Bauxite mining has become a controversial political issue in Malaysia. As the government implements a temporary ban on extracting the aluminium ore, BBC South-East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head visits the most-affected area.
Amid the monotonous dark green lines of Malaysia’s endless palm oil plantations, there are now vivid red gashes in the hills behind the east coast town of Kuantan. These have appeared only in the past 18 months, as a frenzy of open-cast bauxite mining gripped Pahang province.
Tonnes of bauxite are being transported out of the region. It is the world’s main source of aluminium so is vital for the construction of everything from airplanes to saucepans and cooking foil.
The numbers are staggering.
Annual output of bauxite ore has increased from a little over 200,000 tonnes in 2013, to nearly 20 million tonnes last year. Malaysia is now the world’s top producer, accounting for nearly half of the supply to China’s massive aluminium industry.
Malaysia has a long history of mining, especially tin, but until very recently it scarcely registered on global markets as a source of bauxite. That changed suddenly in January 2014, when, in an attempt to boost its own aluminium-smelting industry, Indonesia banned exports of bauxite ore.
Up to that point Indonesia had been China’s major supplier.
Several Indonesian mining companies then started looking at the hills above Kuantan, where the plentiful bauxite was of a lower quality than that available in Indonesia and Australia.
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