KOTA KINABALU: The Sabah government’s decision to go ahead with the Pan Borneo Highway project that cuts through the biodiversity-rich Tawai Forest Reserve is a major blow to the state's conservation efforts.
Conservation group Coalition Humans Habitats Highways (3H), which has been urging the state government to avoid a road through Tawai forest since 2019, said the state Cabinet's decision was disappointing and needs to be reconsidered.
The coalition said it was ready to meet with Deputy Chief Minister III cum state Works Minister Datuk Shahelmey Yahya to highlight the concerns and recommendations about the road project.
"We would also appreciate if the mitigation plan to address the effects on the environment and wildlife on the route which goes through the Tawai Forest Reserve can be shared with the coalition to encourage public discourse," the 3H coalition said in a statement Sunday (Nov 26).
The conservation group comprises the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), Borneo Futures, Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), Forever Sabah, Jaringan Orang Asal Se-Malaysia (JOAS), Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP), 1StopBorneo Wildlife, PACOS Trust, Save Rivers Network, Sabah Birdwatchers Association, Seratu Aatai, and WWF-Malaysia.
They were responding to Shahelmey's announcement on the Nov 10 decision to maintain the 20.5km Pan Borneo road alignment through the first class Tawai Forest Reserve in Telupid instead of considering alternative routes proposed by the coalition.
The conservationists said that for many years they had collaborated with various government agencies to improve Sabah’s reputation and practices in biodiversity conservation, nationally and internationally.
"Sabah aims to be seen as a global leader in conservation and its commitment toward a sustainable and equitable economy is locally and internationally recognised.
"The Coalition 3H is not opposed to economic development and the construction of the highway. It is deeply concerned that certain sections, especially the 20.5km stretch from Sungai Baoto to Telupid, will have an unbearable negative impact on the environment in the region and wildlife in the Tawai Forest Reserve," the group said.
The conservation group said that Sabah’s iconic wildlife brings millions of tourism ringgit to the state.
"The Tawai Forest Reserve is home to some of the most endangered but also charismatic species in the Heart of Borneo - the Bornean elephant and orangutan, the Sunda pangolin and clouded leopard, and the Malayan sun bear, as well as the once thought to be extinct Bornean peacock-pheasant.
“The construction of a four-lane highway through wildlife habitats will create a hazard to the people and wildlife in the forest area.
"We will most probably see an increase of human-wildlife conflicts during and after the road construction, which will lead to a high number of collisions with animals including elephants, potentially leading to human deaths," they said.
In March 2020, Coalition 3H proposed to the state government three alternative routes to avoid cutting through the forest reserve while also potentially providing socio-economic advantages to the communities in Pekan Telupid.
"We understand that scrapping the alignment crossing Tawai Forest Reserve could be seen as moving backwards in terms of the building schedule and that additional costs could be added, we strongly believe that the costs to mitigate the impact of the road on the environment and the costs that will be paid by the communities when conflicts begin to will hit the region will be much higher," they added.