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Story Publication logo November 12, 2021

‘The Sweetest Thing’: The Women Restoring Borneo’s Rainforest


An eye-level view of the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, which is the second longest river in Malaysia. JT Platt / Shutterstock. Undated.

A native grandmother becomes an unlikely environmental hero, leading an all-women tree planting team...

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Azrimah plants a Colona serattifolia sapling, one of the species of fast growing pioneer trees, that provide food for wildlife and eventually form the canopy for the new growth forest. The women identify the tree species eaten by various animals by germinating seeds from their droppings. This way they can fast forward the natural process of forest regeneration. “In some of our research plots, we discovered that we have 50 to 60 species of trees growing. Since we started with about 25 species on that plot, we have 30 new species because wildlife is coming back, but it's a 10 to 20 year process," said Marc Ancrenaz of HUTAN, the NGO that started the project. Image by Alexandra Radu/Al Jazeera. Borneo, 2021.

On the floodplain of Sabah’s milky-brown Kinabatangan river in Borneo, teams of local women have been working to restore the area’s degraded rainforest for more than a decade.

They hope to create a forest “corridor” for wildlife in one of the most biodiverse areas of Malaysia, which has been under pressure for years from the relentless expansion of oil palm plantations.

Sabah produced nearly two million tonnes of crude palm oil in the first six months of this year, the most of any state in Malaysia, which is the world’s second biggest exporter of a commodity used in products from soap to detergents and ice cream.

The industry’s expansion has not only led to deforestation but the fragmentation of the forests, crowding and isolating wildlife, including Borneo’s unique pygmy elephants and orangutans, into ever smaller areas.

The women’s reforestation teams plant native trees on strategically-chosen plots with the intention of connecting various wildlife sanctuaries located around their village of Sukau.

“We need to help with wildlife conservation because the remaining rainforest in the lower Kinabatangan is too small, we need to plant more in order to provide a habitat and food for the wildlife species that are almost extinct,” said Mariana Singgong, who heads one of the two reforestation teams. “We are preserving the flora and fauna for future generations.”

Since the reforestation programme began in 2008 under HUTAN, a local wildlife and forest conservation NGO, the women have planted and nurtured approximately 101 hectares (250 acres) of rainforest — roughly the equivalent of a third of the area of New York’s Central Park.

Their main target is not about planting high numbers of trees, but ensuring the saplings’ survival in an environment where young trees are at risk of being smothered by tall grasses, bushes, ferns and vines.

The teams spend at least three quarters of their time maintaining the plots, and their dedication has ensured more than 80 percent of trees have survived.

The need for quality maintenance and nurturing is what made HUTAN base their whole reforestation program on women’s teams, which is unique for rural Sabah, where women are mainly seen as homemakers.

“Men are really good at doing certain types of work, planting the trees, but when we ask them to come back to the same plot again and again, they can’t pay every time the same attention to every seedling, as women can,” said Marc Ancrenaz, founder of HUTAN. “Women are much better at nurturing these trees over the long term.”

This year the restoration work was severely affected by the pandemic with the women unable to visit the sites with the same consistency during Malaysia’s months-long COVID-19 movement restrictions.

When they were eventually able to return, they were dismayed at what they found.

“We saw that many trees had problems, some died, we were sorry to see they didn’t grow very well. Especially the newly planted ones, they are sensitive, three months without maintenance and they can die,” Norinah Braim, who heads the other reforestation team, told Al Jazeera.

The women had a target of planting 5,000 trees this year. So far they have managed only 1,770, but they are undeterred.

“Usually by October we would reach our target, but because of the lockdown there were many delays,” Norinah said. “We will surely reach our target by the end of the year, we will work hard for that. Women power!”

HUTAN and the women’s team’s reforestation work was featured in Al Jazeera’s Earthrise programme in 2012.

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

The women's reforestation team is aiming to create forest corridors along the banks of the Kinabatangan to connect patches of rainforest created by the development of plantations. The loss of habitat has led not only to a decline in the populations of endangered species, but also to increased human-wildlife conflicts, increasing risks for both the local people and animals that live in the area, such as the Borneo pygmy elephant. Image taken by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.

Norinah Braim, head of one of the reforestation teams, drives the boat to the plot they are currently working on. She has been part of the team from its beginnings in 2008, and her initial success in planting the first plots encouraged other women to join the team. “They started seeing that women can also work in this kind of tough job, so they started joining. We initially took them as interns for one year, and then they became staff,” said Norinah. Image taken by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.

Misliha Osop plants seedlings at HUTAN's nursery. “We have around 20,000 trees from 30 species in our nursery. We buy them from the small nurseries owned by women from the village. We keep them for two to three months until their roots become strong enough for them to be replanted in the forest,” she said. Image taken by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.

Mahala Maharan selects saplings to be sent for planting. The nursery can select and deliver some 1,000 saplings a day to the reforestation teams. Image taken by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.

Before planting, the team clears the plot of grasses, bushes and ferns, which grow taller than the women in the tropical humidity. Image taken by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.

Azrimah carries tree saplings in a basket from the boat to the planting site. On a day reserved for planting, she and her team plant about 500 trees. Image taken by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.

Jong digs holes for her colleagues to plant the tree saplings. “We have to dig holes, hundreds of them, then we plant. Over the months, when I see that the trees which I planted have grown big, that makes me really happy, It's the sweetest thing," said Jong. Image taken by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.

Masrita Takshi plants a tropical almond tree (Terminalia Catappa) on a plot that was donated by an oil palm plantation to make a forest corridor connecting two protected rainforests. Over the years, the tree - whose fruits are popular with wildlife - will grow taller than the oil palms. Image by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.

Nadia Jolirwan and Christine Ayun relax in hammocks tied to the trees they planted. “It's a nice bonus that we can also benefit from the trees we planted and rest in their shade,” Christine said. Image taken by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.

A family of elephants passes through one of the first forests planted by the women's reforestation team back in 2008. “If we have corridors like this one on the bank of the river, the elephants will not go much inland and enter the (palm oil) estates. If they enter the estates, people will chase them away. Also the plantations have electric fences, so it's hard for the elephants to pass through there, so most of the elephants now are following the forest along the river,” said Norinah, who was part of the team that planted this plot. Image taken by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.

Ozidah Sawang measures the growth of a tree, as part of the periodical survey HUTAN does on their research plots. “We have a minimap, to see exactly where the trees are located, so it's easier for me to gather the data. We measure their growth and the flowering and fruiting pattern, and compare it to the same species of trees that are growing in the wild. During the COVID-19 movement restrictions it was hard to gather data, it was hard to evaluate the state of the trees,” she said. Image taken by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.

Mariana and her team walk downhill on a steep portion of road where the van was unable to descend with all the passengers inside. Image taken by Alexandra Radu. Malaysia, 2021.