Sabah’s eco-tourism at risk if Sukau bridge built, state minister warns

Masidi (third from right) said the state needs to look at the bigger picture, as the proposed bridge project has put Sabah in the spotlight from conservationists worldwide. ― File pic

KOTA KINABALU, April 12 ― Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun cautioned today against jeopardising the state as an eco-tourism paradise by building a controversial bridge through its rainforest.

In his winding-up speech at the state legislative assembly sitting, Masidi said the government is reviewing the bridge that would be a shortcut for villagers in the remote Sukau area, as it also needed to consider wildlife conservation efforts for which Sabah has come under global scrutiny.

“In our effort to help him keep his seat, we have to be careful. Instead of him ‘hangkang’, the tourism industry will ‘hangkang’ if we make the wrong decision,” Masidi said, responding to Sukau assemblyman Datuk Saddi Abdul Rahman’s remarks yesterday.

“Hangkang” is a colloquial term which means “ruined” or “fall apart.”

Yesterday, Saddi commented that he would be ruined in the upcoming state elections if the RM223 million bridge was not built.

Masidi said the state needs to look at the bigger picture, as the proposed bridge project has put Sabah in the spotlight from conservationists worldwide, including renowned wildlife presenter Sir David Attenborough.

“Maybe YB Sukau underestimates how world famous Sukau and Sabah is at a global level. We have the best biodiversity in the world and research from the Danau Girang Field Centre has helped put us out there,” he said.

Masidi also said that many local villagers depend on tourism for their livelihood and the Sukau area of the Kinabatangan river has the most successful homestay programmes, with some households earning as much as RM25,955 a year. The Kinabatangan river area brings in about RM160 million in tourism value each year.

“Our local tourism industry is run almost completely by locals, and this will affect them and a lot of people. They are dependent on the biodiversity conservation,” he said.

The bridge, under the Ninth Malaysia Plan, is expected to connect the western river bank to the Sukau village on the east and the road would connect Sukau to Litang and Tomanggong areas, in an effort to stimulate economic activities.

The project has drawn heavy criticism from non-governmental organisations and environmentalists, claiming it will interrupt the already sensitive ecology in the region and is in the middle of high elephant traffic.

It has also been argued that the road would provide convenient access and escape for poachers and spawn illegal hunting activities in the area.

After Masidi’s speech, Saddi asked the ministry to review the Danau Girang Field Centre’s role and position in Sabah, claiming more foreigners than locals had gained from it.

He also questioned the field centre’s director, Dr Benoit Goossens’ lengthy stay in Sabah.

“If we want the expertise of the director, surely there is no need for so many years, and even his contract was extended. I am so confused by this. His research was shared on internet to foreigners and he sold the information he got from his research here.

“The facility was meant to benefit local students but there are more foreigners. I think this should be reviewed,” he said.

Goossens is among the most vocal wildlife conservationists in the state to speak out against the bridge project.

In reply, Masidi dryly said there are several local University Malaysia Sabah students who were still working on their post-graduate studies at the Danau Girang Field Centre.