Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor

The Oct 19 landslide at the construction site of a stretch of the Bukit Kukus elevated ‘paired road’ in southern Penang Island that killed seven and left three others missing has shocked the nation. Three others were also injured.

Oct 27, 2018

By Anil Netto
The Oct 19 landslide at the construction site of a stretch of the Bukit Kukus elevated ‘paired road’ in southern Penang Island that killed seven and left three others missing has shocked the nation. Three others were also injured.

For those following the relentless pace of ‘development’ on the island, the latest landslide brought a sense of deja vu. Oct 19, after all, was just two days short of the first anniversary of another landslide in Tanjung Bungah, which killed eleven workers at a residential construction site.

In fact, Penang Hill Watch, an initiative of Penang Forum, a civil society coalition, had highlighted the risks of the hill clearing in Bukit Kukus twice in recent times.

We won’t go into the nitty gritty of what went wrong here, but the horrible tragedy should make us pause and reflect on several areas.

Why is it that tragedies like this affect the most vulnerable and the lowly paid —in this case, migrant construction workers who were buried under the mud flow. Last year, in Tanjung Bungah, all but one of those who perished were migrant workers. Think of their families back home — the shock and the grief of losing a loved one, a breadwinner on whom much hope for a better life was placed.

Chances are, we will never know the faces of these migrant workers — sacrificed at the altar of ‘questionable development.’ Why are they the ones who bear a disproportionate amount of the risks? Who hears their cries? Who sees the tears of their grief-stricken families?

Another issue that arises is the shabby and, at times, dangerous accommodation that these workers have to put up with. Why were the 14 containers for the workers located directly below the construction site?

What sort of amenities do these construction workers have in their containers and shacks?

Then, there is the question of the nature of these projects. Why are we building more and more roads in this era of climate change when we desperately need to change course towards sustainable mobility — given that we have to slash emissions by 2030.

So why are we pandering to private motorists when we should be investing in public transport infrastructure? In Penang, some RM8bn will be blown on the Pan Island Link highways and another RM6bn on three other paired roads and a tunnel, large sections of it hugging the hills slopes of Penang and spewing pollution over much loved public parks. Large sections of these slopes will be drilled and blasted to build highway tunnels on hill slopes.

Why are we clearing our hill slopes, exposing the soil to increased surface run-off and blocking and diverting hidden streams flowing down these slopes? This is a recipe for more floods and landslides. Will we never learn?
We can see a pattern here. Vulnerable workers from a distant land and the natural environment are exploited, even sacrificed at the altar of relentless ‘development.’ When tragedy strikes, whose cries do we hear? In 1997, the theologian Leonardo Boff wrote a book Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, which was published five years after the Rio Earth Summit.

The book outline Catholic ‘ecotheology’ and ethics especially justice for the poor and (environmental) justice for the Earth. This same theme Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor flowed through the Bishop of Rome’s recent encyclical Laudato Si, which should be essential reading for all Christians today.

Avoidable tragedies like the one at Bukit Kukus should make many of us reflect on our model of ‘development’ and economic ‘growth.’ It is increasingly clear that much of the fruit of economic growth is not going to the poor and middle class, who find themselves instead pressured by high household debt, a higher cost of living, lack of green spaces and environment degradation.

The household debt comes mainly from expensive housing and car loans. Unfortunately, due to misguided development policies, cars have become essential due to the failure to provide reliable and efficient public transport in many parts of the Malaysia. This, in turn, has increased the demand for more highways. So instead of improving public transport, the federal and state governments pander towards motorists by building more highways. Ordinary people, in turn, have to cough up tolls, fuel costs, road tax, insurance premiums and car repair bills while breathing polluted air when stuck in traffic jams.

So let us rethink and reflect on what we mean by ‘development projects’ and ‘economic growth’ in this era of climate crisis. It is time we put people (and our common home) above profits.

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