The Orang Sungai, or River People, are not the only ones directly impacted by decades-long reforestation along Sabah's Kinabatangan River, according to a third-generation member of the community, Musarapa Amit.
According to the Centre of International Forestry Research (CIFOR), in East Malaysia alone, about 2.29 million hectares of forests were cleared between 2000 to 2017, of which 1.85 million hectares were converted to plantations. This disrupts the lives and livelihoods of the local indigenous communities who rely on the forest for food, shelter, and medicine.
Musarapa Amit, 30, a third generation member of the Orang Sungai community residing in Sukau, reveals, “Our community has always had a symbiotic relationship with the natural environment. The forest is our home. The forest is how we live; she informs our way of life."
"For generations, we have depended on her for shelter; we harvest her trees for wood to build and repair our homes. We forage her edible ferns and mushrooms, and catch fish in her rivers. The forest provides us with medicine to treat common illnesses, and even conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes."
"Without the forest, my community may not be able to survive, and if our way of life is no longer sustainable, our future generations will lose their connection to the environment," he asserts.
Impact on livelihood and local ecosystems
Like others from his tribe, Musarapa, or “Mus” as he is affectionately known, relies on the forest to make a living as a tourist guide and tour operator for local and international visitors to the Lower Kinabatangan region. Many Orang Sungai are boatsmen, tour guides, wildlife wardens and foresters, and most of them juggle more than one job to support their families.
“When our natural resources deteriorate and deplete, members of our community are less able to make a living," he laments.
"The forests and trees along the Kinabatangan River play a crucial role in filtering silt and sediment so its water is safe for consumption. When you cut trees down, their roots no longer hold the soil in place, and when it rains, the sediment and silt are washed into the river, causing it to turn a 'teh tarik' brown."
Elevated and/or more frequent depositions of sediment into river water can result in significant fish mortalities, which can affect the livelihoods of fishermen. Fish may not be able to tolerate declines in pH levels of the water, while high loads of suspended sediment can cause food sources for fish such as invertebrates, to deplete.
"When certain species of plants, such as the fig, disappear, the animals that consume them or help disperse their seeds, and pollinate their flowers, migrate to other areas. This affects my livelihood as a tourist guide. What am I going to show our visitors if the animals are no longer here?” shares Mus. The Lower Kinabatangan area is home to wildlife species such as the Borneo pygmy elephant, orangutan, sun bear, and clouded leopard.
"The rainforests and mangroves regulate the local microclimate, keeping land corrosion at bay, and regulating the water cycle and greenhouse emissions. By enabling wanton deforestation, we are increasing the chances of floods and landslides, which affects everyone, whether you are part of indigenous communities or are a city-dweller," he adds.
Humans must clean up our mess
Once damage has been inflicted upon the land, forests cannot regenerate unless with human intervention.
“The movement and settlement of heavy and large machinery, vehicles, and human beings in the forest changes the topography of the land completely. The topmost layer of soil becomes more and more compacted and stripped off its nutrients, which drastically reduces the likelihood of seeds germinating successfully on their own. Tree saplings are destroyed before they even have a chance to grow, and even if they survive, it takes generations for them to grow adequately to have a good grip of the soil and support other life forms,”
“This is why the communities here support tree-planting initiatives, such as those by APE Malaysia, as a way of renewing our forests, restoring our ecosystem, and rebalancing our microclimate,” adds Mus.
In 2017, the Sabah State Government declared Sukau a 'Biodiversity City', which protects the town from any development that may harm the socioeconomic advancement of its resident human population, wildlife, and the environment.
Restoring the Kinabatangan rainforests
Since 2007, Animal Projects & Environmental Education (APE Malaysia) through its ROAR (Restore our Amazing Rainforest) initiative, has been restoring forest cover in the Lower Kinabatangan area by planting tree saplings. A majority of these reforestation sites are former logging and log-dumping sites, alienated and abandoned land, or former agricultural land.
Over 84,300 trees have been planted across 42 acres of land in the Lower Kinabatangan region since the start of the initiative, and swathes of land have since transformed into thriving secondary forests. The survival rate of the trees has increased up to 85% thanks to regular and ongoing maintenance by the organisation.
In some of its earlier restored sites, the trees have grown to a height of seven meters, and to date, about 32 species of animals have been sighted in these secondary forests, including orangutans, pygmy elephants, deer, hornbills, reptiles, and birds.
“Over the past six or seven years I have personally seen small, thriving ecosystems emerge from previously barren land. This has in turn encouraged some of the wildlife species, which had migrated to other areas, to return here to set up their homes. This is a very encouraging development for those of us who live and work here,” shares Mus, who is currently a field team leader and local guide for APE Malaysia.
The reforestation programme also creates income opportunities for the Orang Sungai. The tree saplings are purchased from local farmers, who are also hired to nurture and maintain the saplings until they are able to survive on their own. Local transport providers, boatsmen, and foresters are hired from among the Orang Sungai to ferry and guide field teams to the six allocated reforestation plots along the Kinabatangan River. This has impelled Musarapa and other members of his community to participate in the reforestation efforts and strive to become better custodians of their land.
Don’t complain, act now!
Bridges M&C, a regional medical and healthcare communications agency has chosen to work with APE Malaysia on its ROAR project for its 2022-2023 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) campaign.
Since its launch in July 2022, the BridgesPlantsTrees initiative has raised funds for the planting and maintenance of 563 tree saplings (at the time of writing) in the Lower Kinabatangan region through the support of friends, family, and business associates.
In addition to sponsoring 50 trees and three years’ maintenance of these trees, Bridges M&C has also pledged to sponsor an additional tree (with three years’ maintenance per tree) for every 10 trees sponsored throughout the campaign.
Help Bridges M&C hit their target of 800 trees by World Earth Day, on 22 April 2023!
To join the cause for as low as MYR129 (S$40 or US$29), visit www.bridgesplantstrees.com