advocacy is to raise awareness. After all, even those who are interested in helping can’t join in if they don’t know what’s happening!
“We became the voice of the rivers, the voice of the forests, the hills and the mountains. Because all these components of the environment, they are voiceless. They need people to speak on their behalf. That is what spurred me on this path.”
Over the years, Jehan and other Malaysian environmentalists have worked tirelessly, fighting back against a variety of projects and issues that threaten our environment. Yet despite their many successes, there have also been many moments of bitter failure.
“The sturgeon farm we managed to stop. Bauxite mining we managed to stop. But logging, you cannot stop,” she admitted. “It’s an ever going thing”,
Unfortunately, logging isn’t the biggest issue that Jehan’s worried about. Instead, her current concern involves an interesting little company called Lynas.
If you’ve never heard of them before, Lynas is an Australian firm that specialises in high-quality rare earth materials. They operate the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Pahang — one of the biggest rare earth processing plants in the world!
So what’s the problem? Rare earth materials are valuable, after all. We use them to build components in all sorts of high tech gadgets like phones, computers, etc. So a big rare earth factory like this is surely a good thing, right?
Sadly, things aren’t quite that easy.
How Long Is a “Temporary” Disposal Facility Supposed to Last?
You see, there’s a reason why a foreign company decided to build their factory all the way here in Malaysia instead of back in Australia. Rare earth mining has some rather nasty effects on the local environment. This is because the extraction process results in a large volume of toxic radioactive metals which are dangerous to humans and nature alike.
Which is why rare earth mines are supposed to have a proper disposal site which is specially built to seal in all these dangerous materials and keep them from affecting the local environment. Unfortunately, LAMP — which began operations back in 2012 — is still using a “temporary” waste disposal facility.
“This plant has been operating more than 10 years with no Permanent Disposal Facility (PDF)!” said Jehan. “It has a ‘temporary’ disposal facility instead. When people started making noise and asking ‘Hey, how can you just leave your waste lying outside like that?’, now only they want to act.”
In December 2021, Lynas finally announced that they were ready to start building a PDF in Gebeng Industrial Estate… which is interesting because the area had previously not been gazetted as a toxic waste disposal site.
But for environmental advocates like Jehan, this new PDF is just too little, too late.
“We’re not happy that it’s going to be here because Lynas deals with a lot of things that aren’t local. They ship in rare earth from Australia, they process it in Malaysia and then they just leave the waste here. Why are we Malaysians supposed to deal with other country’s waste?” she asked.
But It’s Good For The Economy!
There are some people (usually those living far away from all these toxic waste sites) who say that these issues are being overblown. They talk about how big companies like Lynas are good for the economy and how much money they’re generating for our country.
Sure, they may have created a massive ecological issue that will affect the lives of thousands of local citizens, but look at that stock number go up!
Strangely enough, they never seem to mention how Lynas isn’t even paying any taxes here in Malaysia.
“They’ve got a tax relief of 12 years and they get a lot of leeway from the government,” said Jehan. “But this is all at the expense of the people’s health. It’s not fair that Malaysians have to deal with this Lynas waste when it’s not even originated from here.”
Whether it’s the Lynas plant, logging, dams or other such environmentally harmful projects, we always hear the same old excuses. “Think of the economy!” some will cry out. “Think about all the money we’ll make, all the poor people this will help!”
But Do We Really Need to Sacrifice the Environment for Our Economy?
According to Jehan, the answer is a solid “No”.
“If you take care of the environment, automatically the B40 will benefit,” she pointed out. “When there are floods, landslides, etc. the victims are usually going to be from the B40 group, not the T20. They are the ones who are directly impacted by the environment!”
For Jehan and other environmental advocates, helping the environment and helping the B40 are both one and the same. By doing one, it will naturally lead to the other.
“If we do it right, we can save the environment and we can save the B40 group,” she said. “There’s no need to sacrifice anything.”
A Plastic-Free Lifestyle
Part of Jehan’s current projects involves encouraging people to embrace a plastic-free lifestyle. Her company, Le Starry Natural Products, creates ecofriendly cleaning items such as soap that contains no plastic materials or packaging.
“We want people to start from their bathrooms,” she explained. “In the bathroom, you only need to change four or five brands to achieve a plastic free bathroom. If we wanted to do the same in the kitchen, we’d need to change 40 to 50 brands instead! Our roti, tempeh, beras, they all still come in plastic.”
By creating these plastic-free products, Jehan hopes to encourage more young Malaysians to think more about the impacts their lifestyle has on the environment. She wants to help people understand that you don’t have to be rich in order to make a difference.
“People just need to know that there is an alternative out there. They need to know that it is affordable.”
But What Else Can We Do To Help?
Over the past few years, more and more Malaysians are growing aware of the importance of preserving our environment. But aside from using trendy ecofriendly products, how else can we make a difference?
Jehan’s answer: join an environmental NGO.
“If someone wants to help the environment, I would advise them to enroll at an NGO,” said Jehan. “There are so many activities that you can join and you can choose which one caters to your interests. By joining an environmental NGO, you will meet people who will pique your interests and guide you.”
Joining an NGO isn’t just about having fun and meeting like-minded people (though that is a nice benefit). It’s about being able to organise your efforts and make your voice heard by those in power.
“Even if you have a passion to protect your environment, if you try to do everything by yourself it’s very hard. You might not know what to do, how to get started, which government bodies you need to speak to, etc.,” she said. “When you join an environmental NGO, normally there’s already an organisation in place to help you achieve your goals.”
Here are just a few local environmental groups that you can check out:
- Malaysian Nature Society (MNS)
- GRASS Malaysia
- World Wide Fund (WWF) Malaysia
- Kumpulan Aktivis Sahabat Alam (KUASA)
- Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (PEKA)
Together, We Can Make A Difference
Jehan has fought to protect our environment for over twenty years now, and she doubts that her battle is going to end anytime soon. Still, she believes that our younger generation will have the strength and will to carry on her fight.
“In the long run, people are starting to be more aware about their environment,” she said.
“There are more people using metal straws and tote bags… I’ve even seen people carrying their own water bottles because they don’t want to use the disposable plastic water bottles anymore. So they look for filling stations or they get refills from restaurants or cafes!”
It’s easy to scoff and claim that these are just small actions. After all, something like using a metal straw or a reusable bottle isn’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. If we are willing to make a change in our lifestyles — even just a little thing — in the long run it can make a lot of difference.
“At the end of the day, there is no bargaining when it comes to the environment. If we don’t save it, it’s gone forever.”
Learn more about how you can protect the environment by checking out: