Sabah community restores forest during pandemic

The Kopel cooperative, which ran a sustainable tourism business, saw visitors disappear with the health crisis. So it invested everything in reforestation projects. In the last 20 years, Malaysia has lost a quarter of its tree cover. 


Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Along the Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo, a group of men and women set out to reforest the region. First they cleaned up the land with machetes, then they planted thousands of saplings that they will take care of in the coming years. The collective, made up exclusively of local indigenous people, is part of Kopel, a cooperative that used to run a sustainable tourism enterprise in the four villages in Batu Puteh province, Sabah region.

"When the work stopped, I joined the reforestation team to help my family financially," Nurul Susanti Nasir, who previously worked as a maid with families on vacation, told New Naratif. "I like working in the forest more because reforestation work is more enjoyable." 

After months of hiatus due to fear of contagions and lack of funds generated by tourism, Batu Puteh residents have returned to planting trees to restore the rainforest. The region surrounding the Kinabatangan, the country's second longest river, is rich in biodiversity.

However, the province of Batu Puteh and the region of Sabah are also covered with fields for the cultivation of palm oil: the oil from these areas represents 6% of world production. According to data from Global Forest Watch, from 2001 to 2020 Malaysia has lost a quarter of its grass cover, corresponding to 2 million hectares of forest, or 809 mega tons of carbon dioxide, which is what it takes to charge about 103 million smartphones.

In the same period, the region around Kinabatangan lost 28% of its trees, or 190 thousand hectares of rainforest. As a result, the orangutan population has shrunk by nearly a third.

Kopel is trying to put a stop to this: Australian Marti Vogel in 1995 worked with the local population so that they could benefit from the earnings given by the tourism industry. Vogel had worked for several agencies that brought vacationers to Sabah and Sarawak, but had noticed that it was never the local communities that got rich.

In 1999, Kopel secured funding to launch his first reforestation program. Since then, 350 hectares of forest have been replanted and forest corridors connecting protected areas have been created. Before the pandemic, Kopel welcomed about 6,000 visitors each year. Then with Covid-19 everything came to a halt, the staff of 40 was cut in half to 20, and funding began to dwindle.

"Before the pandemic, our main business was tourism and our product was conservation," Saidal bin Udin, Kopel's manager, explained to New Naratif. The reforestation program has survived by partnering with research organizations, which rely on the cooperative for their long experience in the field. Researchers monitor tree growth to calculate carbon sequestration, but it's a complicated and laborious task, as carbon is sequestered both above and below ground.

Amaziasizamoria Jumail, a researcher at the Danau Girang Field Centre, measures the size of trees and puts out baskets every six months to calculate the amount of fallen leaves and dead wood. She takes soil samples and sends them to Cardiff University, where they are analyzed to measure carbon sequestration. "A healthy forest will capture more carbon," Jumail says.

"It's very important for us to work with communities, because at the end of the day they are people who live in those forests and know the species better than we do, they know what kind of forest they want to live in. At the end of the day it's about creating healthy forests, places that are good for animals, good for people and good for carbon."