FOR four decades now, the Environmental Quality Act 1974 (EQA) has been the main law governing all environmental matters. As such, the proposal that amendments be made to the EQA is timely. However, any amendment made must address the all-too-common pitfall of Malaysian legislation – enforcement.
Lack of enforcement coupled with tedious government red tape and difficulty for the average Malaysian to access justice would result in the best of legislations failing to live up to their intended objectives.
The commonly held notion is that the law is skewed to favour the powerful minority at the expense of the powerless majority, resulting in a lack of checks and balances on the government and the various agencies tasked to carry out its will.
An independent statutory body with investigative powers is urgently needed to ensure that
the relevant government agencies are held to account for their actions.
The inability at present to hold the government and corporations to account and to ensure that proper procedures are being followed has led to much environmental destruction.
Take, for example, the case of the construction of power lines by Tenaga Nasional in the Janda Baik area in Pahang. From the earliest stage, several complaints of breaches of law and procedure were lodged, but despite the best efforts of the residents, the various agencies were slow to respond. In the meantime, the people of Janda Baik had to bear the brunt of the destruction, with their water source polluted and their lush green environment destroyed.
The perpetrators of environmental destruction, be they loggers, developers or utility agencies, continue freely with their projects, possibly leading to more destruction with little avenue available to hold them accountable or to stop further destruction.
Another incident that has made the news in recent times is the pollution of Sungai Kim Kim in Johor. Residents of Pasir Gudang had been aware of the river pollution for many years and had reported it but no action was taken by the government agencies concerned.
These incidents are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the EQA’s inability to impose adequate checks and balances on the government and its agencies at the earliest opportunity.
While development is certainly important for any country, it is also important to ensure that work is carried out in accordance with the law. Any new environmental body would need to be equipped with the power to receive and investigate complaints on all matters pertaining to the environment.
It must also have power to compel relevant ministers to respond to the findings of its investigations and to demand remedial action.
To achieve this while remaining independent, impartial and nonpartisan, it must be an external body established by an act of Parliament and, ideally, incorporated into the present amendments to the EQA.
Providing it with adequate funding is also crucial to ensure its independence and to facilitate its investigative powers.
To strengthen this body further, its members should be elected, albeit with some government appointments.
It should be made accountable to Parliament, and must be easily accessible to all, particularly those who are unable to afford expensive litigation.
This statutory body must also be given powers to carry out investigations at the state level on matters involving land transactions by the government, particularly the degazettement of forest reserves. This is because matters pertaining to land are under the purview of state governments.
One form of environmental destruction that is flourishing due to this jurisdictional separation between federal and state is logging.
The recent blockade of a road leading to a logging area by the orang asli community in Kampung Tasik Cunex in Gerik, Perak, is the type of incident that could be handled by this new body. The blockade arose after the orang asli said the loggers were encroaching on their customary land.
Limiting the powers of the new body only to matters falling under the purview of the federal government would mean the bulk of environmental complaints, including land issues, would go unaddressed.
The benefits of such a body must be considered, as it would improve the accountability and discipline of ministries, their officials and agencies.
It would also help to ensure that the state’s actions are not biased towards corporations, and there is no corruption or abuse of power.
Such a body would serve to elevate the present standards of sustainable development we now hold.
High environmental standards are worth fighting for, and a powerful framework is needed to ensure that these standards are implemented and enforced on all parties concerned.
A key role for environmental law is to empower those seeking to hold the government to account. After all, accountability is at the heart of democracy.