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The end of the road: The future of the Pan Borneo Highway

  • The construction of more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of road for the Pan Borneo Highway across Malaysian Borneo holds the promise of spurring local economies for its proponents.
  • But from the outset, conservationists and scientists voiced concerns that the road would displace people, harm sensitive environments, and threaten Borneo’s splendid diversity of wildlife.
  • As construction moves forward, these groups are working with planners to find a way for the highway’s construction to avoid the worst environmental damage.

This is the sixth article in our six-part series “Traveling the Pan Borneo Highway.” Read Part One, Part Two, Part ThreePart Four and Part Five.

KOTA BELUD, Malaysia — Road building is a messy process. In late July, a friend drove me to see the construction of the Pan Borneo Highway along the narrow road strip of tarmac that currently snakes its way along what’s being billed as the “Gold Coast” of northwestern Borneo. We passed once-forested hillsides that abut the azure waters of the South China Sea, now being vertically scrapped away truckload by truckload to build up the foundation of the highway. Down below, bulldozers packed the tan earth into wide platforms where the road will eventually sit, filling in spots where mangroves once stood. Around one corner, dust rose from the beach below where, apparently, the highway will soon pass within meters of the water’s edge.

Driving north of the Malaysian state of Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, was the culmination of the nearly three weeks I spent traveling along the highway’s path. The project will stretch across more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) in Sabah and the state of Sarawak. In the villages and towns I visited along the way, local officials and many residents eagerly awaited the completion of the roadway to ease travel, speed the flow of goods to and from markets, and bring in tourists, all of which they hoped would invigorate local economies.

A section of the Pan Borneo Highway along the northwestern coast of Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

But from the outset, conservationists and scientists voiced concerns that the road would force people from their homes, harm sensitive environments, and threaten Borneo’s splendid diversity of wildlife. From what I saw in my travels, those concerns weren’t unfounded.

Researchers from the Sabah-based NGO Forever Sabah figure that the construction — whether widening existing roadways, “realigning” them on similar but separate paths, or cutting entirely new stretches through the island’s mangroves and rainforests — will displace at least 12,000 households in the state. Spray-painted numbers tag the buildings earmarked for eventual demolition next to the route.

Along that span north of Kota Kinabalu, crushed mangrove trees sat piled in the pooling water on either side of the new highway. Narrow culverts run under the highway, but conservation groups worry that they won’t facilitate enough water flow to replace the heaving of the tide that brings a vital influx of nutrients. Scientists also worry that clearing the path for the highway would further carve up the habitat of proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus), which are a major tourist draw.

Mangroves cleared for construction of the highway in northwestern Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

But I also questioned whether it was fair of me to judge such a massive project at this nascent stage, literally before the dust has settled. After all, the society I come from in the United States has benefited wildly, economically and otherwise, from the connectivity that an intricate road network can provide, and that’s no doubt come with huge costs to the environment.

It’s difficult to fault a country for pursuing a path toward development or making it easier for people to get from point to point. The 19-hour-long bus ride I took that connects Sarawak’s two largest cities, Kuching and Miri, is exhausting, and my fellow passengers were eager for construction on the Pan Borneo Highway there to be finished, likely slashing the travel time by half. I noticed the stark contrast — especially in my own comfort — between the ruddy, under-construction road currently serving as Sarawak’s major artery, and the smooth-surfaced, recently completed stretch from outside Kuching to Tanjung Datu National Park at Borneo’s westernmost point.

But there’s also research demonstrating that the economic potential of infrastructure development often remains unrealized, or at least unequally distributed. Studies have shown that the benefits of roads are often concentrated in the hands of big companies, whether focused on timber, minerals or agriculture, leaving the average citizen behind and sometimes leading to unrest and conflict.

An oriental pied hornbill takes flight over the Kinabatangan River. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

With new roads, poachers too face fewer obstacles to reach their quarry (though one conservation-focused local leader I met in Sarawak also suggested that the roads would help wildlife rangers in policing a primate-rich wildlife sanctuary and national park). Borneo has its own species of critically endangered orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and a variant of the endangered Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), considered by some scientists to be a distinct subspecies. The elephants’ tusks have become a target for poachers, and wildlife traffickers go after the babies of orangutans and other primates for the exotic, high-value pet trade.

What’s more, ecologists like William Laurance from James Cook University in Australia have cataloged the proliferation of deforestation for human settlement, agriculture and industry that follows road construction. That can mean a cascade of the same problems, including increased hunting and a loss of habitat, that ripple through nearby forest ecosystems.

Despite these potential drawbacks, some of the highway’s most prominent backers insist it’s possible to build a road that will fulfill its promises for development while minimizing environmental damage. Seated in his Kuala Lumpur office, Baru Bian, Malaysia’s minister of works, seemed to see no contradiction in his desire for both development and environmental protection. Baru describes himself as an environmentalist, and before he became a politician worked as a lawyer fighting for the rights of his own people, the Lun Bawang, and others facing the prospect of losing control of their land to outside interests. Now, his earnestness is focused on creating a booming economy for the people of Sabah and Sarawak, and he sees the Pan Borneo Highway as the way to do it.

A hillside cleared of trees next to the Pan Borneo Highway. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Baru might be overlooking the hazards that come with such a massive infrastructure project — at a cost of around $6.4 billion with a completion date in the mid-2020s — while focusing just on the potential benefits. But he has also shown a willingness to listen. In the days before our interview, he met with scientists to learn more about the threats to the environment that the highway’s construction could pose. And other leaders are following a similar path, if their public comments are any indication: In March, the chief minister of Sabah called for as little destruction as possible during the construction.

Alongside these leaders’ apparent openness to outside input, a movement among conservation-focused NGOs and research organizations led by Coalition 3H (Humans, Habitats, Highways) in Sabah has arisen to work with, instead of in opposition to, highway planners. Nearly all I spoke with who were concerned about the impacts of the road insisted that they weren’t “anti-development,” and this collaborative spirit could be seen as a reflection of that sentiment. In that convergence could be what one policy analyst called “win-wins” that would avoid the worst environmental destruction while bringing the benefits that roads can offer.

Like the unfinished highway, the fruits of this cooperation remain uncertain. Still, federal budget constraints mean that the second and third phases of the highway, which include controversial sections through central Sabah, likely won’t be budgeted for until 2021 or later under what’s known as the 12th Malaysia plan. That means that groups like Coalition 3H still have time to weigh in on still-unconstructed sections of the road, Baru said.

Houses slated for destruction along the path of the highway have been marked with spray-painted numbers. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

In some cases, petitioning the government has gained traction. In early 2019, the coalition discovered that the contractor working on the road heading up Sabah’s Gold Coast was doing so without having its environmental impact assessment approved. In April, the state’s Environmental Protection Department stopped work on part of the road, though it resumed a few weeks later once the department said the issue was corrected. It’s evidence, members of the coalition say, that change is possible — but also shows how difficult it can be to change the course of these projects once they’re underway.

The tide of infrastructure development currently rolling across Southeast Asia right now could be terribly destructive, Laurance said during a recent talk at the International Conference of Conservation Biologists. But he also offered a rare, if small, dose of optimism about projects like the Pan Borneo Highway, suggesting that it’s possible to change the outcomes.

“I don’t see this as a helpless situation,” Laurance said. “I see this as a dire situation absolutely, but I don’t see it as one in which we can’t have an impact. I absolutely think that we can.”

Banner image of a buffalo on a stretch of the highway under construction near Kota Kinabalu 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.


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Choudhury, A., Lahiri Choudhury, D.K., Desai, A., Duckworth, J.W., Easa, P.S., Johnsingh, A.J.T., Fernando, P., Hedges, S., Gunawardena, M., Kurt, F., Karanth, U., Lister, A., Menon, V., Riddle, H., Rübel, A. & Wikramanayake, E. (IUCN SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group) (2008). Elephas maximusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T7140A12828813. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T7140A12828813.en

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