Plant­ing seeds of hope

Grow­ing trees bring relief to the heav­ily frag­mented for­est along Kinabatangan River.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT - By TER­ENCE TOH star2@ thes­tar. com. my

PLANT­ING trees is cer­tainly not an easy job. I learnt 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, Sabah.

I picked up my shovel and stabbed it into a stub­born patch of soil. How do the mem­bers of Ko­mu­niti Anak Pokok Kinabatangan ( KAPOK) make it look so easy? “Mu­dah saja,” 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 com­prises 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) Ber­had and Yayasan Sime Darby ( YSD). The project aims to re­store river­ine forests in Sabah by plant­ing trees in a 110km 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 over 480,000 trees on over 2,300ha 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 due to de­for­esta­tion or over- devel­op­ment.

Good news, per­haps, that YSD will ex­tend fund­ing to­wards this ini­tia­tive un­til 2017 with a com­mit­ment of RM1.7mil.

“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. With the co- op­er­a­tion 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,” Zainun said.

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 2.1ha 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 RM300 per month. Now, I can get about RM750,” said Gusli.

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 mid- day sun.

“The river bank 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.

1 Green­ing the river­banks will pre­vent eroded soil from foul­ing the river. — Ter­eNce TOh/ The star

2 Vil­lagers in Kinabatangan grow seedlings for a tree- plant­ing project. — Nes­tle

3 The writer hard at work plant­ing trees. — Nes­tle

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