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Malaysian activists call on road planners to learn the lessons of history

To its proponents, the Pan Borneo Highway holds the promise of economic development, but activists say that poor planning and an emphasis on extracting resources mean that the highway could harm communities and ecosystems.

Noormala Anwar’s frustration comes through in an Aug. 4 video she posted on Facebook. She swings her phone’s camera back and forth, revealing a bulldozer sitting right next to her house in northeastern Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. Her children are still inside the building, which abuts the existing road. Outside, construction crew members stand around, the roar of equipment in the background.

In Malay and through tears, Anwar yells, “You give us a limit of one week to move out before you destroy our home.” But she and her family are staying, she says. “Let me be clear on that.”

Anwar’s house stood in the way of crews and their bulldozers tasked with widening this stretch — and many other parts — of the existing road network in the state. It’s part of an effort to construct the Pan Borneo Highway, a massive infrastructure project proponents say will spur economic development in East Malaysia.

Current plans call for the expansion or construction of new tarmacked road through more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) of Sabah and the neighboring state of Sarawak, that will ultimately link up with a similar project in Indonesia’s provinces on the island.

After Anwar’s footage went viral on Facebook, a team working on the film Our Road Our Say interviewed her in Sabah’s Kinabatangan region. She told them that local government officials came to visit her family after she posted the clip and promised to help. But at the time of filming, her family hadn’t received any aid to compensate for the home she’s lived in for 30 years, she said. In the meantime, her water and electricity had been cut.

“I begged them to please help us, we are citizens of Sabah,” Anwar said.

The filmmakers found that most people living near the proposed route of the highway are excited, at least initially, by the megaproject’s promised benefits: safer and faster travel along the largely four-lane, toll-free highway; improved connections between market towns and economic hubs like Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu; and transportation for high-paying tourists to the wildlife, mountains, coastlines and rainforests of upcountry Sabah.

But that enthusiasm often wanes as the project moves forward, said Kenn Chong, a videographer on Our Road Our Say, which was supported by a Sabah-based coalition of NGOs and scientific organisations called Humans Habitats Highways, or Coalition 3H.

“Once it actually affects them, that’s when they have a different opinion,” Kenn told Mongabay.

That predictable decline in support for the Pan Borneo Highway reflects what activists say has been an upside-down process. They say that plans for the road did not come from careful study of the need for infrastructure aimed at boosting Sabah’s development. Rather, the project has been driven by a top-down system of patronage modeled on colonial methods of resource extraction that could adversely affect the people and the ecosystems of Malaysian Borneo.

Historical precedents and ribbon development

Sabah gained self-governance in 1963, and in 1966 became part of newly formed Malaysia. Before that, the British had controlled much of present-day Sabah and called it North Borneo. Roadbuilding projects in those days were primarily designed to facilitate the transport of the island’s valuable timber and rubber out of the thick rainforests that once covered the island.

Beginning in the late 1880s, several megaprojects launched by British leaders fizzled, despite huge investments. The problems arose from “bad ‘project shaping,’” writes Kenneth Wilson, an environmental historian with the Sabah-based NGO Land Environment Animals People (LEAP). He is the author of a series of articles recently published in the Borneo Post looking at the lingering legacy of those early infrastructure projects.

“The decision-makers behind these projects did not spend enough time working out a proper business case with the stakeholders, the community and the experts before launching,” Wilson adds.

The projects attempted by the British included a telegraph line, a trans-Borneo roadway and a trans-Borneo railroad. But they suffered from delays and swollen budgets; just three lines, mostly serving Sabah’s west coast, resulted from the railway effort.

After World War II, the emphasis on extraction was difficult to shake. Infrastructure built around siphoning resources often led to “ribbon development,” in which human settlement followed the predictable pattern of springing up along roads, Wilson writes.

“This is the inevitable result of many roads being built merely to get to places instead of actually helping people,” he writes. Once large highways are built, the tendency is for shopkeepers, food vendors, even schools to get as close as they can to the major artery, ribboning out in thin strips along the highway and encroaching on the roadway itself. The clamor at the road’s edge leads to increased congestion, defeating the purpose of moving traffic efficiently on an expansive, four-lane road like the Pan Borneo Highway.

It wasn’t until the late 1950s that a new model appeared, championed by an economist named J.R. Sargent.

“Sargent was an unusual transport economist in that he found his numbers in the mud rather than the office,” drawing conclusions about siting infrastructure projects from the perspectives of people on the ground, Wilson writes.

Instead of focusing on broad thoroughfares and the megaprojects that swamped the early British megaprojects in North Borneo — the forerunners of the Pan Borneo Highway — Sargent advocated lacing secondary roads in places identified by residents and district officers working in the area. The aim of these networks was to connect existing communities and jump-start rural economies. Wilson said that crews could build these smaller arteries more quickly and cheaply that were easier to maintain. Ultimately, Sargent’s ideas formed the basis of Sabah’s current road network in the early 1960s.

Today, Coalition 3H advocates using the Sargent model to build a more interconnected, “circular” economy, instead of a linear one bent on extraction, in Sabah.

“If you even took 5 per cent of what’s been spent on the Pan Borneo Highway and used that to invest in maintaining the secondary and tertiary roads, you would do far more for the length of the average journey in Sabah and for economic development,” Wilson told Mongabay. “You could have a functioning secondary network.”

But, he said, the propensity to revert to the linear, extractive model continues to this day, leading to ribbon development that will likely accompany the Pan Borneo Highway.

“All the things that are wrong with the contemporary mega projects had happened under the British,” Wilson said. “You don’t have to point a finger at Malaysians.”

Invading the forests

Left with the specter of losing their homes without adequate compensation to relocate and rebuild, people in some parts of Sabah have called for a rerouting of the highway’s path. Telupid is one of those ribbon development towns — in fact, an entire district — that attracted settlement after the British built a road in the 1960s cutting across Sabah and linking Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan on the state’s northern coast. The irony, Wilson said, is that now Telupid’s very existence is threatened by precisely the same justifications for economic development propping up the Pan Borneo Highway.

“Telupid town’s whole history and whole development was about piggybacking on a road that was not built for their benefit,” he said. It remains vulnerable to the dual threats from expanding the lanes or being bypassed in the quest for shorter travel times, he added, both of which would gut the local economy.

Syaiful “Toi” Anthony Stephen, a videographer working in the Telupid region on Our Road Our Say, said he and his colleagues found that the planning phase for the highway in the Telupid area didn’t involve the consent of the people living there.

“It seems they didn’t really give them an option,” Toi said through a translator. “They just told them that this is going to happen. It’s going to go through here.”

When residents learned of the plans for the highway, they told officials that they wanted the highway to cut through the nearby Tawai Forest Reserve, an oasis of protected, wildlife-rich rainforest amid a sea of oil palm plantations extending to the horizon. The path they proposed would follow a low-lying, relatively flat course through the forest, and it would potentially provide access to a forest that was previously off-limits.

“[D]rawing on their historical experience, many villagers believed that legally or illegally they would then be able to settle along the new road within the Tawai Forest,” Wilson writes.

That settlement could be disastrous for the wildlife living in the forest, according to Coalition 3H.

LEAP commissioned a biodiversity survey of the forest that has turned up healthy populations of Bornean orangutans and pygmy elephants — threatened animals that draw tourists to Sabah — as well as rare species like the Bornean peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron schleiermacheri), listed as endangered by the IUCN.

There are only two records of the bird’s existence in Sabah, Wilson said, “and there it is, right in the forest that they’re planning to put the road through.”

Toi said the proposed route also follows a known elephant migration route, setting construction crews and motorists up for potentially deadly confrontations.

Instead of opening up this protected forest to settlement and cultivation, Coalition 3H has proposed a third option that would send the Pan Borneo Highway north of the town of Telupid. This option would carve its way through existing oil palm estates, avoiding the potentially devastating consequences of a road cut through an elephant corridor and keeping the Tawai reserve intact to protect the species living there from an influx of human settlement. Road engineers estimate it would be more expensive, as it would cut through hillier terrain than the path through the forest. But the coalition says the higher cost would be money well spent to protect the region’s forests, wildlife and its people.

Mind your studies

LEAP and Coalition 3H say the Pan Borneo Highway has suffered from a lack of research to understand the costs and benefits of the project before it began — research that could avoid adverse impacts on nearby towns or wildlife populations.

“The main problem of this project is, where was the proper planning?” said Dyan Dumpangol, a videographer on the film who worked in the Papar district south of Kota Kinabalu.

Instead, the highway has become a political pawn of sorts. As new political parties have taken control — a recent election installed the third new government since the project kicked off in 2015 — they’ve been preoccupied with finishing the highway, said Cynthia Ong, executive director and founder of LEAP.

“The primary thing is to talk about fast-tracking it,” Ong told Mongabay. “No one so far has said, we are going to study it more carefully, we’re going to open up the discussion to stakeholders. No one talks about that.”

Not assessing the likely impacts of the project has led to befuddling outcomes, said Joan Faydrie Frederick, a videographer on the film who worked with Dyan in Papar.

“The Pan Borneo has damaged animal habitats, which therefore affects the ecotourism industry,” Joan said. “Where is the economic development in that?”

Dyan, Joan and their colleagues say that time and again, the people they interviewed questioned the wisdom of carving out a four-lane highway that would encircle the state.

Najib Ramsa, a videographer in the Kinabatangan region, said that, at first, many people thought the Pan Borneo Highway project would upgrade the existing road.

“We have a lot of road that [is] already not maintained [with] a lot of holes and damage,” Najib said.

Heading west from the regional hub of Sandakan, a smooth road ferries visitors to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. But beyond these well-trodden attractions, the road into the Kinabatangan region rapidly deteriorates.

The Kinabatangan River and its surroundings are among the best places in Southeast Asia to see wildlife, and homestays and upscale lodges anchor the local economy. But debilitated roads make for a tiresome journey from Sandakan. Similar problems hamper travel on paved roads across the state, said Kenneth Lo, the film’s producer.

“A lot of these community members that we interviewed, they’re saying, yes, we do need a proper road because of the current road situation, which is really bad,” he said. “But … if they couldn’t even maintain a small road, how are you able to maintain a larger scale?”

The Pan Borneo Highway will be a toll-free highway, according to planning documents, leaving open the question of how to pay for the highway’s costly upkeep, Joan said.

“Where are the resources coming from to maintain the roads?” she said. “Maintaining roads will cost money.”

It’s an expense many planners don’t anticipate. Tropical ecologist William Laurance of Australia’s James Cook University in Cairns has said that it could cost 10 per cent to 20 per cent of a road’s initial price tag — per year — to keep tropical roads in working order. On average, Sabah gets 2.5 to 3.5 meters (100 to 138 inches) of rain annually. Combine that with Borneo’s undulating terrain, and it’s a recipe for landslides that can cause buckling and swamp the tarmac with mud, rendering roads dangerous or unusable.

To handle such challenges in the future, the state’s public works agency, known as JKR, will need funding. But so far, it’s unclear where that money would come from and whether planners would consider setting aside funding for maintenance instead of construction. JKR did not respond to several requests for comment from Mongabay.

Repeating history

Just as when the British were in control, roads have become a tool to extract resources, Wilson said, with little regard for those most affected by them: people who need them to get to work, transport their products to market, and travel to clinics and schools. Now, he said, leaders in Sabah also see road infrastructure as a way to recoup the federal resources that they feel the far-off government has taken illegitimately.

“The rationale for roads has been replaced by the building of this huge infrastructure to extract money from road contracts and deploy it for political purposes,” he said. “It isn’t that a bunch of evil people invented something. It’s a whole system, which is very, very hard to break.”

That these projects are an integral part of the political system is something of an open secret in Sabah, with the votes often flowing to the candidates of the party that marshal the most financial resources from federal coffers. And there’s pushback when groups like LEAP question the practicality of projects like the Pan Borneo Highway, which are seen as a way to bring in federal funds from the government in Kuala Lumpur.

The question Ong and other activists get is, “Why are you guys hindering these big projects where we can get back our money for Sabah?” she said. Their attitude is, “Getting some of it is better than getting none of it.”

Mongabay sought comment from the Sabah chief minister’s office, along with the public works agency, on the film and Wilson’s articles, but they did not respond to these requests.

Recouping that money has come at a cost. Anwar’s family’s house was on track to be demolished, leaving them with few options and little recompense for their loss at the time.

“They can offer assistance to other countries but yet helping the country’s people seems difficult and painstaking for them,” Anwar said in the film. “It is truly difficult for us.”

In the end, Anwar’s house was declared “an illegal structure,” which she said was perplexing given that she had had no problems getting her applications for water and electricity services approved.

Arifin Asgali, a former official representing the area where Anwar lives, has reportedly built a new house for the family, according to the filmmakers, but they said they aren’t sure whether the financing came from government compensation or from Asgali himself. Asgali didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Though Anwar and her family now have a place to live, she said in the film that she still wasn’t sure why the road is necessary in the first place.

“This is a small village, not a big city,” Anwar said. “I don’t think there is a need for a highway to be built.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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