A Village in Borneo Restores its Rainforests



In an economy dominated by palm oil plantations, a Malaysian community combines ecotourism with rainforest replanting — and engages young people in ancestral knowledge.

Yielding machetes, Nurul Susanti Nasir and her teammates carefully remove grasses, vines, and bushes threatening to suffocate the tree saplings that the team planted last year on the banks of Kinabatangan, Malaysia's second longest river, in Sabah, Borneo. Despite temperatures around 93°F (34°C) and 80 percent humidity, the team moves quickly through the tropical undergrowth. Susanti, thirty-two years old, leads the nine of them, including members of her extended family, for eight-hour days to ensure the survival of a new rainforest along the shores of the mighty Malaysian river. “We use machetes, as we can be more precise in what plants we cut, making sure we don't hurt the young trees,” Susanti explains. “I feel sad that I have to kill the grasses and vines that grow freely, but sometimes it's absolutely necessary to ensure the survival of the saplings.”

No more than six decades ago, Kinabatangan — one of the most biodiverse areas of Malaysia — was dense with rainforest. Then came logging, followed by the region’s transformation into rubber and later oil palm plantations.

Sabah produces approximately 6.6 percent of the world’s palm oil, and the vastness of its oil palm estates dwarfs the remaining fragmented pockets of rainforest. (Curious how to avoid palm oil in your food products? Read more here.) From 2002 to 2022, Sabah lost close to a million acres of humid primary forest (undisturbed forest), or eleven percent of the total area of humid primary forest in Sabah, according to data from deforestation tracker Global Forest Watch. Decades of deforestation and forest fragmentation have led to declining populations of endangered wildlife, with the Lower Kinabatangan area losing nearly a third of its orangutan population over fifteen years beginning in the early 2000s.

The 5.6-hectare plot that Susanti and her team are working to restore is situated in a pocket of rainforest near their home village of Batu Puteh. After being selectively logged, it was abandoned and colonized by rattan vines. This site is along the banks of the river, but low enough that it spends much of the rainy season under water.

Susanti and her team feel an emotional attachment to the trees, and, when I spoke to them in early 2023, they were worried about that year’s rainy season lasting longer than usual. After all, in 2022, they put a lot of hard work into clearing the plot of the six-and-a-half- to ten-foot tall undergrowth and planting 5,524 trees in the cleared area.

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Batu Puteh consists of four villages inhabited by some 2,000 people. In this township in northeastern Sabah, surrounded by palm oil plantations and small pockets of protected rainforest, Indigenous-led reforestation teams have been planting native tree species since 1999. After wildfires in 1998 devastated local forests, the people of Batu Puteh committed to rainforest restoration in order to secure their livelihoods, preserve endangered species, and regenerate the carbon-absorbing trees.

The reforestation initiative is run by KOPEL, a community-based cooperative established in 1995 as a tourism venture by the villagers of Batu Puteh Township. Tourists are invited to stay in traditional village homes and see the region’s diverse fauna and flora up close during guided hikes and riverboat trips. The area boasts a multitude of critically endangered species: orangutans, Sunda pangolins, and helmeted hornbills, along with other threatened species like the Bornean pygmy elephant and sun bear, live in wildlife sanctuaries nestled along the river, fragmented by the palm plantations. Eco-tourism offers one of the few income sources for local communities, apart from growing oil palms, and these two revenue streams are struggling to coexist.

Seeing rainforest restoration as a sustainable way to ensure income through ecotourism, the locals of Batu Puteh made sure their reforestation program — initially started with a 65,000 ringgit (about $15,000 USD) grant from the Discovery Channel — continued to regrow patches of rainforest. Since 1999, local teams have nurtured approximately 375 hectares (927 acres) of forest — an area slightly larger than New York's Central Park. “Our main activity is tourism, and our product is conservation,” says Saidal bin Udin, KOPEL’s CEO, who has worked with the reforestation program since its founding.

The group carefully chose their planting plots so as to make corridors connecting various protected forests, or fill in empty patches created by fires or logging. By doing this, they aim to ensure the mobility of wildlife populations, creating more ecosystem diversity and healthier forests.

Over the years, the locals have refined their planting techniques to mimic the natural development of the forest. “The trees that we plant are fast-growing pioneer trees to create the foundation of the forest,” Saidal explains. “If they have good conditions, if they don't die, in around three to five years they can create the canopy already.” Hoping that wildlife will move in once the tree canopy closes, villagers who collect seeds from the rainforest floor near their village make sure to include species that produce fruit the native animals eat. 

It takes roughly three to six months for the saplings to grow to at least one foot tall, at which point they are transferred to previously prepared areas of the degraded rainforest. Ensuring their growth into a healthy forest requires consistent tree care and maintenance. With periodic removal of undergrowth for the following two years, these trees will eventually restart the natural process of rainforest growth, with species diversity increasing over time. Nonetheless, it will take centuries to achieve the levels of biodiversity and carbon sequestration of old-growth forests.

Tourists fund rainforest restoration, research, and learning

KOPEL’s reforestation arm has received intermittent financial support from NGOs and the Malaysian government, but most of its budget comes from the cooperative’s ecotourism business.

The cooperative welcomed approximately 5,000 tourists in 2023, 70 percent of whom were foreign students from schools and universities around the world — students on school trips and university students completing practical modules of their studies. The tourists, explains 25-year-old Nur Syazana Fatinah Binti Mohamad Juhari, KOPEL’s conservation manager, “get to know how the restoration project works in the field, how to collect the seeds, and take care of baby trees at our tree nursery.” 

Through a collaboration between KOPEL and the nearby field research and training facility of Cardiff University’s Danau Girang Field Centre, local conservation teams gain access to updated scientific information about the ecosystems in their area, which they use to improve their reforestation efforts. “The [students] have technologies, methodology, they teach us protocols, procedures, things that we do very basically,” Saidal explained. “When we plant the trees, we do it with our best local knowledge and then we still don't understand why sometimes the mortality is so high. We learned about the composition of the soil, the hydrology content … it helps.”

Through Regrow Borneo, a reforestation and carbon mitigation project launched in 2019 in cooperation with the Danau Girang Field Centre and the Sabah Wildlife Department, KOPEL is planting and maintaining an additional twelve hectares of rainforest in the area. Amaziasizamoria Jumail, a senior researcher at the field center, says they have been researching wildlife movements and restoration ecology in Batu Puteh, drawing on KOPEL’s two decades of reforestation experience. “We collaborate with KOPEL because they have the skills,” she says. “It’s a good combination because they do the planting, and we do the research, the carbon sequestration, the biodiversity monitoring.”

Healthy forests sequester the most carbon

Measuring carbon sequestration is a complex task, yet crucial in assessing the efficacy of efforts against climate change. Carbon gets stored in living and dead matter both above and below ground, with researchers monitoring vegetation within their research plots as it increases in mass.

Jumail, for instance, gauges the size of the trees and puts baskets around their trunks to measure biannually the amount of leaves and dead wood fallen to the ground. Additionally, researchers take soil samples and send them to Cardiff University, where they are analyzed to measure underground carbon sequestration.

Tristram Hales, the director of Cardiff University’s Sustainable Places Research Institute, conducts carbon sequestration research using the samples and data from the Regrow Borneo plots. A thriving, mature hectare of Borneo rainforest stores between 600 and 1,200 tons of carbon dioxide. On average 4.4 tons of carbon is stored per annum in a hectare of regrowing tropical forest, according to a 2020 report on Regrow Borneo’s achievements — approximately the equivalent of the carbon emitted per passenger in two long-haul (six- to twelve-hour) return flights per year.

“Terrestrial and marine ecosystems cannot, in the long term, account for the amount of new greenhouse gas production from coal and oil burning. Hence any solution to the climate crises must involve reducing emissions in tandem with reforestation,” Hales explained. Nevertheless, reforestation remains an important component in our ability to combat climate change. “Diverse forest ecosystems have been shown to support greater carbon sequestration than agriculture and monoculture forests. Restoring ‘natural' forest ecosystems (in places that have historically supported forests) provides an effective tool for sequestering carbon. However forest ecosystems recover slowly, over hundreds to thousands of years; hence protection of forests once planted remains a priority”, he concluded.

KOPEL's reforestation program primarily seeks to restore wildlife habitats, but carbon sequestration is recognized as a secondary benefit. Hales underscores the importance of collaborating with local communities, emphasizing their intimate knowledge of the forests and species. “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.”

What you can do: 

  • Make sure there is transparency about the planted species and tree survival rate before donating to tree planting programs. Be wary of vague information.
  • Choose to travel to communities that run their own reforestation programs, supporting them financially.
  • Avoid products with palm oil. Bluedot’s Dear Dot tells you how. 

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Alexandra Radu
Alexandra Radu
Alexandra Radu is a documentary photographer and journalist focused on social, environmental and cultural issues in SE Asia and Europe. Her images and articles have been published with The New York Times, Al Jazeera, Associated Press, Reuters, among others.
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