When it comes to protecting the environment, the indigenous people can teach us more than a thing or two.

The natural surroundings served as important sources of livelihood for Kadazans in Sabah in the old days. They depended on the river for water and food (fish), the land to plant padi and vegetables, and the forest to collect medicinal herbs, rattan and bamboo.

However, the traditional practice was only to collect and cut what was needed. When it came to planting padi, once the soil was less fertile, they would move to a new place and let the land recover before replanting.

The Kadazans also believe that all living things have spirits, and therefore, should be respected.

“If possible, there should be no killing of plants or animals as you like. There must always be a reason and the seeking of permission, and we believe in cause and effect,” said Winnie Jimis, Clear chairperson.

Clear stands for Community-Led Environmental Awareness for our River. It’s a community-based organisation based in Penampang district, near Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.


Clear chairperson Winnie Jimis. Photo: Shell

“If we want to collect wood from the forest to build a house, there is a certain time of the month to do that, and we perform a ritual beforehand. When it comes to hunting or fishing, once you collect too much, you will feel sick and the spirit will tell you are doing the wrong thing,” explained Jimis.

However, modern Kadazans today, she said, do not depend so much on the river or forests directly.

But she underlined that whatever humans use still comes from nature ultimately, be it water from the forest, or fish from rivers and the ocean.

“If we pollute the river, that will affect the fish that we eat,” she said.

To encourage sustainability, Clear advocates the Tagal system within the communities that they work with, where they make sure resources are conserved and sustainably-managed.

The traditional practice, specifically Tagal Hutan and Tagal Sungai, are basically community-based systems 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.

The Kadazans also subscribe to Pogundosizan, or plant sustainability.

“We believe that when there are only three or four fruits left on a tree, we must leave them on the tree for the plants’ sustainability. When we collect fruits and plants, there must be a limit to how much to take, especially medicinal ones,” said Jimis. — By Wong Li Za