Communities in the mountainous northern areas of Sarawak can look forward to cleaner water, sustainable rice farming methods and improved forest protection.

There are plans over three years to raise awareness on food and water protection, boost biological diversity and improve eco preservation in the rural areas of Ba’kelalan and Long Semadoh.

The project, a joint partnership between CIMB Islamic Bank and World Wildlife Fund Malaysia (WWF-Malaysia), involves a RM1.5mil fund. (It also includes another conservation project at Ulu Muda, Kedah.) Over those three years, RM600,000 and RM900,000 will be channelled towards the projects in Sarawak and Kedah respectively.

Located 970m above sea level, Ba’kelalan is adjacent to Pulong Tau National Park. The highlands here are scenic with cool weather, and renowned for growing the local variety Adan rice.

One can engage in nature-based activities including bird-watching, jungle trekking and a trek up Mount Murud, the highest peak in Sarawak. From Ba’kelalan, one can also cross over to central Krayan in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

In Sarawak, rivers are a lifeline for local communities and play an integral part of the ecosystem. But there are issues concerning water pollution and soil erosion, specifically in the Trusan River and Kelalan River – two water catchment areas in the state.

Part of the riverbank in Long Semadoh, Sarawak that needs protection from further erosion. Photo: WWF-Malaysia/Zora Chan

Erosion of riverbanks results in water overflowing into padi fields and damaging crops. There is also the problem of increased pesticide usage which can affect the quality and yield of rice.

Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma, CEO/executive director, WWF-Malaysia. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

“Some parts of the river banks have eroded badly,” said WWF- Malaysia executive director/chief executive officer Datuk Dr Dionysius Sharma in an e-mail interview.

“This could be attributed to previous logging activities and natural changes to water flow. Problems arise when land is cleared for agricultural activities, damaging riverbank stability.”

To reduce erosion at affected rivers, WWF-Malaysia intends to plant bamboo and trees, and erect gabions (retaining walls of wire mesh filled with rocks and earth).

Bamboo is a great option for riverbank restoration projects as it grows well and fast, especially along rivers.

“If grown in appropriate places, bamboo roots will hold onto soil firmly and prevent erosion,” explained Dionysius, who added that bamboo cuttings – planted into soil or laid horizontally – will produce new shoots, which can eventually grow into larger plants.

The project also aims to promote the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) among Ba’kelalan farmers.

SRI is an organic farming method practised by farmers in India and Indonesia. It uses sustainable agro-ecological methods to increase crop productivity by soil, water and nutrient management.

Dionysius explained, “The project aims to promote SRI and make rice farming more sustainable. This will lessen the need to develop more areas for rice fields. In addition, WWF-Malaysia is also identifying areas for agriculture and conservation that can benefit communities.”

Ba’kelalan is a scenic village in the highlands of Sarawak. Photo: WWF-Malaysia/Zora Chan

He is pleased the projects have received positive feedback from communities.

“The forests and rivers have been well-guarded and conserved because the local communities see the greater benefit of doing so. By preserving forests, the impact of water pollution can be minimised. They depend heavily on clean water sources from the river for their rice fields and daily uses.”

To further instil the importance of conservation, WWF-Malaysia intends to organise community engagement and educational activities among villagers.

“We want to build a greater sense of responsibility among the community,” explained Dionysius. “Villagers need to have a sense of ownership that they need to be part of the action to reap the benefits of these projects. Hopefully, the communities of Long Semadoh will become advocates for river conservation.”

When bamboo is planted along riverbanks, it can prevent erosion. Photo: Filepic

CIMB Islamic Bank chief executive officer Rafe Haneef hopes the conservation projects will provide sustainable long-term benefits for communities, be they environmental conservation, financial literacy, rehabilitation or education initiatives.

“The rivers in Sarawak are important for local communities as they support healthy ecosystems and the locals’ livelihood,” he said.

“Our main objective is to protect rivers from further erosion and restore the riverbanks in Long Semadoh. In Ba’kelalan, the focus is to promote sustainable rice farming to minimise forest conversion to agriculture.”

Rafe also hopes the projects will create greater awareness on the importance of environmental protection and its value to human beings.

“With the three-year partnership, we aim to see a positive outcome in three ways – ensuring food and water security for the community, preserving these areas, and raising awareness about these hidden treasures.”