The voices of young children in class waft through the air as we enter Kivatu Nature Farm in Penampang, just outside Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
The kids are a lucky lot; they get to see stingless bees, play with “mud”, and enjoy farm-to-table organic food daily.
The pre-school is part of Pacos Trust, a community-based voluntary organisation founded in 1987. Pacos, an acronym for Partners of Community Organisations in Sabah, aims to “empower indigenous communities through systematic building of community organisations”.
The school is located within the farm, which shares the same space with Pacos’ headquarters in Penampang.
Members of the media were invited by multinational oil and gas company Shell recently to visit the organisation to understand more about its work (Pacos is one of Shell’s Sustainable Development Grant recipients).
Key projects include the revival of traditional systems such as river fish conservation (Tagal Sungai) and forest conservation (Tagal Hutan) through community mapping – where the people themselves identify, and mark down on maps, those areas which they have used in age-old customs. Nowadays, modern technology such as GPS and GIS help supplement this community work.
The most critical issue faced by the indigenous peoples in Malaysia is the lack of control over their traditional lands, which have often been taken over by powerful companies. But these lands are often not recognised on “official” maps, thus they need to be mapped out so that the community can better protect them.
“Tagal hutan” and ‘Tagal sungai” are basically community-based systems of do’s and don’ts to conserve both native culture and natural resources. “Tagal” in the Kadazan language refers to “prohibition” and essentially, the system works to ensure a harmonious existence between users and the natural environment.
Other projects to help the conservation of watersheds and improve local standards of living include the construction of gravity water feed facilities (where no pumps are needed as water flows down naturally) and installation of micro-hydro systems to generate electricity for village use.
To date, 150 community maps, 20 gravity water feed systems and seven micro-hydro power schemes have been completed by Pacos. Their work extends to 23 districts, 148 villages and covers a total population of about 50,000. At present there are 25 office-based staff and 60 people in the field.
Pacos’ main objectives are to ensure that indigenous communities have legal title to their customary land (NCR) and the right to use resources in (other) traditional areas.
It also wants to strengthen the culture, language, and belief systems of indigenous peoples and improve livelihood opportunities.
One of Pacos’ most successful programmes is its network of Community Learning Centres (CLCs). Currently, there are 25 CLCs in Sabah and five in Sarawak.
CLCs are like “nerve centres” for community learning. This includes education for sustainable development, pre-school education for children aged four to six (Pacos trains mothers and the other villagers to be teachers), and also non-formal “lifelong education” for other community members.
Traditional knowledge is also retained and shared with children, youths, adults and the elderly.
“I would say our CLCs are our most successful programme. They are community-managed and led. The villagers call it their ‘university’. They manage it and they have ideas for it,” said Anne Lasimbang, 58, executive director of Pacos.
“We also have adult classes, skills training, and handicraft revival programmes. Most of the villagers who join our programmes are women,” she added.
Pacos also works in 120 villages all around Sabah, dealing with 10,000 farmers and landowners, who grow mostly oil-palm or rubber.
One of the main challenges faced is changing the old agricultural habits of farmers and encouraging them to practise organic methods.
“For example, many of them burn or use strong weedkillers to clear their land, which is not good because that will affect the nutrients in the soil,” she said.
“When we first started campaigning about this in the villages (five years ago), the people didn’t believe us. But now, we see the impact and we can do so much more,” said Lasimbang, adding that Pacos helps villagers with farming, marketing and financial management issues as well.
Lasimbang, whose mother inspired her and her 11 siblings to be independent and to live life to the fullest, is motivated when she sees villagers, especially the womenfolk, become more independent when they are equipped with more knowledge and skills.
She testified, “To see women become more confident and families having better lives, that’s satisfying. That’s the impact of our work, which focuses on women and children.”