by Koperasi Pelancongan Mukim Batu Puteh Kinabatangan Berhad (KOPEL)
For a millennium the indigenous ‘Orang Sungai’ (people of the Lower Kinabatangan) have been living off the rainforest for food, medicine, household commodities and products of trade. This world changed dramatically from the 1960’s onwards, with the advent of mechanised extraction of the forests timber resources. The ensuing rapid reduction of traditional forest resources forced many local people into a spiralling trap of dependence on timber as the only remaining viable source of trade. With the final conversion of large tracts of lowland forests of the Lower Kinabatangan throughout the 1980s into permanent agricultural crops, many local people were then forced to poach timber and other forest products to eke out an existence. These situations led the communities to think and plan the process of protecting the last remaining vestige of rainforest and traditional indigenous cultural heritage.
The MESCOT Initiative was started in 1996 by a group of about 30 visionary and dedicated individuals from the different villages of Batu Puteh to create an alternative medium of income generation for the people of the area, while in the process of protecting the last remaining vestige of rainforest and traditional indigenous cultural heritage. The core and catalyst activity chosen by the MESCOT group was Eco-Tourism. It was hoped that this activity would be the key to raising income in this poor and remote rural community, increase the economic value of a depleted forest resource, and, in the process, raise funds to support the protection and restoration of the last remaining wetland forests and wildlife of the area. MESCOT’s scope was broadened in 1998 when drought and induced forest fires ravaged parts of the remaining natural forests surrounding the villages of Batu Puteh. With the support of citizens, the forest restoration work has since developed to be a core activity of MESCOT driving the future of the village run co-operative set up to manage these activities. The MESCOT Initiative has planted more than 100,000 trees. The vast majority are fast growing pioneer species, such as Mytrogyna sp, and Nauclea spp, which also double with leaves, flowers and fruit that wildlife eat.
Apart from the fast-growing pioneer species, the initiative targets specific trees that provide fruit for special wildlife such as orangutan and hornbills. All planting material is propagated in the MESCOT Nursery from seed collected by the MESCOT team in the surrounding rainforest. Trees are nurtured in the nursery from 4-6 months before being transported in the forest sites for planting.
Along with the MESCOT initiative, hidden in meander-belt forest on the fringe of the pristine Tungog Lake, the Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp (TREC) offers a unique insight into the secretive life of a Borneo Rainforest.
Staying at the camp supports the lake restoration (Salvinia removal) and orang-utan habitat restoration projects (Tree planting) through the MESCOT Initiative. TREC is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Wild fruit trees surround the eco camp and daily attract up to five species of hornbill, orang-utan, macaques, and a host of other rainforest birds.
TREC has numerous eco design features built in to ensure zero waste, zero chemicals, a zero-energy spreadsheet and maximum water conservation.
However, the number of tourist arrivals have significantly been impacted by the pandemic situation. Thus, Kopel’s income also has been tremendously affected. As limited number of incomes generated, continuity of the MESCOT initiative will be obstructed and this will somehow affect the communities’ income as a whole.
To mitigate those effects KOPEL’s seeks external funding to sponsor the MESCOT initiative for forest habitat restoration and tree planting activities. For example, recently Kopel’s has awarded grant for the KOPEL COVID-19 Kinabatangan Conservation Project Relief 2.0 from the Yayasan Hasanah.
From a rural community that relies on natural resources such as logging, hunting, fishing, agriculture for survival of life, they latter transformed into an environmentally conscious community that eventually attract tourists and becomes one of their sources of incomes through the establishment of KOPEL Berhad.
KOPEL under the projects with MESCOT has also employed 40 people on a salaried basis, and over 100 on a rotational, part-time basis. Additionally, the co-operative supports 20 families in the homestay program, 60 people involved in the village boat services, 10 nature guides, 30 elders and youth in the village culture group, which focuses on ethno-tourism, and four coordinators. The local community has also benefitted from training and capacity building in educational workshop, business and management skills and communication and marketing skills.
In the last decades, a significant evolution of eco-tourism and agrotourism initiatives have worldwide, as in the case of MESCOT, these initiatives entail economic diversification strategies —in the face of climate and social related impacts— with a strong environmental component. Having alternative income sources enable households and communities to generate local employment and secure food and nutritional security while sustaining rural livelihoods. Home gardens may play a synergistic effect by supplementing diets and contributing to rescue and grow local varieties that also preserve local cultural heritage. More than 100,000 trees planted and a functional plant nursery, are practices that not only contribute to the restoration of wetland forest benefiting wildlife by providing feeding alternatives and a habitat, but also, to restore overall ecosystem function and resilience capacity. This, in the context of agrotourism initiatives enhance cultural ecosystems services in the territory, such as aesthetic values, recreation, mental and physical health, and spiritual and religious values. Actions that play a part in protecting the last remaining vestige of rainforest and traditional indigenous cultural heritage. In terms of the contribution of this initiative to climate change mitigation, a lower carbon footprint can be expected in eco-tourism projects compared to conventional tourism, considering the type of infrastructure or services that each one could offer, leading to lower GHG emissions per capita. These potential benefits can be boosted if the effort invested in planting forests are added, increasing the project carbon sequestration capacity. The integration of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools and analyses, in cooperation with national stakeholders (e.g., Universities, government or NGOs) could better inform the mitigation potential adding value the services and products of sustainable eco-tourism.
*This is done in the framework of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) approach. Climate-smartness in agriculture means understanding impacts of climate change and variability along with the agricultural activity, which includes the planning of what crop to plant, when to plant, what variety to plant and what type of management practices are needed to reduce the impact on the environment (e.g. emissions reduction), maintain or increase productivity (e.g. yields) while increasing resilience and improving livelihoods.