- Since last December, cement manufacturer Associated Pan Malaysia Cement has been looking to evict dozens of monks and devotees from the Dhamma Sakyamuni Caves Monastery in the limestone hills of Mount Kanthan in Malaysia’s Perak state.
- APMC calls the monks unlawful trespassers on company land; the monks say the company consented to their occupying the land for decades.
- Much of Mount Kanthan has already been quarried by APMC, and the untouched southern section where the monastery is located is also home to highly endemic and critically endangered flora and fauna.
- The monks and devotees are petitioning for the Perak state government to officially designate the monastery as a place of worship and Mount Kanthan as a national heritage site.
On Dec. 28 last year, a Monday, a group of representatives from a local cement firm arrived at the foot of the Mount Kanthan limestone hills in Perak, Malaysia. The day was hot and relatively windless, and the sheer white cliffs with their craggy summits and dark-green foliage stood with their faces to the sun. Hidden to the casual observer, their nooks and crannies brim with rare and delicate life: snow-white orchids, thumb-sized trapdoor spiders, bent-toed geckoes, and tiny snails found nowhere else.
At the bottom of the hills is a monastery nestled in limestone caves, where Buddhist statues and carvings sit serenely under a ceiling of stalactites. Home to some 15 monks and visited by more than 2,000 devotees yearly before the pandemic, the Dhamma Sakyamuni Caves Monastery has, over the last century, become a local tourist attraction.
When the representatives from Associated Pan Malaysia Cement (APMC) reached the monastery, they found themselves locked out of a gated compound. Undeterred, they climbed over the gates and marched in. The shocked monks and devotees “adamantly” refused to accept the legal letter the group had come to serve, the local plant manager, Sekar Kaliannan, noted in his affidavit. The document, a letter demanding the monks tear down the monastery and leave the land, was eventually left at a post box at the gates.
“It never crossed our minds that this would happen to us. We had vowed to safeguard the caves monastery,” a monk representing the monastery told Mongabay. “But we understand these are businesspeople and they’re doing it for the money. So whatever comes, we will try to face it. We harbor no hatred.”
Following the letter of demand, APMC filed an Order 89 application to evict the monks via a court order. The monks spent three months looking for a law firm before a pro-bono lawyer stepped in. “[Order 89] is a fast-track proceeding — whereby the court will look at the exchanged affidavit evidence and give a ruling without going through a full trial,” said Jia Mian Lee, the lawyer. “It saves time and money to proceed under Order 89 by claiming the monks are unlawful and unknown squatters.”
Lee added that she would be filing an action for the monastery and monks to be named as a party to the proceedings, to challenge APMC’s claim. “We are arguing that the monks or monastery are the lawful occupiers with consent by the landowner,” she said. The parent company of APMC, YTL Cement, declined to comment on the specifics of the case due to the ongoing court process.
In the months since, the monks and devotees have launched an ongoing petition to the sultan of Perak and the state government to gazette the monastery as a place of worship and the limestone hills of Mount Kanthan as a national heritage site.
APMC and the monastery have a long and storied history. In the 1960s, the company acquired from the state government a lease to the 146-hectare (361-acre) area of land that covers Mount Kanthan, for the purpose of quarrying. Operations began in 1964 at the northern section of the hills, with forest cleared and limestone cliffs terraced and blasted. For the last few decades, a sprawling network of vehicles has transported crushed rock to a fiery kiln, where ground-up limestone is mixed with other substances to produce the cement that helps fuel Malaysia’s construction boom.
A monastery representative said the monks’ presence in the area predated that of the company by several decades. But even so, under Malaysian law, the “length of time will not turn an unlawful occupation into [a] lawful [one],” a representative from Ng Kee Way & Co., a law firm not involved in the case, told Mongabay. “In order for Monastery to challenge APMC … Monastery must prove that they have obtained consent or authorisation from APMC.”
That, the monks say, did happen: in 1997, APMC assured the monks that they would be able to continue practicing peacefully, and the monastery poured millions of ringgit into building more facilities for devotees, a monastery representative said. APMC’s then-parent company, cement producer Lafarge Malayan Cement, reaffirmed this commitment in a meeting between the two sides in 2009, he added.
But in 2013, the monastery representative said, Lafarge began demanding that the monks leave the area for two to three hours a day to commence rock blasting, after which they would be allowed to return. Among those present at the meeting between the two sides was Sekar, who became the Kanthan plant manager in 2010, the representative said.
“[The new demands were] really unexpected,” the representative added, but the company’s plans did not materialize. After appeals by the monks, the state government stepped in to curb blasting activities in the area. The government also verbally assured the monks it would gazette the monastery as a worship site once APMC’s lease ended, according to the representative.
In 2019, Lafarge Malaysia (previously Lafarge Malayan Cement) was acquired by a competitor, YTL Cement. In 2020, APMC’s lease ended and was renewed for another 30 years without the monastery being gazetted.
Both APMC and YTL have denied the monks’ claims that the companies gave them assurance to continue practicing in their caves monastery. “It is unknown to [APMC] who the occupants of the Structure are,” Sekar said in his affidavit. “The occupants are squatters who have occupied the Land illegally and without the consent of [APMC].”
“Contrary to what has been claimed by irresponsible parties, we have co-existed harmoniously with the local community,” YTL added in a statement, highlighting that many farmers continue to live on its leased land without charge. “The real issues at hand are safety and the sanctity of the law.”
Limestone structures are “highly reactive to water or weak acid (such as rainwater)” and as such are prone to “highly unpredictable” natural geological disasters, the company said, citing fatal rockfall incidents in Mount Cheroh in 1973 and Perak Caves Temple in 2009. “As the rightful owner of the land, we are responsible for all that occurs on it. We cannot stand by the misleading of the public nor allow such negligence.”
Liz Price, an expert on Malaysian caves who has followed the dispute between the monks and APMC since 2013, said that such concerns “grossly [exaggerate]” the risk.
“In theory, every single limestone hill is being dissolved by rainwater. Rain falls on the hills, seeps down inside the hill via cracks and faults and slowly carves out the caves,” she said. “Unless they have done a specific study on the rock at the monastery, there is no reason why it should be any different from other [limestone] hills and caves. There is more of a risk from damage done to the rock by the quarry blasting than there is from collapse by rainwater.”
Sekar said in his affidavit that the company was indeed planning on quarrying the land the monastery was sitting on. “The operations at the Quarry Site would include, among others, heavy duty drilling, rock blasting, excavation of rock material [and] the hauling of stones followed by crushing of stones,” he said. “If the occupants of the Structure continue to remain on the Land, they will be exposed to danger of rock fall or rock blasting.”
The unquarried southern part of Mount Kanthan, which the company splits into two sections labeled C and D, contains not only the monastery but also other Taoist and Hindu temples. Its diverse topography includes sheer cliffs topped by a summit ridge of jagged rocks, a gully that leads to the enormous Kanthan Cave, and tall limestone forests and swamps where the elusive Sumatran serow (Capricornis sumatraensis), a type of goat-antelope, lives.
Following a 2014 biodiversity study done on sections C and D that showed sensitive biodiversity in D, including a critically endangered spider species, Lafarge abandoned plans to quarry the area (which covers Kanthan Cave), designating it as a conservation site.
“We are committed to preserving and protecting [Kanthan Cave] where endemic flora and fauna can be found,” YTL said in a statement. “We have been collaborating with experts from leading institutions to conduct research into how biodiversity can be effectively managed and conserved.”
What’s left is the nonprotected and possibly soon-to-be-quarried section C, home to the monastery, other temples and a multitude of endemic species from the different ecological niches created by diverse limestone terrains. Lafarge deemed C “less sensitive” than D in terms of biodiversity following its 2014 study, but researchers from the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) and University of Malaya (UM) have contested the company’s claims.
Within the concession area, they argued that, contrary to Lafarge’s conclusions, area C contains hyper-endemic species and is “significantly richer” than area D due to its more varied topography, with C containing 68% of Mount Kanthan’s flora. “The results of the Lafarge Biodiversity Survey have not been made available but certainly the assertion that Area ‘C’ ‘does not contain sensitive biodiversity’ is clearly unfounded,” the researchers wrote. YTL did not respond to a request to release its 2014 biodiversity report.
Ruth Kiew, a plant taxonomist and first author of the paper, told Malaysian news outlet The Star in 2013 that C and D ought to be conserved as a unit due to the interactive nature of the ecosystem there. “If they take zone C, the Serow will not be able to live on [Mount] Kanthan, and it will also mean the end of [Mount] Kanthan,” she said.
Mount Kanthan is one of several limestone geological parks in the Kinta Valley National Geopark, declared by the sultan of Perak in 2018.
Unlike state parks, however, geoparks have fewer protections under the law. “From the geopark office’s perspective, APMC has rights to the land, and rights to perform their industrial activities,” a geopark officer told Malaysian news site The Vibes in June.
“The geopark is under [the Perak State Parks Corporation’s] purview, but we lack enforcement and laws that exist for state parks. So, the geopark is still subject to the owner of the land,” she said. As such, the PSPC can “only advise APMC to reconsider its activities at the site, and the temple to make an application to be designated as a historical and cultural site,” The Vibes reported.
The dispute between YTL and the monastery is highlighting legal gaps in the protection of geoparks like Mount Kanthan. It is also part of a broader conversation that the state government, NGOs and the public are beginning to have about conserving and maintaining geoparks, and the promotion of ecotourism as an economic alternative to quarrying.
In June, the state tourism committee chairperson said the government was looking to collaborate with NGOs and introduce ecotourism activities such as bird-watching and hiking in geoparks, The Star reported.
A monastery representative said the monks would welcome ecotourism activities in Mount Kanthan, and that the caves already serve as a refuge for stressed-out city dwellers.
A devotee in her fifties from Kuala Lumpur, who first came to know of the monastery more than 30 years ago and who visits it weekly, said the pure air, clear water and natural forest surroundings have helped reduce her anxiety and quell her asthma.
“I used to be an asthmatic with serious allergies,” she said. “The meditation practice, the uniqueness of the caves environment, all of these have helped me to be able to enjoy life like a normal person.” Beyond health challenges, other visitors to the caves have also found rest from emotional turmoil, including deaths and divorces.
“This is such a small portion of Mount Kanthan, but so unique and important. We think the cement giant should be generous and kind enough to respect the region and the people of Malaysia,” the monastery representative said. “They are already quarrying so much of Mount Kanthan. Why can’t they do that?”
Banner image of monks and devotees at Ipoh High Court. Image courtesy of Dhamma Sakyamuni Caves Monastery.
Kiew, R., Tan, J. P. C., Saleh, K., Yong, K. T., & Kamin, I. (2014). An uncertain future for the plants of Gunung Kanthan, Perak, Malaysia. Cave and Karst Science, 41(3), 120-128. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273136281_An_uncertain_future_for_the_plants_of_Gunung_Kanthan_Perak_Malaysia
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