Project February 10, 2023

Sabah’s Mangrove Defenders



Southeast Asia is home to a third and most of the world’s mangroves; it is also the region that has experienced the most extensive mangrove loss.

In Malaysia, which has nearly 5 percent of the world’s total mangroves, about 60 percent are located in Sabah, mostly along its east coast. Most mangroves in Sabah are formally protected as forest reserves, though there remain difficulties of enforcement in more remote areas. Moreover, some mangroves, such as on Sabah’s west coast, are unprotected. A 2020 study shows that the annual average rate of mangrove loss in Sabah—0.58% or 1,705 hectares a year—between 2000 and 2015 is higher than global average estimates of 0.16% to 0.39%. This is especially worrying amid our climate crisis, as mangroves can store up to five times more carbon than other forest ecosystems.

Over the years, mangroves in Sabah have been cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, aquaculture farms, and urban development projects—and there remains a threat in the growing pressure for land conversion and also the disruption of river and tidal flows due to infrastructure improvement such as coastal roads. This project explores how past and present threats to Sabah’s mangroves have affected its people, wildlife, and the environment—and how Indigenous/local communities and conservationists are working to protect and rehabilitate the forests, to sustain both their own livelihoods and the area’s biodiversity, while also helping to mitigate climate change.

With this project, we’re attempting to explore a few questions: How effective have such efforts been and what gaps remain? Can Indigenous communities make a greater case for their economic and conservationist roles, so often underestimated and undervalued? How can local communities and conservationists work with the authorities in common cause? What does proactive, not just reactive, stewardship look like?

Ranging across the Pitas district in Kudat, the Lower Kinabatangan Segama Wetlands, and further afield, this project will include a photo essay for Macaranga, a short video for New Naratif, a multimedia longform story for Between The Lines, and a news feature with photographs for Al Jazeera.