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Notes from the road: 5 revelations from traveling the Pan Borneo Highway

  • Construction of the Pan Borneo Highway will add or expand more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of roadway in Malaysian Borneo.
  • Mongabay staff writer John Cannon spent several weeks traveling the proposed route in July 2019 to understand the effects, both positive and negative, the road could have on communities, wildlife and ecosystems.
  • The project is designed to energize the economies of the region, and though officials have responded to entreaties from NGOs to minimize the harmful impacts of the road, they remain singularly focused on the economic benefits that proponents say the highway will bring.

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia — In July, I traveled most of the length of the proposed Pan Borneo Highway route with the goal of trying to understand the aims, possibilities and pitfalls of this highway’s construction. The trip covered more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of road travel and resulted in a six-part series containing several thousand more words.

The highway, a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar project connecting the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah as well as the Indonesian part of the island, is supposed to encourage commerce, shuttle tourists to see the states’ wildlife and cultural riches, and generally make travel quicker and easier. But from the outset and throughout the lengthy construction process, scientists, conservationists and activists have voiced concerns that the road would divide wildlife populations, damage habitat, and bring a bevy of unwanted impacts to local (human) communities.

Striking a compromise between competing priorities has proved challenging, if not altogether elusive. Part of that might be that the reality on the ground doesn’t always hew to predictions and expectations made in government offices or around the discussion tables at the NGO headquarters working to influence the course of the road. In those places, calculations aim to map out the economic largesse that the highway could funnel to communities or the statistical probabilities that its construction could wipe out the population of a given species. Without discounting the importance of those sorts of planning, the impacts of the road and its construction on the ground come across as more fundamental than that, affecting the everyday lives of community members, businesspeople and individual animals, sometimes in conflicting ways. Here are five things that struck me the most:

Mangroves cleared for the Pan Borneo Highway in Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.
Mangroves cleared for the Pan Borneo Highway in Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

1. Road construction is complex and often messy.

I’ve covered the development of infrastructure across the tropics, and in Southeast Asia, for years. But it took seeing the process in person to bring home just what it takes to carve a road through the rainforest. Much of the ecological research on roads demonstrates that the impacts of roads often ripple through the forest, providing an entry point for farmers to settle, companies to access resources, and hunters to track down game. But the process of building a road often requires marshaling a massive amount of resources from the surrounding area. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Sabah, north of the capital city of Kota Kinabalu. Along this stretch of Sabah’s “Gold Coast,” an army of flat-nosed green dump trucks methodically cart loads of dirt to build up the foundation of the future highway in the region’s swampy soils. In their wake, they leave behind a gashed series of hillsides where forests once stood, seemingly ready to erode and slough off their underbellies in the next violent rainstorm.

Trucks cart away fill dirt from a hilltop for the highway's construction. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.
Trucks cart away fill dirt from a hilltop for the highway’s construction. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

2. Enthusiasm for the potential benefits of the highway trumps the possible drawbacks.

For many people in Malaysian Borneo — politicians and average citizens like — the construction of the road is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for development. The federal government has promised billions of dollars to upgrade a vital infrastructure artery. Farmers would be happy to have an easier route to get their peppers and raw rubber and palm oil to market. Tour guides and restaurant owners dream of a steady stream of paying customers from Malaysia and beyond making their way to their towns from the big cities and airports of Miri, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. And politicians envision local economies ramped up to their full potential when they’re finally linked with others in Malaysia and even Indonesia. The excitement at these possibilities is often enough to drown out concerns about the effects the beefed-up roadway will have.

A mother proboscis monkey and baby in along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.
A mother proboscis monkey and baby in along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

3. Traveling by road in Malaysian Borneo is often long and difficult.

The two-lane roads that crisscross the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak cover large distances on the world’s third-largest island, which at 743,330 square kilometers (287,000 square miles) is about 10 percent larger than the U.S. state of Texas.

Peninsular Malaysia and neighboring Singapore are latticed with highways and railways, boasting some of the most modern infrastructure in the world. By contrast, traveling between Sarawak’s two largest cities can take a day or more. Though airlines have trimmed the travel time between major commercial centers on the island and have increasingly connected it to the broader region of Southeast Asia, road travel is still the most affordable and practical way of getting from one point to another for much of the population. Outside the cities, traffic can be light. But the challenges of the terrain and the weather and the likelihood of getting stuck behind a slow-moving timber truck or oil palm tanker made the prospect of a bit more breathing room on the highway seem like a good idea. One section of roadway between Sandakan and Lahad Datu in central Sabah, where planners hope to build a stretch of the highway, has had a bus-sized sinkhole that crews have only recently begun to fix. An extra lane in each direction could help keep traffic moving, though it also leads to questions about whether a wider road might mean more maintenance headaches for a federal public works department that’s already overstretched.

Crews leave being a small piece of a hillside supporting a powerline pole in Sarawak. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.
Construction crews have left behind a small piece of a hillside supporting an electricity pole in Sarawak. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

4. Without proper protections, the highway could carve up the habitats of many already-threatened species in Borneo, pushing them to the brink of extinction and extirpation.

The development of the road is likely to be a one-way street for wildlife. Once it’s built, the permanent barrier it forms will likely divide populations of elephants, crocodiles, clouded leopards and Borneo’s own species of wild (and endangered) cattle known as the banteng. The Kinabatangan River in Sabah is one of the easiest places in the world to spot a huge variety of Borneo’s unique animals. But wildlife biologists I spoke with, like Benoît Goossens, warn that bringing the Pan Borneo Highway to this region without providing some measure of relief for these already-threatened populations could spell the end of Sabah’s “corridor of life,” along with others still full of abundant wildlife.

A saltwater crocodile leaves the shore of the Kinabatangan River. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.
A saltwater crocodile leaves the shore of the Kinabatangan River. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

5. Environmentalists remain hopeful that they can limit the problems the highway could cause.

In spite of the challenges they face, conservationists have shifted their strategy to working with, instead of against, government planners. Their expertise, they argue, could well result in road designs that minimize negative impacts while still connecting communities. In one instance, they even convinced the government to halt work in an area where the environmental impact assessment hadn’t been approved. In both Sabah and Sarawak, scientists and policy experts have mapped out the road. They’ve spoken with the people most likely to be affected by it (both positively and negatively). And they’ve highlighted the stretches where interventions, such as short reroutes or bridges to allow wildlife to cross, would be most effective. Without a doubt, they know the allure that the promise of development can have, but they also seem convinced that adjustments, even small ones, could prove advantageous over time.

Banner image of the rainforest in Sabah and Mount Kinabalu by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

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

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