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Push to manage Batu Caves sustainably

Calls for Selangor government to establish a conservation management plan for Batu Caves in Gombak are getting louder.

Local communities and experts are pushing for Batu Caves and its immediate surroundings to be designated as a nature reserve and wildlife sanctuary, within the recognised National Gombak-Hulu Langat Geopark (GHL Geopark).

They argue that a well-conceived plan, supported by effective management strategies and state backing, will conserve, protect and sustain the caves and its wildlife.

This might also deter further encroachments and minimise environmental and public safety risks, while still involving the community.

Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia president and chief executive officer Andrew Sebastian said there should be a line drawn between protecting natural history and critical sites, like caves, and development.

“I believe that the area (Batu Caves) has been heavily developed for housing and small industry.

“For us to have world recognition like Unesco and spur tourism with the caves intact is crucial.

“The government and agencies in charge are to be put to task for failing to monitor encroachments or be given more support to prevent further incidents,” he said.

Andrew added that no permits or approvals should be given except for ecotourism and sustainable educational activities.

“In my opinion, ecotourism is the most sustainable product for caves while restaurants go contrary to what the area can sustain.

“The operator should focus on running ecotourism activities there with permits from the relevant state authorities,” he said, referring to a recent case of a restaurant operating within the boundary of GHL Geopark.

The encroachment issue was highlighted in StarMetro’s front-page report on March 11 titled “Food court in Gombak cave stirs up concerns”.

Since the article was published, many parties have expressed concern over the encroachment as it can jeopardise Selangor’s bid for the area to be recognised as a Unesco Global Geopark.

Ampang Jaya Rimba Collective (AJ Rimba) coordinator Noina Baharuddin said a large area of the GHL Geopark was situated on environmentally sensitive areas, which required proper planning and management.

“There are already existing and current development and planning policies, such as the local plan, special area plan and guidelines to protect and grow the area in a sustainable and green manner.

“If anything contravenes these policies and prescribed guidelines that will affect the integrity of geological, biodiversity, cultural and heritage sites, the development should not be allowed,” she said.

“A good example of sustainable and green development for a geopark is the geotrail.

“A geotrail is not just about tourism.

“It incorporates conservation of the geological characteristics and its interpretation into the trail, and connects it to the surrounding natural heritage, the history of its people, their culture and heritage and the evolution of the area’s economic development,” Noina said.

She added that it could also provide employment opportunities and improve the economy of the local community.

The essence of the geopark is community-driven, she said.

“The inclusion of community plays an important role in the assessment of the national geopark accreditation, which is a step required to apply for the Unesco Global Geopark accreditation.”

She said that stakeholders of Selayang, Ampang Jaya and Kajang had participated in the assessment for the national geopark and were the official “GHL Geopark communities”.

“In a way, residents have a vested interest in the GHL Geopark.

“Our homes and neighbourhoods are an integral part of it.

“If being part of the Geopark is good for our well-being and quality of liveability, and for the future generation here, then we want to be included and work together towards obtaining the Unesco accreditation,” she said.

Environmentalist Lim Teck Wyn said a conservation plan would also put an end to the issuance of private land titles to individuals.

“You cannot grant land titles to individuals on reserve land, but this practice has been taking place.

“We would like to see who are the beneficiaries of these titles, how many titles have been given out since Batu Caves was gazetted as a reserve in 1930 and what is being done on the land and the legality of it,’’ Lim added.

He emphasised the importance of establishing a nature reserve and wildlife sanctuary that includes specialised zones, such as areas for rare animals and plants, recreational spaces and temples.

However, he reiterated that the effective implementation of these zones required a comprehensive management plan.

Lim also highlighted the significance of having a wildlife sanctuary at Batu Caves, pointing out that it was home to unique wildlife endemic to the area, including the Batu Caves trapdoor spider, micro-jewel snails, rare begonia flowers and 270 species of invertebrates.

Eviction notice

Following a series of reports on the encroachment of the limestone cave, Gombak District and Land Office (PDTG) said it would issue an eviction notice to the food court proprietor.

Its director Nor Azlina Abdul Aziz said the eviction notice would be issued to the operator under Section 425 of the National Land Code 1965.

Separately, the Department of Minerals and Geosciences Malaysia (JMG) director-general Datuk Zamri Ramli confirmed that the department did not receive any application from the operators or local council for any proposed activities to be carried out in the cave.

On March 15, the food court proprietor running a business inside a 400 million-year-old limestone cave in Gombak, posted on social media that it had ceased operations in the cave.

The management of Gua Lepak food court said it would comply with the decision by the local authorities and not operate inside the cave.

“However, we continue to operate outside the cave as usual.

“Please continue to support Gua Lepak.

“Thank you for all the support you have given us, we truly appreciate it,” the statement said.

Safety comes first

Experts and geologists agree that economic activities in or near geological sites should be conducted responsibly without compromising safety or damaging the integrity of geological sites.

This include thorough site evaluations by certified geological experts, adherence to strict safety protocols and ongoing monitoring to mitigate risks and preserve the natural and cultural significance of these sites, they said.

Geological Society of Malaysia (GSM) president Assoc Prof Dr Mohd Hariri Arifin advised that potential operators of such establishments should seek professional advice before carrying out these activities.

He said this did not mean a blanket refusal to local economic activities, but the primary concern should be public safety.

“There could be the potential of rockfall or cliff collapse.

“If something happens, who will be responsible?” asked the geologist.

Mohd Hariri, who is also Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia deputy dean (Industry and Community Partnerships), Faculty of Science and Technology, said checks should be done at the site by certified geological experts.

“There are some 1,000 registered professional geologists who can evaluate the sites.

“This is not meant to burden anyone but to ensure that the business can run safely.

“It will also help preserve the archaeological and geological structures,” he said.

Professor Joy Jacqueline Pereira, a geologist with GSM, said there were many considerations that must be taken into account when contemplating such ventures.

When asked if operating restaurants in prehistoric caves should be allowed or not, Pereira said: “There is no simple answer here; if you look in Ipoh, Perak, there is fine dining in a cave too, depending on the context of the population.”

According to Prof Pereira, the question of whether to open such restaurants depends on values, which are inherently subjective and diverse.

“It’s value dependent and values are not right or wrong; it’s just different.”

“In my understanding, geoparks are about the local communities and what they want, and there are some international criteria as well (to seek Unesco recognition),” she said.

She stressed a need for collaboration and empowerment within local communities while simultaneously promoting conservation efforts.

However, in the case of Gua Lepak, Prof Pereira identifies a significant communication gap between various stakeholders involved in the decision-making process.

“From an outside view, that is what I see; the regulatory bodies and the geopark stakeholders really need to get together and understand the value of the local community as well,” she said.

She advocates for dialogue and understanding of local desires to pave the way forward.

Acknowledging the importance of balancing economic opportunities with environmental conservation, Prof Pereira added that everyone has a right to a livelihood and maintain a good environment — it boils down to how they go about it.

She acknowledged the potential benefits of Unesco labelling, such as increased protection, tourism and economic opportunities for the community, while also recognising the need to meet criteria associated with this status.

Read the original article in The Star.



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