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Aimed at linking communities, Malaysian highway may damage forests

  • Leaders hope that the construction of a road linking the Pan Borneo Highway between the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak will connect remote communities to markets and to each other.
  • But conservationists warn that the highway will cut through some of the last remaining dense forest in Sarawak.
  • In addition to the challenges of building in a rainy tropical environment, the mountainous terrain will make construction and maintenance difficult, skeptics of the road say.

This is the third article in our six-part series “Traveling the Pan Borneo Highway.” Read Part One and Part Two.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — When Baru Bian was a boy, it would take him several days to walk to school from his village in northern Sarawak on the island of Borneo, recalled the current minister of works for Malaysia. Even the logging roads that lattice much of the interior of the once densely forested Malaysian state didn’t arrive in the vicinity of his home until the late 1980s, about a decade too late for Baru’s time in secondary school, so traveling to get an education involved a lot of trekking through the region’s dense and mountainous forests.

“These are really difficult communities to live in,” Baru said in an interview. To ease some of that burden, and to stimulate the region’s economy, he’s become an ardent supporter of the Sabah-Sarawak link road. This stretch would loop around the country of Brunei, stitching together the Pan Borneo Highway between Miri, Sarawak’s second city, and the state of Sabah to the north via the forests of Baru’s youth. In all, he figures a highway through this area will benefit around 100,000 people who live there.

Mountainous forest in Sarawak. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

“This is my top priority project as far as I’m concerned,” Baru said.

The road that currently links Sarawak and Sabah traverses Brunei, and people traveling on it must go through four border crossings. (Brunei consists of two separate enclaves divided by a sliver of Sarawak in between.) It’s time-consuming, and for Sarawakians without passports, the crossings potentially prohibit their movement altogether.

When the former prime minister of Malaysia announced the construction of the Pan Borneo Highway in 2015, the original intention was to run the road through Brunei. But in September 2018, the two countries agreed the highway would circumvent the two Bruneian sectors so that Malaysian travelers could avoid the complications of the required immigration checks.

For its part, Brunei is currently building the 30-kilometer (19-mile), $1.2 billion Temburong Bridge to connect these two sections on its own, with the help of a Chinese state-owned contractor.

Mist rises over the forests of Ulu Temburong National Park in Brunei, adjacent to Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

The narrow strip of Sarawak through which the rerouted highway would pass is remote, and its forests are among the most untouched in the state, offering a glimpse of how it looked before decades of logging and more recently oil palm cultivation whittled away Sarawak’s canopy cover. It’s also home to three national parks, including Gunung Mulu, a UNESCO World Heritage site well known for its spectacular caves, and that’s one reason that Baru sees the region as an ideal spot for ecotourism, as well as agricultural tourism.

Baru also told The Star newspaper in September 2018 that redirecting the highway would be “a lifesaver,” helping to stimulate local economies and providing better access to health care. Given the minister’s ties to the area — he was born in the village of Long Lopeng — he’s ideally placed to understand both the struggles and the potential of the region.

“This is one of the most fertile lands in Sarawak,” he said, referring to a state agency’s findings on the agricultural suitability of the region’s soils. On his own farm, he has strawberries and a highly prized strain of Arabica coffee that only grows in the highlands. Baru said he hopes that in the future, with the help of the highway, the people of this region can grow cash crops and host tourists in homestays, which would help boost the region’s economy.

A gecko hunting at night in Borneo. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

But conservationists and scientists warn that the rippling effects of the highway won’t all be beneficial.

“It would also be cutting through the last remaining forest in Sarawak that does not have a major road through it,” said a source who was concerned about being seen as critical of the government and requested anonymity.

Skeptics point out that, in addition to being a tropical environment with heavy rainfall, the undulating and remote terrain will make road construction and quality control doubly challenging.

“It’s going to be terrible. It’s going to be really destructive,” the source said. “It’s really the last remaining part [of Sarawak] that hasn’t been developed.”

In Baru’s view, though, it’s possible to encourage what he sees as much-needed development and protect the forests at the same time.

Roads and a palm oil plantation in the forests of Sarawak. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The Ministry of Works may soon take over the Pan Borneo Highway project from the contracted “project delivery partners,” in an effort to reduce costs, and Baru’s office is committed to environmental sustainability, he said. Baru added that the Ministry of Works has set forth guidelines that require clearing as few trees as possible and minimizing disruptions to the surrounding landscape.

Still, development and improving the lives of the people living in the region remain the central focus. “As far as Sarawak connectivity is concerned, that is the last frontier,” he said.

As a result, this link road is “of vital importance to the development of an overall efficient road network system that will promote further socio-economic growth as well as improve accessibility for the scattered inland towns,” Baru said.

To him, it’s also personal, remembering his own struggles as a child. “I’m very, very passionate about this project,” he said.

Continue to Part Four.

Banner image of a logging truck in Sarawak by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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