Restoring Sabah forests with tree planting

Economy April 10, 2016 01:00


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PLANTING trees is certainly not an easy job. I learned this in probably the hardest, most hands-on way possible - during a tree-planting session on a blisteringly hot day on the banks of the Kinabatangan River in East Malaysia’s Sabah state.

I picked up my shovel and stabbed it into a stubborn patch of soil. How do the members of Kinaญbatangan Tree Saplings Community (KAPOK) make it look so easy?

“Mudah saja [It’s easy],” a smiling woman half my size said. “Just use your shovel to make a circle in the ground. This will loosen the soil, and you can then move it away.”

Yeah, simpler said than done. Ten minutes in, I was sweating like crazy and the amount of soil I had moved would barely fill a teacup. It was only after a great amount of effort that I created a substantially sized hole to plant my little sapling. I hope it grows well; it has certainly been well watered by my perspiration.

I certainly have a lot of respect for KAPOK, which consists of the people of four villages who grow tree seedlings for replanting and have helped plant hundreds of thousands of trees over the last few years in Kinabatangan.

These efforts are a part of Project RiLeaf, a reforestation and palm-oil sustainability collaborative initiative between Nestle (Malaysia) and the Sime Darby Foundation (YSD).

The project aims to restore riverine forests in Sabah by planting trees in a 110-kilometre riparian area along the lower Kinabatangan River. This natural buffer will minimise the impact of soil sedimentation and chemical fertilisers, thus giving the river a chance to repair itself over time.

The project also endeavours to promote greater awareness of sustainable oil palm practices among the local community.

“We want to see the trees again, like how things used to be. There used to be a lot of deforestation around this area. It is a lot better now,” said KAPOK member Aznan Awang.

Since 2011, the project has planted more than 480,000 trees on more than 2,300 hectares of degraded forest, an area the size of 3,200 football fields. It is a worthy effort – the Kinabatangan, the second-longest river in Malaysia, is home to a diverse collection of exotic flora and fauna. It would be a shame for a biodiversity hotspot like this to disappear because of deforestation or over-development.

Good news, perhaps, that YSD will extend funding towards this initiative until 2017 with a commitment of 1.7 million ringgit (Bt15.3 million).

“This project has not only successfully enriched the biodiversity along the Kinabatangan River, but also provided communities in the area with additional income aside from capacity building initiatives,” said YSD governing council member Caroline Christine Russell.

Nestle corporate-affairs executive director Zainun Nur Abdul Rauf said: “The project has made great strides in bringing life back to the Kinabatangan River, and has positively impacted the local communities in the floodplains.”

Economic activities and employment opportunities have been created for the local community, specifically in Abit, Bilit, Sentosa Jaya and Perpaduan villages.

One challenge, however, has been in obtaining approval from the correct people in charge.

“For some areas, the land belonged to the Sabah government. So we needed to get to the right people in order to get permission to plant the trees,” Zainun said.

“With the cooperation of the Forestry Department, we are slowly getting there. But it takes a lot of effort and time just to get these areas demarcated for us to start planting.”

Sustainable farming

Another component of the project is getting smallholders to practise ecologically friendly and responsible agriculture, such as using natural fertilisers and pesticides instead of chemical-based ones. This component, known as UpLeaf, is a joint effort with local social enterprise Wild Asia and international civil-society organisation Solidaridad.

Of the 135 oil-palm smallholders in the Kinabatangan area who have participated in the UpLeaf programme, 115 have earned Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification for their fresh-fruit-bunch production, based on efforts in practising sustainable oil-palm planting.

One certified producer is Gusli Madali, 58, who has a 2.1-hectare plantation in Kampung Perpaduan.

“I’ve had good experiences. I gained a lot of knowledge and my income has gone up. Before getting involved, I earned about 300 ringgit per month. Now, I can get about 750 ringgit,” Gusli said.

Another smallholder, Habibah Kitui, 56, said the programme taught her planting techniques, estate management, proper application of fertiliser and minimal use of chemicals.

Growing towards the future

After the tree-planting session, we were taken on a motorboat ride down the Kinabatangan, for a first-hand experience of the river’s wildlife diversity. And what a sight it was.

Within minutes, we spotted hornbills soaring above the canopy. Monkeys leapt from tree to tree in displays of agility that would make acrobats jealous. We marvelled as our guide pointed out a snake lurking in the trees, and one journalist spotted a crocodile basking in the midday sun.

“The riverbank is home to many endangered species, including the orang-utan and the proboscis monkey. Through the reforestation programme, it is hoped that the reconnected forests and restored ecosystems will help in improving the numbers of these endangered animals,” Russell said.

It would be difficult to see such natural splendour anywhere else. It made me happy, therefore, that with the extended funding, an additional 200,000 trees will be planted over the next few years.

The project also aims to convert forests currently classified as Class 3 (Domestic Forest Reserves, areas for natives to hunt, fish and gather for their own use) and Class 4 (Amenity Forest Reserves, areas to provide the public with recreational opportunities) into Class 1 (Protection Forest Reserves, which are strictly protected).

Here’s hoping that with the everyone’s continued efforts, the forests along the Kinabatangan will keep on growing, their pristine beauty and natural heritage preserved for future generations.