The project is part of a RM2 billion Chinese investment favoured by the state government. But locals complain they were not sufficiently consulted and worry about the potential health impact.
Near the northern tip of Sabah is Bangau Beach, the start of a flat sandy coastline that stretches for 21 km. Dramatic sunsets draw visitors from afar, and runners ran the length of Bangau Beach in an international half marathon a few years before the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the tourist crowds haven’t returned, and they may not for a long time. A RM2 billion operation to mine sand there is threatening to destroy the charms of Bangau Beach.
(Photo: The sandy coast of the scenic Bangau Beach in Kudat, Sabah, will look very different soon. A new sand mining facility will occupy all the space to the right of the river. | Pic by Chen Yih Wen)
Already, huge trucks speed down the unsealed roads in the villages by the beach. “We did not know about the project until the trucks and heavy machinery started arriving in our village, at the operation site in early June 2022,” recalled Mohd Hafiz Abdullah, a resident of nearby Kampung Andab Bangau.
The 45-year-old farmer is a member of the Save Bangau Beach action committee, formed by concerned residents of six local villages. The group wants the state government to stop the sand mining project.
Economic development approved
The sand mining project is operated by SBH Kibing Silicon Materials (M) Sdn Bhd (Kibing Silicon), which is fully owned by Chenzhou Kibing Photovoltaic & Electronic Glass Co. Ltd., a Chinese company. The project will mine and process sand on a 401 ha site.
Kibing Silicon was reportedly given a lease by the Sabah government under the state’s five-year Sabah Maju Jaya plan. The project promises to create 300 job opportunities for locals.
The project received approval for its environmental impact assessment (EIA) report on 30 September, according to the Sabah Environment Protection Department. The report serves to show that the developer can prevent and reduce the environmental and social impacts caused by its project. Approval is compulsory for the project to start.
Locals says EIA survey inadequate
However, some local villagers alleged that they were not sufficiently consulted during the EIA report process.
Marman Ojirun, a 48-year old farmer, was one of the locals surveyed by EIA consultants hired by Kibing Silicon. He thought the consultant was a government officer. “He asked me if I agree with development in the village. Who would say ‘no’ to development?”
Another local in the survey was 29-year old homemaker Norsakilah Hayat. She said that the consultant did not identify himself or his purpose when he approached her.
“He asked me to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions only. It was very brief, like ‘is it okay for heavy vehicles to use the village road’? I thought if it doesn’t affect us, then it should be alright,” said Norsakilah. She did not completely understand the questionnaire, but she signed it.
The project’s EIA was conducted by consultant company Ensolve Sdn Bhd. In response to the villagers’ allegations, the company’s director, Lo Su Mui told Macaranga: “Our socio team had conducted the survey professionally with a briefing on the project concept supported with a project map.”
WWF Malaysia who had reviewed the EIA report did not respond to Macaranga‘s questions.
The state government had given assurances that the sand mining project would not affect the locals. But Mohd Hafiz disagreed.
He alleged that the project had diverted water from the villages. The contractors who installed water pipes had taken “a shortcut”, said Mohd Hafiz. As a result, Kampung Andab Bangau villagers had to suffer from slow or no water supply until midnight.
The company had also started groundwork before EIA report approval, the villagers told Macaranga. They showed Macaranga photos taken in August 2022: Kibing Silicon contractors had paved a path across the beach to build a jetty in the sea.
The EIA report was only approved on 30 September.
And the project might have already hurt the area’s wildlife. After the developer built a platform in the sea, two dead turtles washed up on the beach. “[That] has never happened before,” said 75-year local Asangki @ Charles Tomuka.
Bangau Beach is part of the Tun Mustapha Marine Park. This largest marine park in the country aims to conserve marine biodiversity and improve the livelihoods of coastal communities via sustainable development.
Too close for comfort
But sand mining is not the type of development desired by some of the locals. And they are worried that the project is expanding.
Several villagers have been approached by Kibing Silicon to sell their land. One of them is 50-year-old Hadri Wahid from Kampung Andab Jawa. He has received two offers for his land.
“They also approached my neighbours. But this is my home, why would I want to move?”
Hadri also complained about Kibing Silicon’s speeding trucks in his village.
“What if they hit our children? They are driving so fast even though the project has just started. Who knows what they will do when the project is fully up and running?” he said.
Others are concerned about the potential health impact of living near a sand mining operation.
63-year-old Mohd Mazza Azat lives in Kampung Bangau, about 1 km from the project site. “When [the factory] is operational, I’m worried about the wind blowing sand or dust particles to my house.”
That the sand will be carried in a covered conveyor belt does not allay Mazza’s fears. “The factory has chimneys. How are they going to cover the chimneys?” he said.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breathing in silica dust can cause inflammation and scarring in the lungs, and reduces the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen. The lung damage is permanent with no cure and is sometimes fatal.
Now that the EIA report for sand mining has been approved, the project is expected to go full throttle.
Villagers, NGOs, and Kibing Silicon should work together to make sure the developer adheres to the EIA report, said Sabah Environmental Protection Association president Alexander Yee.
Yee also recommended that the company hire locals, and engage experts from Universiti Malaysia Sabah to set up marine conservation programmes, especially for sea turtles.
In response to the villagers’ allegations, Kibing Silicon told Macaranga that “there may be some miscommunication or misunderstanding for some villagers concerning the project in Kudat in particular.”
The company said it has worked with government agencies to “reach out to the villagers through numerous dialogue sessions to clarify the issues.”
More development is set to unfold on Bangau Beach. For one, Kibing Silicon wants to build a jetty there to transport silica sand; the EIA report process for that has already begun.
But the villagers are fighting for their interests. The Save Bangau Beach action committee submitted protest letters and a memorandum to the Sabah Chief Minister and Sabah Parks. They have also engaged a lawyer.
“Don’t get us wrong. We welcome development in our village with open arms, for example if any companies want to develop our tourism,” said Save Bangau Beach committee member Mohd Khair Abdullah.
“But not development that will harm the environment and our lives.”
[Edited by YH Law]