Malaysian state chief: Highway construction must not destroy forest

The chief minister of the Malaysian state of Sabah has called on construction crews working on the multi-billion-dollar Pan Borneo Highway project to avoid breaking up the region’s forests and other sensitive environments where possible.

“I hope they take it seriously,” Chief Minister Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal said March 21 at the Heart of Borneo conference in Kota Kinabalu, the state capital, according to The Star newspaper. “I told them not to flatten hills and chop trees, but just expand existing roads that we have.”

Widening the roadways that are already there, instead of clearing new land for realignments, will also speed up the road’s construction, Shafie added.

A group of NGOs and scientific organisations in Sabah called Coalition 3H, short for Humans Habitats Highways, applauded the chief minister’s support for protecting Sabah’s forests in a statement, published March 25 in full by The Borneo Post newspaper

Benoit Goossens, a biologist who directs the Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah, said Shafie’s stated position on the Pan Borneo Highway was a “big relief,” according to the statement. Danau Girang is a Coalition 3H member.

In recent years, work on the Pan Borneo Highway began as part of a multi-year project to develop and upgrade the “transportation backbone of the states of Sabah and Sarawak.” The project aims to construct or expand nearly 2,100 kilometres (1,300 miles) of asphalt highway across the two states by 2025. From the outset, however, as crews began clearing land and grading pathways for the road, scientists and conservationists raised concerns about the areas that would be affected by the planned route.

“While we certainly do not oppose economic development and the construction of the highway,” Goossens said in the statement, “we are concerned that certain stretches of the Pan Borneo Highway are slated to cross several protected areas that are crucial habitats for protected and endangered species and also important for eco-tourism, local livelihoods and ecosystem functions and services that are important for all Sabahans.”

Coalition 3H pointed to a proposed length of road between Tauran and Kudat that would carve through the sensitive mangrove forests in northwestern Borneo. Mangroves are vital nurseries for fish and other sea life, many species of which are important to local fishers. It’s also the last place on that part of the island where IUCN-listed endangered proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) live. The monkeys, named for their prominent noses, are a huge draw for tourists, in addition to being protected under Malaysian law.

Elsewhere, in the Tawai Forest and around the Kinabatangan River, the planned route would slice through the favorite haunts of Borneo elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis), the coalition said. New or wider roads through these areas could create hazards for both the animals and motorists, which solutions such as wildlife overpasses could remedy.

“The current alignments in the hotspot areas would drastically increase human-wildlife conflict during and after the construction of the road and lead to a high number of collisions with animals, potentially leading to human deaths,” Goossens said.

The coalition also called for more open consultations with communities living in the areas impacted by the construction.

Ensuring that the Pan Borneo Highway benefits Sabahans is one reason that Shafie decided that the government, not private contracting “partners,” should oversee construction, the chief minister said.

“How can private companies be allowed to manage billions of ringgit [for the projects]?” Shafie told The Star. “We [the government] must be accountable for the money spent.”

Shafie said he and Malaysia’s works minister, Baru Bian, agreed on government oversight as a way to speed up the project’s timeline. However, The Edge Markets reported March 22 that Mohd Anuar Mohd Tahir, Malaysia’s deputy works minister, said the country’s cabinet would make a final decision on the involvement of private-sector partners by the end of March.

Baru Bian recently drew praise from conservationists after he said that projects such as hydropower dams must take into account how they affect the environment and local communities, at an energy conference in Sarawak on March 16.

“Any so-called clean energy policy that destroys primary forests is not clean,” he said, according to the Malay Mail. “Neither are energy policies that displace indigenous communities. This is the simple truth.”

In Sabah, Shafie’s support for protecting forests, people and wildlife could strengthen the state’s role as a leader in sustainability and conservation, said Cynthia Ong, chief executive facilitator at the NGO Forever Sabah.

“[T]his guidance from the Chief Minister on protecting Sabah’s natural heritage can provide an opening for a ground-breaking collaboration,” Ong said in the statement. “We at Coalition 3H would like to offer our collective expertise and energy to support the state government to find the best ways to maximize benefits and reduce risks of the Pan Borneo Highway.”