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As the small boat traversed a river through a mangrove forest in the Pitas district of northern Sabah, the villager who was handling the outboard engine hastily pulled a raincoat over his head.
On board the vessel was Margaret Chin and a few friends who wanted to see the massive clearing of the mangrove for a shrimp farm (aquaculture) project. That was about two years ago, but the raincoat incident is etched in her memory.
“I asked him later why he covered his head,” recalled Chin. “He told me that he was afraid of the farm workers, that they would bully him if they knew he was from the area.”
Nearby villagers had been up in arms over the clearing of more than 900ha of mangroves which had been their fishing grounds.
She also remembers the sight of a barge straddling the river. It was used as a temporary bridge to enable tractors and lorries to get from one bank to another.
“It was an added insult to the villagers as the barge blocked their way to the fishing spots and where they collected crabs and shellfish,” Chin added.
To her, these scenes were an affirmation of how the interests of rural folk were often ignored in the name of so-called “development”.
It was in Pitas where Chin and other members of the Sabah Environmental Protection Association (Sepa) as well as other concerned individuals had been helping local folk to voice their objections against the project.
Among others, they showed villagers which authorities to turn to – such as the state’s Environmental Protection Department – to air their grievances.
The villagers also learnt to speak out in the media about how the massive clearing of the mangroves would adversely impact their daily lives.
Bank union activist
For the soft-spoken and diminutive bank officer, this was a continuation of her involvement in the workers’ union for more than two decades.
“The knowledge I gained from being involved in unions, such as organising workers, was helpful in helping local communities,” said Chin, who now heads the Sabah Banking Employees Union (SBEU).
Her involvement in environmental issues began 10 years ago when former Sepa president Wong Tak launched a signature campaign against a proposed coal-fired power plant in Lahad Datu district, eastern Sabah. She signed up as a Sepa member and eventually became an advisor.
It was also about this time that the bank workers’ union (SBEU) teamed up with Sepa and the Young Malaysians Movement (YMM) to set up the To Earth With Love (TEWL) initiative; which taught school students and local communities to make microbe-infused mud balls to clean up drains and rivers.
Chin sees similarities between trade unions and eco issues.
“Like workers, many rural folk are unaware of their rights,” she explained.
After 26 years in unionism, Chin knows that exploitation affecting workers will keep on happening.
“We always have to be aware of it,” she said. “Similarly when it comes to the environment, there’ll (always) be those out to exploit and there’ll (always) be those out to protect it.
“It’s a matter of facing the challenge and hoping that the environment will always win out,” added Chin.
For her however, there need not be tension between progress and conserving the environment.
Her conclusion is: “Development has to be sustainable. It should not be about imposing the will of some quarters, but rather working with what is already there (in the environment) and taking into account the needs of the people in the area concerned.”