Balambangan Island
Eco-tourism or...

by Herman, 26 March 2009

 The Flying Dusun Blog!

Balambangan Island is located some 20 kilometres off the northern tip of Sabah (Tanjung Simpang Mengayau), and it is part of the Kudat Division. About three kilometres to its east lies Pulau Banggi, Malaysia’s largest island. Balambangan Island was amongst the first locations in Sabah where British traders set up trading posts. In 1761 (or 1773 according to other sources) Alexander Dalrymple, a British East India Company officer concluded an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu to allow him occupation of the island. A free port was established, important for the interest of the British in the East Asia region, namely trade with China. The port, however, failed to become a long term success due to constant pirate attacks as well as for other reasons, and was abandoned after a couple of years.

Banggi and Balambangan Islands are two places in Sabah where I have not yet been, and very unfortunately so. Not only was Balambangan the first foothold of the English in what was to become, almost exactly two hundred years later, Malaysia as we know it to-day, but the two islands are still very little developed and the islanders there live an age old life-style that has little changed since the first Brits saw it. As such Balambangan and Banggi are of great value for those interested in local culture and customs, languages and traditions, but equally so for botanists and nature lovers. Balambangan has also some interesting archaeological sites – something I was unawares of until I read an article about the “Caves of Balambangan Island” by ‘Tadpole’ in our popular newspaper ‘Sabah Times.’ The caves are virtually unheard of, and reading the article in Sabah Times one can only guess some of the reasons why the island, with its ancient history, its people and natural beauty are not promoted as tourism destinations to the world at large. Here is the article, as it appeared in the newspaper, followed by an older article in Daily Express:

Caves of Balambangan Island - by Tadpole, New Sabah Times; Thursday, 23 March 2009

Balambangan Island is located approximately 21 km north of Kudat and 3 km west of Pulau Banggi. This island was one of the first establishments in Sabah in which British East India Company set up a trading post in 1761. It was abandoned after repeated pirate attacks.

Over 20 limestone caves, all without a name, exist on Balambangan Island, but only four are studied, The rest are unexplored and undocumented. Archaeological findings of three prehistoric human bones and 36 artefacts, from the Pleistocene era (the Ice Age – between 1.75 million to 11,000 years ago) were discovered there by researchers in 1997. The locals say the Japanese also used Balambangan caves as the base during the World War II.

Despite its value as a historical and ecotourism site, Balambangan Island is not protected as a national park. Instead, the government has been proposing developers to build clinker plant to mine limestone, which is an important ingredient in the manufacturing of cement. The 65.3 million metric tonnes of limestone on the island could last about 52 years of quarrying operations, but it will destroy the beautiful caves that have taken million years to form.

Therefore, before the caves are gone forever, I want to show you the photos [visit "Tadpole's" Blog for photos] of their intriguing limestone formations, consisting of stalactites, stalagmites, flow stone, straw and many other speleotems [sic], in hopes that people will protect these caves when they come to know and love the extraordinary sights of these stones. I worry that every piece of unique formation, which takes thousands of years to form, would become cement that worth just a few cents.

On April 12, the Sabah Society organised a trip to explore one of the caves. We landed next to the water which full of aggressive salt-water crocodiles. After 15 minutes of jungle trekking, we reached the cave entrance, a place where Palaeolithic community once called home about 20,000 years ago.

Limestone caves are created by erosion of rock by rainwater that diluted with carbon dioxide and form a weak acid. When acid reacts with limestone, it dissolves the limestone and gradually creates a cave. The space inside this Balambangan cave is vast and it is about 150 m in length. We heard chirping of alerted swiftlets and bats, the cave dwellers. Probably due to a few big cave opening on top, the smell of guano is not as strong as other normal caves.

Because of low accessibility, the cave is very well preserved. We saw many pointy stalactites hang from the ceilings of the caves like icicle, and stalagmites look as if they’re emerging from the ground. When both of these formations grow and join into one, a column is formed. Abundance of stalactites and stalagmites making the cave looks like the mouth of a giant monster with sharp teeth. These dripstones (stalactites + stalagmites) only grow about ˝ inch for every 100 years. The visibility in the cave was low, and one wrong step would crush a hundred-year-old infant stalagmite under our feet.

I heard water dripping and found a small pond with a lot of “cave pearls”. Cave pearl is created by droplets dissolved with limestone. The droplets fall into the pond, rotated by the water and mix with sand grain or rock fragment, and slowly turned into a round ball with size ranging from a marble to a tennis ball. When it is taken out of water and left dry, it will become powder.

Balambangan caves are the natural, historical and scientific heritages that we should conserve for our future generations to study and appreciate. Limestone mining is definitively not a sustainable way of managing our resources. I had seen many cases when copper was mined, timber was cleared, then the only things left behind were pollution and flood, and the local people still remain poor. I wish it will be developed as a geo-tourism site that will attract tourists and benefit the local economy in a long run.”

Sabah’s regular dilemma when it comes to her astonishing biodiversity and natural beauty: destroy for fast profits for a few who will get even richer, or conserve for long term profits for many, first and foremost the local population? This article in the Daily Express (Independent National Newspaper of East Malaysia) succinctly extrapolates the issue:

Clinker or eco-tourism?
Daily Express, Saturday, November 24 2007

Kota Kinabalu: Balambangan Island situated approximately 21km north of the Tip of Borneo in Kudat has tremendous potential to be developed for eco-tourism.

WWF-Malaysia Executive Director Dr Dionysius S.K Sharma said a study by Sabah Parks on four of the more than 20 limestone caves on the island revealed unique formations consisting of stalactites, stalagmites, flow stone, straw and many other speleotems, all contributing to the aesthetic value of the area.

And the caves constitute only one aspect of the island's significant biodiversity, he said, adding that endemic species like snail species and slipper orchid, critically-endangered tree species like seraya, rare species of pandan and orchids of horticultural importance are among the unique features of the island.

Apart from its bio-diversity, Balambangan Island has much historical value, grounded in the establishment of an East India Company post by the British traders in the late 18th century.

Used as a trading settlement, the interests of the British traders in Sabah steadily grew from this outpost, he said.

He said archaeological findings from the Pleistocene era (the Ice Age - between 1.75 million to 11,000 years ago) discovered by researchers from the Malaysian Archaeological Research Centre (PPAM) at Universiti Sains Malaysia in August 1997 have established human existence dating even further back.

The discovery included three prehistoric human bones and 36 artefacts made out of animal bones that may have been likely used as tools, he said.

However, he said the fate of Balambangan Island lies on the clinker and grinding plant of cement as part of the State Government's aim of setting up an integrated Clinker Plant Project to meet the cement demand in Sabah.

Clinker is the main material used in the production of cement, while limestone constitutes the major raw ingredient or approximately 70 per cent of the production of clinker.

According to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report that prepared in September 2005 by Paduwangsa Sdn Bhd, on behalf of Sedco, Balambangan Island has an estimated quarry reserve of 65.3 million metric tonnes, equivalent to over 52 years of clinker plant operation (Sinoh Environmental Sdn Bhd, 2005). Local communities would benefit from employment opportunities.

"But what happens after 52 years? Once the quarrying begins, so do the accompanying long-term effects. With human life span today averaging at 76 years, our posterity will not experience any benefits from this project at all," he said.

Dr Sharma said quarrying despoils the environment and rock blasting could lead to the destruction of coral reefs, which would be of no help to the tourism industry.

"But let's be honest, the reefs off Balambangan Island are currently not on the priority list of diving enthusiasts, local or foreign. On the other hand, the current fish landings in the Kudat region represent the highest concentration in Sabah," he said.

Dr Sharma said to the fishing industry, destroyed coral reefs mean no fish. Adding to problem, he said was the proposed construction of two jetties on the island to allow barges to transport the limestone to Sepanggar Bay, which would damage the coral reefs.

"The evidence is there and so are the options," he said, adding that while preservation is costly its rewards are long in the making.

He noted renowned limestone caves like the Mulu Caves in Sarawak and Ngilgi Caves in Western Australia to be the proof of its ability to provide income to the local communities for a period spanning much longer than half a decade.

"It is up to our government to uphold the preservation of Sabah's rich natural resources," said Dr Sharma.


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