Malaysia limestone: Time to stop destroying Perak natural treasure

Keep limestone hills for tourism a la China's Guilin
Pauline Ng Business Times 7 Nov 11;

(Kuala Lumpur): THE beautiful karst hills of Perak state are being blasted to bits and quality limestone exported for very little money to a number of countries including Singapore because it is sold in its raw form, The Star newspaper highlighted last week.

That blocks of raw limestone - and of very high quality at that - are being disposed of for RM60 (S$24.40) a tonne and then resold for up to RM390 a tonne after it had been processed and value added at places of import is a crying shame, say industry specialists who want the precious mineral resources protected and preserved.

The economic waste notwithstanding, the seeming acceleration of the destruction of these magnificent limestone outcrops makes very little sense, except perhaps to those benefiting from the quarrying which has intensified over the years. Limestone exports surged from 440,700 tonnes in 2001 to RM607,000 tonnes in 2009, according to government statistics. Despite a slight dip last year, exports are expected to breach 600,000 tonnes this year.

The Kinta Valley's limestone massif stretches from Tapah in the south to Lintang in the north, with Ipoh lying smack in the middle. Despite repeated calls over the years to halt or at least to slow down the pace with which these hills - estimated to date back 245-410 million years - are being levelled, the rampant scarring of the landscape is inescapable as one approaches the state capital Ipoh from the south.

This is all the more ironic given that tourism has been earmarked as a key sector for the Malaysian economy - indeed it is a priority area under its economic transformation programme.

And while it is arguable that tourism demand for theme parks is strong, it is probably galling to nature lovers to see sovereign fund Khazanah Nasional invest hundreds of millions of ringgit in theme parks such as Legoland in Iskandar Malaysia when true natural treasures such as Perak's limestone range are being denuded to the point where they could soon disappear.

All the more unfortunate considering the tourism value that the hills offer if properly promoted and marketed: one only has to look at China's Guilin, renowned for its limestone monoliths and which the Chinese would presumably not contemplate the blasting of even one precious mound.

Nature walks, treks, and rock climbing are some of the activities that could be built around the easily accessible range, suggested the Malaysian Karst Society. Since its formation in 2004, the society has faced an uphill fight to save and conserve Perak's unique heritage.

Meanwhile, The Star said that its investigations revealed that local firms hold the mining lease on the limestone hills at Simpang Pulai, where the limestone quality is said to be of very high grade and where the destruction is rampant. But the leases were 'rented out' to companies with foreign interests.

That the Perak state government which controls land rights has seen fit to award these licences but not ensure that the quarrying is controlled is puzzling and short-sighted, because while it may generate some revenue, the resource once depleted cannot be replaced.

According to industry specialists, Perak's limestone hills can last for 500 years if properly extracted and processed. They also recommend that limestone be mined underground if necessary so as to preserve the hills and that the state audit and research the value of its limestone outcrops before they vanish.

In a letter to The Star, Zari Malaysiana decried 'the butchering of the hills over the years for profit because of our ignorance. Perak has all the wonders of nature but efforts are not forthcoming in promoting its tourism potential to the fullest, both at state and federal level'.

If it be ignorance, a nation aspiring to transform into a knowledge and high income economy by 2020 must surely now halt the reckless and wanton destruction of one of its natural treasures.