Tin mining 2.0 – Economists, environmentalists must reach common ground

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Tin mining in Kampar circa 1910 - Photograph: Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies and Leiden University Library/Wikimedia Commons

Environmentalists bring a fundamental insight that economists may have missed while economists need that insight in rethinking their ethical assumptions, writes Noor Asmaliza Romlee.

Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Dr Xavier Jayakumar’s recent announcement about the government’s plans to revive the tin mining industry has raised environmental and social concerns.

As expected, the environmentalists feel thwarted while business or industry leaders feel villainised when the announcement received a mix of feedback from both parties.

The previous government had been reluctant to pursue it because it was found that large tin deposits were likely to be found in “sensitive areas” such as permanent forest reserves, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, river reserves and water catchment areas.

Xavier said the price of tin was high and on an upswing: it could reach up to US$20,000 (RM82,954) per tonne. And, unlike its first cycle, the reborn tin mines could position themselves in a global setting.

In terms of economic sustainability, however, the government needs to conduct an in-depth study of the commodity’s price level, Malaysia’s ability to face competition from other tin mining countries and real cost to produce and sustain tin mines.

As the rakyat, we understand that the current government must do what is necessary for the country to move forward and develop. Nevertheless, the new Malaysia or Malaysia baharu has to not only represent the rakyat but operate based on socio-economic, environmental and racial justice. It is a tough job indeed to find the perfect balance in achieving sustainable development.

We have come to accept the view that preserving the planet and expanding the economy are mutually exclusive. As Paul Collier says in his book The Plundered Planet:

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Environmentalists and economists need each other because they are on the same side in a war that is being lost. When economists incorporate nature, they tend to treat nature as they do any other asset: natural capital is simply part of the capital stock, to be exploited for the benefit of mankind. If this continues, the natural world will be plundered: natural assets are being depleted and natural liabilities accumulated in a manner that both environmentalists and economists would judge to be unethical.

But the book further argues that the need for an alliance runs deeper than the practical necessities of preventing defeat. Environmentalists and economists need each other intellectually. For example, the environmentalists bring a fundamental insight that economists may have missed. Economists need that insight in rethinking the ethical assumptions made in their models.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the environmentalists and the economists have been like cats and dogs. Environmentalists see economists as the mercenaries of a culture of greed, the cheerleaders of an affluence that is unsustainable. On the other side, economists see environmentalists as romantic reactionaries, wanting to apply the brakes to an economic engine that is at last reducing global poverty.

The question here is, what if advancing conservation and human development is not an either-or proposition? What if we can do better in both?

As a good start, regulation offers the right tool to balance both economic and environmental sustainability. Regulation, however, requires good governance. One of the examples of the regulations the government needs to consider before Malaysia embarks on the tin mining industry would be to conduct environmental and social impact assessments and monitor the industry closely with strict enforcement against those who break the law.

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Technology is a fickle friend: it can take away value as well as add it. We can use technology in the quest to save the environment. The latest technology and effective mining methods must also be employed to ensure that everything is done carefully, with the least impact to the environment.

The environmental impacts of exploration activities could be significantly reduced by the development of drilling technologies that would minimise the footprint of these activities on the ground.

Besides the environmental and social assessments, innovative maintenance strategies, supported by modern monitoring technologies, advancement of research in basic geological sciences and the development of drilling technologies are all necessary to produce small amounts of waste and create negligible land disturbances.

Indeed, it is why every step of the process must be monitored to ensure the tin ore is viable enough to be mined while preserving the environment. But is the industry ready or equipped to employ more effective and efficient mining technologies?

Technology turns nature into assets; yet their value to society is only potential. Therefore, the best summary here is Paul Collier suggests: “The challenge of harnessing nature can be summarized in a simple formula, a formula that the world as a whole and the poorest countries in particular, must master: nature + technology + regulation = prosperity.”

That would be a good summary and maybe a great theme for economists, human rights activists and environmentalists to have in a dialogue session on how to achieve socio-economic and environmental sustainability for this large-scale and high-impact national project.

Noor Asmaliza Romlee is a trained science communicator from the National University of Singapore and the Australian National University. She has worked in a national think tank in science, technology and innovation as well as in the NGO and private sectors.

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