Communities An Integral Part of Conservation in Sarawak.

Sarawak state at 12.4 million hectares is one of the biggest states in Malaysia. The state government has allocated 3 million hectares for agriculture which includes a plan to increase its oil palm areas to 2 million hectares with the rest being allocated to different agricultural products. Support for the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) scheme has been exceptional with all stakeholders including the state government, industry and small holders pledging to obtain certification under the scheme.

The overall enthusiasm for sustainability certification is in line with the government mandate for green development and recent state actions support the mandate.

The gazettement of the Luconia shoals at over one million hectares created the biggest marine national park in all of Malaysia. This is in-line with the state goal to protect biodiversity in its coastal waters especially for the dugongs off Lawas area.

So it was not much of a surprise when marine biodiversity was the first topic discussed when we visited the Sarawak Forestry Corporation recently. The Sarawak Forestry Corporation manages all the national parks and protected areas in Sarawak. A map of the areas under its management can be accessed on this weblink.

“ Check out what we’ve done at Belawai,” suggested Braken Tisen, the General Manager of Sarawak Forestry Corporation. “ Google reef balls and see what we’ve done.”

Google we did and it turns out the Sarawak Forestry Corporation had placed 1200 of these massive “reef balls” in strategic locations to protect marine biodiversity. Reef balls are basically giant cement balls with holes in them.

“Trawling by fishermen was decimating the ocean biodiversity,” explained Braken. “ We researched different measures to protect sensitive marine areas that could help protect them and at the same time, not deprive local fishermen of their livelihoods so we decided on reef balls.”

Community participation for successful conservation

The thing that struck us early in our discussion with Braken was the heavy emphasis on community engagement in conservation. The marine parks in Luconia Shoals and Kuala Lawas took a few years as multiple meetings were held with local fishermen who were concerned that their gazettement would affect their livelihoods.

The same approach is being used for terrestrial conservation in Sarawak. While the state government has plans to increase its Totally Protected Areas like national parks to 1 million hectares, Braken was less concerned about creating more national parks than creating more community conservation areas. He explained that “community conservation areas like communal forests are driven by local communities while national parks are driven by the government.”

According to him, if the wider conservation community could accept communal forests as protected conservation areas, Sarawak would easily have over a million hectares of protected forests. He pointed out to the recent expansion of the Heart of Borneo area in Sarawak where an additional 600,000 hectares was added to bring up the total HOB area to 2.7 million hectares.

The expanded area was exciting to the Sarawak Forestry Corporation as their long term goal for conservation in the state was now possible. The goal is to connect the national park areas to provide corridors for wildlife.

Protecting the orangutans in Sarawak

“Orangutan conservation in Sarawak is a big success,” declared Braken. Community engagement has apparently worked as “ within the past three years, no orangutan babies have been added to our orangutan rehabilitation center at Matang. This means that no mothers were killed in human-wildlife conflicts. This is why community education and awareness is so important.”

“If you want proof of the state (Sarawak) commitment to protecting orangutans, you only need to look at Ulu Menyang, where an estimated 400 orangutans were discovered in recent years. The state policy has been to gazette any forests with orangutans as protected areas. For Ulu Menyang, we did not do that as the local communities were worried that they would lose their traditional access to the same forests where the orangutans are found.”

He went on to identify Semenggoh Wildlife Centre as further proof of successful orangutan conservation. Semenggoh is where rehabilitated orangutans are released but there is growing concern at the SFC about their long term viability. The concern has to do with in-breeding among populations with lesser numbers which could cause their eventual extinction. The SFC is working with Japanese scientists to determine the breaking point of these isolated populations of orangutans.

With the expansion of the Heart of Borneo area into orangutan areas, the SFC has set an ambitious goal of connecting all the orangutan habitats.

“Imagine if the orangutans in Semenggoh or Ulu Menyang could travel safely to the large population in Batang Ai. The gene pool would become so much stronger” said Braken.

While the recognition of communal forests as protected areas is a state decision, Braken acknowledged the immediate impact of the MSPO in raising awareness that High Conservation Value areas like riparian reserves within oil palm estates needs to be protected and conserved to provide a critical pathway for wildlife travel.

We left the meeting filled with hope for conservation in Sarawak and urged the SFC to share more its great work with the general public.