Hacking their way through bushes and vines towering above their heads, a team of local women and men are clearing the last sections of a two-hectare patch on the bank of the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo. Under the hot tropical sun in October, they are preparing the land for what will become a new rainforest.

“We use machetes when we clear the plot because machines are not strong enough for the bushy environment where we work. It’s tiring for the body, but it’s efficient,” Nurul Susanti Nasir says. Together with her husband, Nurul is part of a seven-person crew that includes people in their teens and their 50s. They work quickly, occasionally taking short breaks to catch their breath and crack a joke. 

It took the team two months to prepare and plant more than 3,000 tree saplings of the 5,000 planned for this plot, and it will take a couple more years of caring for them until they grow into a young rainforest that can sustain wildlife. The reforestation group, who are all indigenous people, have been planting native tree species around their village of Batu Puteh in northeastern Sabah since 1999. Their work is part of a reforestation initiative established by KOPEL, a community-led cooperative that runs a tourism venture in the four villages that form Batu Puteh Township. 

“The forest was in trouble, and the people realised in some years we won’t have forests to take the tourists to anymore.”

Before the pandemic, Nurul worked as a housekeeper at the village’s tourist homestays. “When that work stopped, I joined the reforestation team to help my family financially,” she tells New Naratif. “I like working in the forest better because the reforestation work is more peaceful.” 

But similar to the tourism sector, the pandemic has put a strain on reforestation work in Sabah’s biodiverse Lower Kinabatangan region. After months of work disruptions due to fear of COVID-19 infection and a lack of tourism-generated funds, Batu Puteh residents like Nurul have headed back to the forest. Now, they are once again replanting trees in an effort to secure their livelihoods, protect endangered species and regrow carbon-capturing rainforests.

Fewer Trees, Less Wildlife, More Carbon

Located on the banks of the Lower Kinabatangan, the second-longest river in Malaysia and one of the country’s most biodiverse areas, Batu Puteh Township is a community of around 2,000 people bordered by oil palm plantations and small patches of protected rainforest. Critically endangered species such as the orangutan, sunda pangolin and helmeted hornbill, along with other threatened species like the Bornean pygmy elephant and sun bear, live in wildlife sanctuaries along the river, fragmented by the palm plantations. 

Sabah produces some 6% of the global output of palm oil, and the vastness of the oil palm estates compared to the remaining forests only becomes evident when looking down from above. The state lost a quarter of its tree cover, or nearly 2 million hectares—equivalent to 809 metric megatonnes of carbon dioxide—from 2001 to 2020, according to data from deforestation tracker Global Forest Watch. That’s about the same amount of carbon dioxide equivalent produced by charging nearly 103 million smartphones.

Murneh Ismail, 62, plants seedlings in KOPEL’s nursery, where seeds gathered from the forest are planted and grown until the saplings reach approximately 40 centimetres in height. They are then replanted in forest plots. Alexandra Radu

In the same period, the Kinabatangan region lost 28% of its tree cover, or 190,000 hectares, the fourth most of any region in Sabah. Almost all tree cover loss from 2013 to 2020 in Kinabatangan occurred inside plantations. Following years of deforestation and forest fragmentation, populations of endangered wildlife have decreased, with the Lower Kinabatangan area having lost nearly a third of its orangutan population over 15 years from the early 2000s.

Tourist-Funded, Student-Supported

In 1995, Batu Puteh residents teamed up with Australian national Martin Vogel to set up KOPEL, a community-based tourism cooperative that aims to support local indigenous livelihoods.

Vogel, who previously worked with tour agencies that brought foreign tourists to Sabah and Sarawak, observed that locals were not earning much from tourism through the agencies, so he suggested Batu Puteh residents establish the cooperative.

Community members run it with a governing board of members from the four villages of Batu Puteh. They have decision-making power over KOPEL’s activities in their communities. Tourist draws include staying in traditional village homes, and seeing local fauna and flora during guided hikes and riverboat trips. Vogel, who has been living in the township’s Mengaris Village since 1996, coordinates the operations and serves as KOPEL’s chief executive officer.

After fighting wildfires in 1998 that devastated local forests, the people of Batu Puteh became actively involved in rainforest restoration, seeing it as a way to ensure income through eco-tourism.

Vogel recalls large patches of forest burning that year, following a long drought. “The forest was in trouble, and the people realised in some years we won’t have forests to take the tourists to anymore,” he says. 

“Before the pandemic, our main activity was tourism and our product was conservation.”

In 1999, a 65,000 ringgit (about US$15,000) grant from the Discovery Channel allowed KOPEL to launch its reforestation programme, according to Vogel. Since then, local reforestation teams have planted and nurtured roughly 350 hectares of forest in the Batu Puteh region, an area the size of Singapore’s Marina Bay. They have planted on several strategically chosen plots in order to make corridors that connect various protected forests, or fill in empty patches created by fires or logging. 

Over the years, the initiative has received intermittent financial support from NGOs and the Malaysian government, but village reforestation and administrative workers’ salaries have relied on the cooperative’s eco-tourism business—until the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, our main activity was tourism, and our product was conservation,” says Saidal bin Udin, KOPEL’s conservation manager, who has worked with the reforestation programme since its founding and sits on the cooperative’s governing board.

But Malaysia’s monthslong lockdowns and dwindling funds cut KOPEL’s forest programme in half during the pandemic, from around 40 people to 20. 

The cooperative used to welcome approximately 6,000 visitors each year, 80% of them foreign students from schools and universities around the world, Saidal says. Undergraduates and postgraduates completing their PhD field work would come to Batu Puteh to learn by helping the local workers with various stages of the reforestation process. In addition to the income generated from tourism, secondary schools and universities donate money to the forest restoration programme to support conservation. 

Before bringing young students into the forest, Saidal instructs them on seed collecting, tree biology, planting and clearing methods, and safety.

“People get excited about clearing—the site preparation,” he says. “It’s the hardest work, but they are very excited using the machetes. Most of the students know the theory, but on the ground, they feel how it’s being done.” 

For the local reforestation teams, having university students conduct field studies in the forests around Batu Puteh means a constant source of scientific information, which they can employ to improve their reforestation efforts.

“It’s very interesting if we have students or volunteers from universities to come here to study the soil, the hydrology, because we don’t have this scientific base,” Saidal adds. “If we know this kind of information, it’s really good for us to modify our methodology to restore the forest more successfully.”

A Death Sentence for Saplings

When tourists and students stopped visiting Batu Puteh after the pandemic struck, the reforestation programme survived through partnerships with  research organisations.

“KOPEL can [cover] up to half of the actual cost of [forest] restoration in a world where tourism is functioning normally,” Vogel says. But at the moment, the cooperative is not earning enough to cover the costs of reforestation management, planning, communications, boats or overheads.

Regrow Borneo, a reforestation and carbon mitigation project, launched in Batu Puteh in 2019 in cooperation with the Danau Girang Field Centre, Cardiff University’s field research and training facility, and the Sabah Wildlife Department. The project maintains 12 hectares of rainforest in the area, and has helped keep KOPEL’s reforestation programme afloat, Vogel says.

Amaziasizamoria Jumail, a senior researcher at the field centre, says they have been researching wildlife movements and restoration ecology in Batu Puteh, but in order to apply what they’ve learned and restore habitats, the researchers rely on KOPEL’s two decades of reforestation experience.

“We collaborate with KOPEL because they have the skills, and KOPEL gets funding,” she says. “It’s a good combination because they do the planting, and we do the research, the carbon sequestration, the biodiversity monitoring.”

Nurul Susanti Nasir plants a Dipterocarpus Validus tree, a climax tree species endemic to Borneo. Alexandra Radu

KOPEL’s reforestation teams are planting 16 indigenous tree species on the Regrow Borneo plots this year, Vogel says. The trees are fast-growing pioneer trees that will close the canopy in two to three years and mimic the natural forest regeneration process. As the canopy closes, and with many of the chosen tree species producing fruit that is edible for animals, the partners expect wildlife to move in.

But regrowing forests requires consistent tree care and maintenance, which became a challenge for those engaged in reforestation work in Sabah during the pandemic.

Some 85 kilometres downstream from Batu Puteh, in Sabah’s Sukau Village, Norinah Braim, who heads a reforestation team at the nature conservation group HUTAN, says the majority of their work is protecting newly planted trees from being overtaken by other plants. Regular care and nurturing brings up tree survivability rates from 20% to 80%, she says, but during lockdowns, the HUTAN teams could not maintain already planted plots for months in a row.

“We planted back in May [2021], and in June, we were supposed to do maintenance on that plot, but because of the [movement] restrictions for three months, we couldn’t do it,” Norinah tells New Naratif

In a tropical environment where bushes, vines and grasses easily overtake young saplings, lack of maintenance is an almost certain death sentence for newly planted trees.

“There are times when we are sad because some of our trees are strangled by crawler plants, and they die,” says Fatimah Binti Pastor, another HUTAN reforestation worker. “That’s why we do maintenance [for up to five years]. We clean the invading plants from the trees, so we can see them grow.” 

Growing Healthy Forests

Researchers monitor the trees as they grow, to calculate carbon sequestration as the trees and the animals depending on them increase in mass. Measuring carbon sequestration is a complicated, laborious task, as carbon is sequestered both above and below ground, in living and dead matter, both in vegetation and animals.

Jumail, the senior researcher at the Danau Girang Field Centre, measures the size of the trees, and puts baskets out to measure the amount of fallen leaves and dead wood on the ground every six months. She takes soil samples and sends them to Cardiff University, where they are analysed to measure underground carbon sequestration.

“Reforestation is the only viable method for sequestering carbon at the scales that we are required to.”

Tristram Hales, director of Cardiff University’s Sustainable Places Research Institute, conducts carbon sequestration research on the samples and data from the Regrow Borneo plots. A healthy hectare of Bornean rainforest stores between 550 and 1,100 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to a 2020 report on Regrow Borneo’s achievements

“Reforestation is the only viable method for sequestering carbon at the scales that we are required to,” he says.

Nations must remove a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2025, and more than a billion tonnes each year after that, to reach the Paris climate target and avoid catastrophic climate change, an industry climate report says.

The main goal of the reforestation programmes run by KOPEL and HUTAN is to restore wildlife habitats, but they recognise carbon sequestration as a secondary benefit. This is the ideal way to pursue reforestation, Hales says, because it promotes the growth of healthy forests.

“A healthy forest is going to sequester [more] carbon,” he says. “For us, it’s very important to work with the communities, because ultimately they are people that live in those forests, and they know the species better than we do—they know what kind of forest they want to live in. It’s a little bit about wildlife, it’s a little bit about carbon, but ultimately, it’s all about creating healthy forests—places that are good for animals and people and carbon.”


This story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

Produced as a part of the SEAFORE ASEAN Masterclass project, with support from IWPR

Alexandra Radu

Alexandra Radu is a photo and video journalist based in Kuala Lumpur. Her portfolio is available at http://www.alexandra-radu.com/.