THE multiple monetary benefits of limestone hills and caves for tourism, agriculture, biodiversity and, possibly, pharmaceuticals should be reason enough to conserve the caves.
And of course, there should be pride in our natural heritage too. Indeed, patriotic pride of having inherited unique living creatures and landscapes born after centuries of being created in this beautiful land called Malaysia.
But we also need limestone for roads and cement for homes. Do we have to sacrifice one or the other?
Happily, we can have our cake and eat it, too. The answer lies in underground quarrying.
Hymeir Kamarudin, an expert on limestone hills and caves, says that the part of limestone hills that hold most of the benefits (of biodiversity, caves, pretty landscapes, etc) lie above ground, but 80% of limestone is actually found below the surface.
So, most limestone can be mined by going deeper at sites where hills have already been cut down. But beautiful hills and caves are being destroyed because it’s cheaper and easier to extract limestone from them, rather than to go underground, which involves digging and pumping water out.
The solution, says Hymeir, is for the government to limit the further destruction of limestone hills with financial incentives for companies to mine limestone underground.
Chin Su Hung, a veteran caver from MNS, says, “Of course, we cannot be naive to say that all quarrying is bad. Limestone is a key ingredient to many things in our lives.”
But he points out that the World Bank has suggested that cement companies should quarry areas which are already disturbed or degraded, avoiding sites with caves and underground streams. Isolated hills should be avoided altogether.
“Yes, mining limestone underground is more complex and expensive. But it yields better aggregate sizes and better composition, which better suits the demands of industry today. In fact, limestone quarried from the surface are often of low quality,” underlines Chin.
A good example to follow, he says, is that of industry leader Kennedy Quarries Ltd (part of the Lagan Group in Britain).
“They are commited to environmental protection. They have implemented a Biodiversity Management Plan and work closely with the Conservation Volunteers of Northern Ireland (CVNI). The biodiversity plan has also been incorporated into the annual audits.”
In contrast, cement companies in Malaysia have little measurements of environmental impact when quarrying. The current focus is merely on rehabilitation after hills are destroyed, but not on conservation of the treasures that exist.
“Cement companies should work with external agencies to conduct proper assessments, not create their own environmental standards that are out of public scrutiny,” says Chin.
The most striking voices for conservation have come not from NGOs but from the government itself. In 2012, the Ipoh City Council (MBI) full board meeting proposed to turn 16 limestone hills in Perak, including Gua Kanthan, into a Geopark.
In fact, MBI was hoping to gazette the preservation and protection of Ipoh’s limestone hills from future quarrying or mining under the Ipoh Local Draft Plan 2020.
Ipoh mayor Datuk Roshidi Hashim, while specifically mentioning the trapdoor spider of Gunung Kanthan, said, “Apart from providing a scenic view around the city, the 400-million-year-old hills are home to an array of flora and fauna that cannot be found elsewhere. Instead of being destroyed for mining and quarry activities, these hills should be maintained and promoted for tourism, research or recreation.”
However, when contacted recently, Nolee Ashilin Mohd Radzi, the new Perak state exco member in charge of Health, Tourism and Culture said that the Geopark proposal, is “still being reviewed” by the state government.
We can only hope that the vision of conservation so eloquently expressed by the mayor in 2012 will become a reality soon. It would be a truly patriotic celebration of our natural heritage.