But the construction, well into its first phase in both Sarawak and Sabah, has raised concerns that the development the highway is expected to encourage could also permanently harm Borneo’s unique ecosystems.

William Laurance, an ecologist at James Cook University in Australia who has for decades studied the impacts of roads in tropical forests, likens the fallout to these ecosystems to “a cancer.” When roads penetrate pristine areas, they foster human settlement, hunting and forest clearance for agriculture — effects that ripple outward from a narrow strip of roadway.

“We are very aware of this,” Baru said, and added that the environmental impacts of road construction anywhere in Malaysia must legally be taken into account. “Our policy is very clear.”

But what qualifies as sustainable or “green” construction often depends on who’s talking. In principle, politicians and planners see connecting markets and people as the priority. For this subset, “greening” a road often involves tacking on additions after the fact, such as the construction of “ecobridges” or tunnels for wildlife to pass over or under the road.

Research has shown that these solutions don’t always work as intended. And even if they are effective, these “mitigation measures” can be a case of too little, too late, Laurance said.

“It seems a lot like treating cancer with a Band-Aid,” he said. Instead, the emphasis should be placed on careful route selection to minimize ecosystem impacts from the earliest stages of planning, Laurance argues. Better greening means “screening out bad projects” from the beginning, he said.

A stilted tree in the old-growth forest of Tanjung Datu National Park in Sarawak. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Reporting for Mongabay, I spent nearly three weeks traveling along the proposed route for the Pan Borneo Highway. Malaysian Borneo’s roads vary widely in their state of repair, their width and how much they’re used. Just this year, crews finished a stretch in southern Sarawak down the coast from Kuching, the state’s capital. Its gleaming white stripes border wide, and largely empty, lanes that run right up to Tanjung Datu National Park, home to a population of a rare monkey called the Bornean banded langur (Presbytis chrysomelas) as well as five other species of primates.

Other sections are very much in the throes of construction, where locals battle the characteristic dust and slowdowns while clinging to the promise of a brighter economic future. In northern Sabah, tour operators hope the highway, along a new route following the state’s “Gold Coast” dotted with beaches, dive spots, and wildlife haunts, will usher in a flood of visitors and their wallets stuffed full of dollars, pounds and yuan.

In Sarawak, a 29-year-old doctoral student at a university in Bintulu told me that the bus trip south to Sibu now takes five hours instead of three since highway construction began in 2016, making her think twice about traveling home to see her family. She and others I met in Sarawak and in Sabah hold out hope that the slowdown is temporary and that the new highway will cut travel times. Planners figure a trip from Miri to Kuching should take around nine hours by car once the highway is finished. But in July 2019, it seemed as if the entire length between Sarawak’s two largest cities was at some stage of construction. The buses I took over two days along more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) of road completed the journey in just under 19 hours.

And then there are parts of the highway that exist in concept only. In central Sabah, scientists fret over the impact that a planned four-lane section will have on elephants, crocodiles, orangutans and other species, many of which have already been pushed to the edge of existence by human activity and enterprises like oil palm plantations.

A group of elephants in Borneo, considered by some to be a subspecies of Asian elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis), crossing the Kinabatangan River. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

There’s also a stretch of road that Baru calls his “top priority” — a road linking Miri with Sabah in the north. Right now, the route between the two states goes through Brunei on Borneo’s west coast. But the current plan for the highway is a path that swings wide around Brunei through northern Sarawak, which Baru and other proponents say would bring some 100,000 people living in remote communities into the economic development fold.

Whether the benefits will outweigh the costs is an open question and might depend on the perspective from which you view them. Roads do make it easier for people and goods to move from point to point, and I was grateful for a smooth ride and additional lanes in areas where the highway had been completed — quite handy for passing Borneo’s ubiquitous logging and palm oil trucks. Streamlined travel could very well encourage more mobility in the population and provide a jolt to the economy as a result.

The World Bank calls infrastructure a “blunt instrument” for economic development. It’s “pivotal” for bringing prosperity to the poor, one author wrote, though it’s not always equitably distributed. (To be fair, the “blunt instrument” metaphor is a favorite of the bank, applied to everything from interest rates to public ownership of land and property.)

Still, the association with infrastructure fits, and perhaps in more ways than the author intended: On the ground, the stark contrast between the greenery along the highway’s fringes and cutaway hillsides and razed forests in the path of construction certainly appears to have been caused by a blunt instrument. Hammered through a delicate mangrove or rainforest, the highway can take with it the habitats and ecosystem services those places once held. And it’s those impacts that have led many skeptics to wonder if the roads might destroy the very spots that draw tourists in the first place.

Continue to Part Two.

Banner image of a bridge over the Kinabatangan River in Sabah by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

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

Editor’s note: William Laurance is a member of Mongabay’s advisory board.

Citations:

Kavanagh, J. (1994). World development report 1994: infrastructure for development. World Bank.

Nijman, V., Hon, J. & Richardson, M. (2008). Presbytis chrysomelas. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T39803A10268236.en

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