Funds and political support are reinvigorating the Pan Borneo Highway project in Sabah. But is there time to consider ways to mitigate its environmental and socioeconomic impact?
WITH 2,239 kilometres of new roads to be built by 2025, the Pan Borneo Highway is expected to boost connectivity, tourism and trade in and between Sabah and Sarawak.
Parts of the current route, however, would severely impact the environment and local communities, say local NGOs and researchers.
Marred by years of delays, the Highway received a boost recently. On his March visit to Sabah, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin promised that the Federal government would help develop Sabah.
He announced an allocation of RM5.01 billion for state projects and called the Highway a “game changer” for the state.
Sabah Chief Conservator of Forests, Frederick Kugan, tells Macaranga: “We cannot avoid the highway. It is part of the government agenda to improve connectivity as far as possible.”
As government agencies and contractors wait for the funds, discussions have stalled on measures proposed by Sabah NGOs to mitigate wildlife impact. One such measure is road realignment.
Alternatives still on?
Will the authorities consider these proposed alternatives? And what might the consequences be if the project continues as is?
In Sabah, the Telupid section of the planned ‘Phase 1’ of the Pan Borneo Highway is one of several that concerns conservationists.
The planned alignment – ‘Route 1’ in the map below – cuts through the 22,697 hectares Tawai Class One Protection Forest Reserve in the Telupid area. This route dissects 30 km of Bornean pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) range.
Fragmentation of the forest reserve could “increase [the] danger of forest fires during dry periods…,” said a coalition of 10 Sabah NGOs and research institutions.
The group, Humans Habitats Highways (Coalition 3H), highlighted this in their proposal paper titled ‘Optimal Routing Sections for the Telupid Section of Pan Borneo Highway’ (2 March 2020).
Besides the elephants, the forest reserve also houses other endangered animals like orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) and Bornean peacock pheasants (Polyplectron schleiermacheri).
A four-lane highway across the forest reserve increases risk for humans and animals from roadkill and habitat fragmentation.
Issues from the start
Conflicts could arise even while building the highway. Construction sites and worker camps in elephant habitats pose safety hazards for both workers and wildlife.
“Are they going to fence the workers or the camps?” asks Dr Benoit Goossens, Director of Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) in Sabah. In any case, he says fences cannot keep elephants out.
Roads also help hunters access wildlife. Elephants are particularly vulnerable, says elephant researcher Dr Nurzhafarina Othman. Nurzhafarina founded Sabah-based conservation organisation Seratu Aatai.
She cites a case in central Sabah’s Tongod district that took place on 21 January 2021.
“There were no good road facilities leading to Tongod district, and yet people could still do this [brutal] killing; can you imagine when they have more access with a proper road to an elephant habitat?”
When asked about the impact of the Pan Borneo Highway on elephants in the Tawai Forest Reserve, the Public Works Department Sabah’s Mohd Shamsul Nizam bin Abdul Wahid tells Macaranga that officials have “discussed mitigation measures to make sure elephants are protected.”
Mohd Shamsul is Deputy Director of the Sabah Pan Borneo Project section in the Department.
Proposed measures include erecting electric fences to protect elephants. Wildlife crossings have not been considered “but it could be decided at a later stage. We did build one in the Maliau Basin Conservation Area,” he adds.
However, conservation biologist Goossens “wouldn’t recommend an overpass (wildlife crossing)” in the Tawai Forest Reserve, because “it would work with small species but not with elephants”. He thinks the “much better alternative would be to not build a road”.
Nurzhafarina agrees that in Class One forest reserves like Tawai the priority should be maintaining the integrity of the habitat for elephants rather than install mitigation measures like fences, signboards or spotlights.
In short, ecological impacts can be minimised by rerouting the Highway, experts say.
Rerouting the road
Coalition 3H has proposed to the Sabah state government two alternative routes – Routes 3 and 4 (Map 2) – that minimise risk particularly to the elephants and still deliver socioeconomic benefits.
In their March 2020 proposal paper, 3H wrote that re-routing the highway away from elephant habitat is cheaper and more effective than “expensive tunnels or over-passes”.
However, local communities had preferred the alignment through the forest reserve, according to 3H.
Telupid town sits just outside the Tawai Forest Reserve. A road currently passes through the town (Route 2, Map 2). Residents had initially expected that road to be widened and turned into the Pan Borneo Highway. Increased traffic would then boost the local economy.
But when they discovered that adding lanes to the road could displace their homes, residents opposed the exercise. Rather, they requested the highway pass through the Tawai Forest Reserve (Route 1).
Goossens says residents of the nearby Kampung Bauto and Kampung Gambaron also preferred the Highway to pass through the forest reserve.
The villagers believed that they could set up small restaurants and homestays by the new highway in the forest.
But they will likely be disappointed. Because the Tawai Forest Reserve is designated Class One, “the Sabah Forestry Department will not allow any settlement along those roads,” says Goossens.
As far as the Sabah Forestry Department is concerned, it wants “least disturbance” of forests by the Pan Borneo Highway. The Department is considering having contractors either restore or replace forests to compensate for forest loss, says Chief Conservator of Forests Kugan.
However, Goossens sees such compensation as greenwashing. “Replanting trees is good but planting trees somewhere [else] is not going to recover the diversity one has killed,” he says.
Meanwhile, conversations on the Sabah portion of the Pan Borneo Highway appear muddled at the top level.
According to all sources Macaranga spoke to for this story, leadership and communication among the government agencies involved have been hampered by the movement controls imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Sabah Forestry Department says they are waiting for the Public Works Department to discuss which route is feasible and are “not sure what the outcome is as [the] last discussion with [Public Works Department] was in 2019”.
Meanwhile, the Public Works Department says the design for Phase 1 of the Pan Borneo Highway in Sabah, which includes the area around Telupid and the Tawai Forest Reserve, has been completed.
They are waiting for further directives from the federal and state governments, says the Department’s Mohd Shamsul. They have not received instructions to change the alignment of any part of the Pan Borneo Highway.
Counting all costs
Still, conservationists and researchers are holding out hope for the Tawai Forest Reserve. The 3H coalition tells Macaranga their realignment proposals to the state government emphasised evidence-backed project impacts.
“What is important here is isn’t just the financial costs [of the construction] but also the potential future costs of human and wildlife casualties caused by a highway through the forest reserve.”
3H’s two alternative routes – Routes 3 and 4 – spares the forest reserve and cuts through oil palm estates instead.
But nobody knows how much time is left to consider road realignments.
The current budget for building the Tawai forest reserve sections of the highway is about RM800 million, according to Mohd Shamsul. Approval, which depends on the budget of the 12th Malaysian Plan (2021–2025), could happen anytime within the next four years.
As funds and political support roll in to spur development in Sabah, it has become ever more crucial for NGOs, local communities, and government agencies to discuss the complexities – and possibilities – of the Pan Borneo Highway.
[Edited by YH Law and SL Wong]
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