Caving in to development

  • Environment
  • Tuesday, 16 Jul 2013

Villagers of Merapoh, Pahang, fear that a proposed quarry and cement plant will mar their idyllic rural environment.

ZOO Imam Mat is sad and angry at the same time. You would be, too, if the fish farm that you have been nurturing for 16 years was forcibly closed. “He is very frustrated. The source of his livelihood is suddenly gone,” says his son, Sabri Zoo.

His 78-year-old father had started the caged fish culture business in 1997 in a pond near their village of Merapoh, Pahang, under a state government-initiated project. The Fisheries Department had provided the villagers with cages, fish fries and feed to kick-start the project. It thrived and Merapoh farmed fish became sought after by restaurants in nearby towns.

“The patin and talapia that you get in Gua Musang and Kuala Lipis are from here. They are in demand as they don’t have any muddy taste because a stream runs through the pond,” says Sabri, 32. “My father used to earn between RM5,000 and RM8,000 a month from the caged fish and with that, he raised a family of 12. Now, it is all gone,” he says, pointing to the 20 cages abandoned by his father.

Ordered to vacate

Some 15 villagers involved in the fish farming were instructed to remove their cages, numbering about 120, two years ago but a few, including Zoo, held on until early this year. It appears that the area is the site for a quarry and cement plant. The land had been leased to the company Bintang Tower, while the cement manufacturing licence had been given to Lipis Cement.

Villagers first heard about the development over 10 years back but it never took off, so the caged fish culture continued and bloomed. All was quiet but in June 2010, Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob told the press of plans for a cement factory there, a joint venture between the government and a local firm. Revival of the project appears imminent when in late 2011, Singapore-based company, ASN Cement, proposes to take over Lipis Cement.

The villagers voiced their protest for the project through social media and the press and recently, they were told that the state legislative assembly has “rejected the application of the cement plant.” State officials also told the press of plans to gazette the area into a park. The villagers, however, remain wary; they fear that the decision can be overturned upon the appeal of the company.

Sabri Zoo's father is among the 15 villagers of Kampung Merapoh, Pahang, who had to abandon their fish farming efforts as the area has been earmarked for a limestone quarry and cement plant.
Sabri Zoo's father is among the 15 villagers of Kampung Merapoh, Pahang, who had to abandon their fish farming efforts as the area has been earmarked for a limestone quarry and cement plant.

“There is nothing in black and white. We don’t know whether we can go back (to the pond) as it is still their land,” says Mohd Sapri Khalid, 51, chairman of the association for caged fish culture. He says the villagers are still awaiting compensation for their losses. “We were previously told that we will be compensated when we remove our cages but now, the new company says this offer was given by the previous company, not them.”

For Sabri, if the project goes ahead, it will deal him with not one, but two blows: aside from the loss of his family’s fish farming business, he has to give up his budding caving eco-tourism plans. Scores of limestone outcrops surround Merapoh in the district of Lipis, all largely unexplored. Sabri, a trekking guide at Taman Negara, last year teamed up with another nature enthusiast, Laili Basir, to explore the feasibility of bringing visitors into the caves. Both are new to caving but with help from locally based caver Liz Price, and others from Croatia and Japan, they have to date explored over 85 caves, and mapped 12.

From their finds, the Merapoh caves have loads of visitor appeal. Some caves have large chambers; others are filled with unique formations or have interesting geology. Some hide pools of crystal-clear water harbouring fish and tortoises. Gua Hari Malaysia (named such because they found it last Sept 16) has an almost kilometre-long river flowing through it, forming cascades and pools. In Gua Tahi Bintang, a now dried-up stream had eroded its walls to expose layers of bedding (sedimentary rock deposits) and also carved rimstone dams. Its name is derived from one wall filled with streaky formations resembling shooting stars. Gua Seribu Cerita, meanwhile, has loads of old cave paintings – and possibly some made-to-look-old graffiti, too – along an overhang.

Although the licence held by Lipis Cement allows the quarrying of two hills, Gua Gunting and Gua Goyang, the villagers fear that the others will eventually be mined since the land lease is for 100 years.

A possible adverse impact is water pollution, say Wan Amiruddin Wan Ibrahim, who heads the local protest group. “All kinds of chemicals and waste will enter Sungai Merapoh. Eight villages depend on water from this river. It is our only water source. It is a small river and we pump it for use downstream of the development. ”

The former penghulu points out that as Sungai Merapoh feeds the tributaries of Sungai Pahang, the repercussion of water pollution will be widespread. He says dust pollution will also affect the inhabitants of the over 300 homes in the village.

“The haze lasted a week and it already caused so much health problems for the old people here. With this project, dust will be a daily affair. And when the dust settles on our crops, it will cause reduced yields,” says Wan Amiruddin.

He adds that the villagers do not think that the project will create jobs. “We don’t want this sort of job which is unhealthy. We already have orchards, oil palm and rubber estates. We want to maintain the area. If we save the caves, there will be opportunities for villagers to become tourist guides and we will also protect the environment.”

Threat to biodiversity

There is much else at stake, too, if the quarrying goes ahead. Limestone hills are known to harbour rare, endangered flora, a fact underscored by recent botanical surveys by the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia. Botanists made several remarkable discoveries, including plants found only in Malaysia, growing at Gua Gunting – the very hill that will be quarried. That same limestone outcrop yielded a new species of rock gecko and two new species of bent-toed geckos during a survey by US herpetologist Dr Lee Grismer last month.

“The Merapoh area is very important because the limestone formations provide unique habitats in which many species have evolved that would not be there in the absence of the limestone formations. We only spent two nights there but in that short time we were surprised at the high amphibian and reptile diversity we observed. It was far greater than we had expected. These limestone formations are an important part of Malaysia’s natural heritage and harbour significant components of this country’s biodiversity,” says Dr Grismer of La Sierra University in California.

Such finds are indication of the importance of the limestone hills and surrounding forest as wildlife sanctuaries. In their explorations, the cavers have encountered fauna such as racer snakes, porcupines, spiders, scorpions, bats and toads. In the forests that clad the hills, they have seen the serow and sunbear, and also found bones of an elephant and a black panther. As such, they hope to see the limestone hills preserved as a geopark.

Surveying the hidden chambers of the outcrops has given the cavers a better understanding of these geological structures and their ecological roles. “Caves are very important for us,” says Laili, 41. “They function as a water source, they provide a habitat for fauna. The bats and insects in caves are linked to our daily lives. Bats are pollinators … without them, our trees will not fruit. As we learn about the caves, we’re also educating the villagers at the same time.”

He has initiated the Save Merapoh Caves campaign to raise awareness and support for the cause. “There is no point in us promoting the caves only to have them blown up. The fish cage business has been operating for some 20 years. It is supported and funded by the government which has now given the land away. That’s why I want to help … to make right what is wrong.”

If the cement plant and quarry goes ahead, he fears there will be severe repercussion. “It will affect everything … our quality of live, the quality of our nature. The worst part is, our next generation will not see what we have now.”

Related stories:

Plant rethink

Rare finds on outcrops
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