HON CHONG, Vietnam (AP) — Hundreds of species live in the limestone caves of Hon Chong in southern Vietnam, and many of them are found nowhere else on Earth. Yet their habitat is being blown apart, chunk by chunk, in the name of making cement.
One reason, biologists lament, is that these are creatures no one would want to hug, and many would want to stomp.
Spiders. Mites. Millipedes.
People who have been trying to save them from extinction for more than 15 years have found few allies in government, industry or among local residents.
"The problem is that limestone caves do not (have) any charismatic animals or plants that would melt people's hearts if they died out," Peter Ng Kee Lin, a biologist at the National University of Singapore, said by email.
The degradation of Asia's vast but fragile limestone ecosystems is continuing apace as the region's demand for cement grows along with its economies. Limestone is a key ingredient in cement, the second-most consumed substance on Earth after water, and is used to build desperately needed houses, roads and bridges.
Holcim Vietnam — a joint venture of the Switzerland-based company Holcim and a state-owned Vietnamese construction company — began quarrying 200 hectares (490 acres) of Hon Chong limestone in 1997. It is licensed to quarry about 91 million tons of limestone at three hills over 50 years.
Hon Chong has among the few limestone outcroppings in southern Vietnam and lies about 250 kilometers (155 miles) west of the southern economic hub of Ho Chi Minh City.
Its isolated cave ecosystems are among the world's most biodiverse, according to Louis Deharveng, a biodiversity specialist at the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris.
Letters from scientists and a biodiversity study obtained by The Associated Press show that Holcim Vietnam and a key donor have received repeated warnings in recent years about the threats the company's quarries pose to Hon Chong's cave-dwelling invertebrates. Three respected European scientists have accused the company of ignoring red flags over two decades and provoking an ongoing "ecological disaster."
"It's rather like a company going in to mine the Galapagos just before Charles Darwin arrives," said one of the scientists, Tony Whitten, a former biodiversity specialist at the World Bank who is now regional director for Asia-Pacific at the UK-based conservation group Fauna & Flora International. "How many species is a company prepared to eliminate from a planet we are supposed to be managing and sustaining?"
Holcim Vietnam says its operations meet the highest international standards for social and environmental responsibility and that it is working to offset the damage it causes to Hon Chong's limestone.
It partners with the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature to relocate rare monkeys living near the caves, and has also donated $30,000 toward a wetland-based crane conservation project managed by the U.S.-based International Crane Foundation, according to the groups.
Holcim and the Swiss conservation group also are working with provincial authorities to create two protected areas of about 2,000 hectares each near the Hon Chong quarries — one for grasslands and the other for limestone.
Holcim is also working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature to develop a "biodiversity action plan" for Hon Chong that is expected to be finalized in October. Jake Brunner, Mekong program coordinator for the conservation group, said Holcim does not have a perfect environmental record but is an "island of excellence" when compared to Vietnam's state-owned cement companies.
Holcim's critics, however, said that while the company is helping to mitigate the damage done to monkeys and cranes, it is slowly killing off the small cave dwellers that play an undervalued but important role in the ecosystem.
Cave invertebrates are pollinators and the base of food chains that support a rich web of life, scientists say. Because limestone hills have rugged terrain and have largely been spared from agricultural development, their interior caves are now "islands" of tropical biodiversity, and most of the organisms living inside those caves are unknown to science.
Ng, the Singapore biologist, said the destruction continues in part because caves do not house "sexy" animals that galvanize the general public's sympathies.
"Our disregard for them speaks volumes of human wisdom," he said.
Nguyen Cong Minh Bao, Holcim Vietnam's sustainable development director, said ecological factors couldn't be considered independent of economic ones.
"That's the reality where we are living," he said in an interview at company headquarters in Ho Chi Minh City.
Holcim declined a request by the AP to visit its Hong Chong quarries and cement production plant, saying it did not have enough advance notice to arrange a tour. But in July, AP reporters interviewed local residents who said they were grateful for the jobs, infrastructure and social welfare programs the company assists in.
"Holcim has done a good job protecting the environment," said provincial environmental official Vo Thi Van. "It's not right to say the quarries have caused an ecological disaster."
Holcim's plant was built with help from the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector arm of the World Bank. It arranged financing of $97 million for the project, though Deharveng warned the corporation in 1995 that "no comparable ecosystem exists elsewhere in Vietnam."
The decision to go through with the loan was made based on an environmental impact assessment by Vietnamese scientists that did not specifically address threats to Hon Chong's cave biodiversity, said Richard Caines, one of the finance corporation's principal environment specialists.
The corporation later commissioned a biodiversity survey that in 2002 reported "wide species diversity" in Hon Chong's limestone hills. The loan was paid off in 2003, but Caines said the corporation continued to work with Holcim Vietnam after that, in part because the quarrying operations posed a "reputation risk" to both parties.