Nearing The End of The Millennia – 1995 to 2000

In 1997 the Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad appeared in public wearing a face mask as Malaysia was covered by a dense smog from the forest fires from neighbouring Indonesia. Environmental concerns would force the suspension of the Bakun hydroelectric dam in Sarawak at the time. Other environmental concerns as a result of rapid development would also be thrust into the limelight, such as floods and water pollution. During these years leading up to the new millennia, CETDEM continued to do work that was ahead of time, opting to look at climate change and renewable energy even when these phrases were not yet common in the public sphere.

““Although there were many garbage bins observed along the route, those near the SS2 morning market and shops were overflowing ... Solid waste, in the form of leaves and paper, was seen scattered in the park.”

“The drains around the shopping areas, especially the eating shops, were clogged and very dirty. Many of these were stagnant. Sungai Penchala was an eyesore. Water level was low, and it exposed an array of trash.”

— Participants of EnviroWalk.

Working on the Ground — Research, Public Awareness & Education

In 1996 CETDEM also completed a nine month study on Renewable Energy in March, with funding from the Danish Cooperation for Environment and Development (DANCED). Its report enjoyed some interest from both within Malaysia and from a number of foreign organisations. It was published that year as the book Blowing in the Wind: Malaysia’s Renewable Energy Scene. Two years later and after numerous public forums to educate the public, CETDEM would hold “Envirowalk 1998”, a fun activity to allow participants to appreciate the environment along routes in Petaling Jaya.

Held in October 1998, 45 participants were given a card, with a route map on one side, a list of observable things on the other. The participants would note down their comments about the environment they saw during the walk, some of which are as below. On the whole, feedback from participants about the Envirowalk event was positive, with many concluding that the walk had been an eye-opener for them, as they had not looked at their surroundings in that manner before.

Many publications were also produced by CETDEM over these years, including Organic Farming In Malaysia (1998), A Malaysian Strategy for Mainstreaming Organic Farming (1998) and Green Nest newsletter issues. Other reports published were Fluttering Around Malaysia’s Biodiversity Policy (1998) and Divided Over Thailand’s Biodiversity Policy (1999).

The organisation would also start a project named “A Public Awareness of Energy Efficiency and Renewables” in 1999, obtaining funding from the Malaysian Electricity Industries Trust Fund.

As much as the organisation was concentrating on grassroots work and research, it would also hold the government accountable when this was required. In a press statement issued in March 1996, CETDEM protested when the Deputy Prime Minister at the time said NGOs had failed to submit to him alternatives to the Bakun Dam. CETDEM said it had insisted that the Bakun Dam study reports (23 feasibility studies) first be made public so more information was available, but this had not been done.

“How can anyone be convinced about the about-face done by the government from its 1990 position when the dam was called off on such mere assertions? Even the projections on electricity demand are questionable and there is no proof that this country has implemented effective electricity conservation. Instead TNB is advocating ever greater consumption. No serious attention has been given to making full use of renewable energy and the life-span of the dam is also a matter of dispute,” CETDEM wrote in the statement.

It ended by asking another question, a fundamental one in its view: “If the project is so viable, why keep on hiding the 23 reports?” It would continue to pull no punches in its communication with the government on a host of other issues, insisting that the public had the right to information pertaining to the environment.

Taking stock of projects

After a decade of operations, the Organic Farm ceased to be at the end of September 1996, with the return of the land to Datuk Dr Salleh. The farm had allowed CETDEM to become a spokesperson for the organic farming cause, but the organisation decided it would be best to focus its resources instead on promoting organic farming and designing a certification system to protect both farmers and consumers alike.

This would be turned into the Organic Farming Project, which looked at training and extension activities. Siew continued to co-ordinate with the Malaysian Organic Farming Network (Mofan) in that year. Encouragingly, a second Kem Alam Sekitar was also held in collaboration with the DOE.

The wonderful Kitchen Gardening Group took off and Siew began helping vegetable farmers convert to organic farming. Their public forum on organic farming, health and kitchen gardening would end up attracting almost 200 people.

They would get help internationally, with ISIS/UNDP finally approving a programme to hold a survey workshop to draft “A Strategy to Mainstream Organic Farming” in the country. By 1998 the Green Nest newsletter was appearing regularly and it was a buzz of activities for the Kitchen Gardening members who were meeting regularly at the CETDEM office.

During this time, CETDEM would also start, with a small grant from the MacArthur Foundation, a three-year basic study of Biodiversity Policies in three Asean countries starting in June 1997.

However, with organisational concerns in mind, CETDEM would take stock of its planning and direction, forming six task groups to better focus on issues and matters relating to the organisation’s health.

The task groups were on energy, organic farming, climate change, funding, training and education, and biodiversity and technology.

National & International Outreach

If the organisation had taken baby steps on to the world stage in its first decade, the second decade saw it stepping more confidently into the public eye. This would be the years Gurmit would attend the most important environmental forums on the world stage, as well as increase CETDEM’s visibility nationally.

As a measure of how important CETDEM’s voice was, in 1997 the Science, Technology & Environment Minister appointed Gurmit as a member of the Environment Quality Council. This would be of significance, since the body was established to advise the minister on matters pertaining to the Environment Quality Act and provide policy guidance to the DOE.

The organisation would thus make its presence felt at many meetings and dialogues with policymakers on matters of importance for the environment. Gurmit would also attend various meetings around the country, presenting papers at the CAP/SAM Conference in Penang, participating in Standards and Industrial Research Institute of Malaysia (SIRIM) national sub-committee meetings and speaking to students on climate change.

From the year 1996, CETDEM also helped to co-ordinate numerous groups nationally and regionally, including the Malaysian Organic Farming Network and the Malaysian Climate Change Group.

But more significantly, Gurmit was beginning to represent CETDEM and Malaysia at some crucial meetings on the international stage. He represented the Climate Action Network — South East Asia at various meetings, including the Adhoc Group on the Berlin Mandate and COP2 in Geneva in 1996. This was a significant representation, considering the AGBM was set up at COP1 to conduct the talks that led to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. [COP is the Conference of Parties, the annual meeting of the 192 signatory countries to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.] While these days the COP meetings are more well-known due to increasing awareness on climate change, in these earlier days Gurmit was already there taking notes on global developments.

In this important series of international meetings, Gurmit would attend the COP3 meetings in Kyoto and in Bonn. He would also carry on these links and continuity on to COP4 in 1997, and all the subsequent COP meetings until 2010, with the exception of COP14 in 2008. Quite simply, he has been Malaysia’s eyes and ears on the international debate on the environment and climate change since the beginning.

But he would not just listen. Gurmit also attended the experts meeting of the Basel Convention and presented papers on technology and the environment at gatherings related to integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) and sustainable energy, among many others.

As our foremost expert on organic farming, Siew, meanwhile, attended the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) Training Workshop in Manila in 1996, as well as its Conference and World Assembly in Copenhagen in August that year.

It would also be a moment of pride when CETDEM’s headway in organic farming was recognised in 1997 — it was appointed as a founder member of the National Committee on Organic Farming under the Ministry of Agriculture.

And that is not all. Chairman Mano Maniam would also represent the organisation at a dialogue with the Ministry of Energy, Telecommunications and Post in June, 1997. When the ministry changed into the Ministry of Energy, Communications & Multimedia in 1998, CETDEM submitted two proposals, one to increase public awareness of energy efficiency over a 10-month period, and the second to establish and operate a solar-smart house. The public, and more significantly, the authorities in Malaysia, were now listening to what CETDEM had to say.