Quarrying at Niah National Park

A couple of months ago I visited Niah Caves near Miri in Sarawak. You can read about my trip on my Malaysia Traveller website.


This cave complex is one of Malaysia’s most impressive natural wonders and it was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010, though it has not yet achieved that honour.

The caves and some 3100 hectares of the surrounding rainforest and limestone hills were gazetted as Niah National Park in 1974, meaning they should be preserved in pristine condition in perpetuity.

The national park is managed by Sarawak Forestry Corporation which describes Niah as follows:

Niah is one of Sarawak’s smaller national parks, but it is certainly one of the most important, and has some of the most unusual visitor attractions. The park’s main claim to fame is its role as one of the birthplaces of civilisation. The oldest modern human remains discovered in Southeast Asia were found at Niah, making the park one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

Yet there is much more to Niah than archaeology. A vast cave swarming with bats and swiftlets; the thriving local economy based on birds-nests and guano; ancient cave paintings; a majestic rainforest criss-crossed with walking trails; abundant plant and animal life – all these and more make up the geological, historical and environmental kaleidoscope that is Niah.

Given the importance of the site for tourism you would think that everything possible would be done to protect this valuable, fragile and irreplaceable asset. However, on my recent visit, it was disappointing, but sadly not surprising, to see that the area is under threat from quarrying.

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Quarrying near Niah Caves

This Google Maps image shows extensive quarrying is already encroaching on the edges of the National Park and some of the limestone cliffs have been broken up and trucked away.

Is this area inside or outside the National Park borders? This map shows the approximate borders of the park:

National Park area shown in green. Compare this with the Google image below and it would appear that the quarrying is nibbling away at the edges of the park.

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Since the National Park was intended to protect all the surrounding limestone hills it is possible that quarrying is already taking place inside the National Park, which would be illegal.

This street level image shows the dirt road turn-off leading towards the quarry, busy with lorries.

Niah is not the only national park in Malaysia under threat. Illegal logging is reported in and around forest reserve areas across the country. Sarawak Forestry and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks should introduce buffer zones surrounding national parks within which certain activities, such as logging and quarrying, are prohibited. Access to these areas by trucks and diggers should be controlled. Strict enforcement and heavy penalties are needed otherwise Malaysia’s natural wonders will not be around for much longer.

Ipoh’s Limestone Mountains Turning to Dust

Ipoh Postcard 1970Ipoh is one of Malaysia’s most attractive towns. It has expanded enormously since this postcard photo was taken 45 years ago but it still has a pleasant feel to it with wide tree-lined avenues, grand historic buildings and friendly people.

Limestone hills south of IpohBest of all, Ipoh is ringed with scenic hills and studded with distinctive limestone karst towers, many of which contain caves and cave temples. The limestone filters and purifies the city’s water supply which in turn waters the fruit and vegetable farms and is said to enhance the flavour of the area’s famed cuisine.

Ipoh's limestone hills seen from afar.

Ipoh is sometimes called Little Guilin, referring to the Chinese region famed for its spectacular hills, pictured below (source:Wikipedia).

20090503_6305_GuilinGiven the tourism value of this scenery you would think that Ipoh’s local government would do all in its power to preserve and protect these 400 million year old hills, especially since Perak Tourism has just launched a campaign to promote the state as an eco-tourism destination. So it is rather surprising and disturbing that a number of the area’s mountains are being quarried and turned into cement and marble like this one:

Quarrying activity near Ipoh

And this one:

Quarrying activity near Ipoh

These are not isolated cases as this Google satellite image of  Simpang Pulai shows:

Google image showing quarrying activity at Simpang Pulai

The French cement giant Lafarge (which has a local Malaysian subsidiary) attracts a lot of negative media coverage for its quarrying of Ipoh’s eco-sensitive areas but it is far from the only company involved. Of course the world needs cement but there must be other, less conspicuous sources. Lafarge’s website says its goal is to create a better world by providing cement to build hospitals, schools and so on, but is it essential to demolish Ipoh’s most distinctive geographical features in the process?  How would the French public react if an Asian company were to start digging up the French Alps?

Malaysia’s Limestone Hills Threatened by Quarrying

Peninsular Malaysia is blessed with dozens of amazingly shaped limestone pinnacles, rising steeply hundreds of meters above the surrounding landscape. These hills often contain caves and are usually coated with dense vegetation with rich bio-diversity and are home to rare flora and fauna.

Under threat - limestone hills near Arau, Perlis

These national treasures should be preserved and protected as part of Malaysia’s unique natural heritage and valued for their outstanding beauty and recreational potential.  To be fair, some of them are protected but quite a number are being hacked to pieces by uncaring quarry owners who are converting the limestone into cement or crushed stone. Here is an example I saw recently near Arau, the royal capital of Perlis.

Going, going, gone.

In my opinion, demolishing these hills is a crime on a par with bulldozing virgin rainforest or poaching rhinos.  At least rainforest could, in theory, eventually grow back given enough time, whereas these pinnacles are irreplaceable.

There are plenty of other examples, particularly near Ipoh where whole mountains are disappearing. The powers that be in Perak should realise that without their limestone hills, Ipoh would have all the charm of an industrial estate and they can kiss goodbye to the city’s tourism potential.

Some of the hills contain marble or dolomite of other valuable minerals. Such limestone rocks are often being exported in their raw unprocessed state to countries like China where they are being converted into building materials such as kitchen work tops which are then sold back to Malaysia and elsewhere.

To prevent other countries from benefitting from Malaysia’s natural resources in this way, state governments are offering incentives to foreign companies to set up limestone processing plants in a bid to create jobs. But jobs for who?  Malaysia is chronically short of workers and it is estimated that there are over 3 million foreign workers in Malaysia, legally and illegally. Dirty and dangerous jobs like quarrying are more likely to be filled by imported labourers from Myanmar, Vietnam, Nepal or Bangladesh rather than by Malaysians.

Turning mountains into dust.

There are plenty of limestone deposits underground in Malaysia. If the construction industry must have access to limestone then quarry the underground deposits instead and leave the hills alone. Of course it will be more costly but the cheapest option is not always the best one.