The trees here have been carefully selected, mainly species local to the area that can withstand the flooding season and can also be a food source to wildlife…

During our first year into the pandemic, there was a massive rise in the interest for house plants globally, triggered by isolation and lockdowns. I can verify this as I am also a proud owner of an indoor jungle. Perhaps our fast paced lives have severed our connection to nature but as the world is forced into a sudden stop, the stillness sets in motion a longing to reconnect again.

Me and my indoor jungle (this is just 40% of it).
Me and my indoor jungle (this is just 40% of it).

But with this reconnection comes a revelation, that we’ve been ignorant to not just the environment but even the paradise in our own backyard – fine example, the surge of interest in Snake Plants and Caladium.

Reforestation?
While surfing the internet to expand my collection of house plants, I stumbled upon Regrow Borneo, an ongoing reforestation project along the Kinabatangan River.

Kinabatangan River is the second longest river in Malaysia.
Kinabatangan River is the second longest river in Malaysia.

I was quite surprised that tree-planting activities are still ongoing and this rediscovery triggered some vague memories of tree planting programmes I’ve joined in primary school but I can’t remember where and what I was planting…

This project has only just started in 2020 but what caught my attention was the scientific research being done along with the replanting of trees.

You might imagine that planting a tree is a no brainer, just dig a hole and stick a plant in and voila! I mean, that’s just the gist of it, you’re not wrong but, there is so much more to reforestation than you think…

About Regrow Borneo

Launched in 2020, Regrow Borneo aims to replant trees lost to deforestation and restore degraded riverine and swamp forest within the Lower Kinabatangan Floodplain in an ethical, transparent and research led-manner.

Most of the Kinabatangan floodplain has been converted into non-forest uses, such as agriculture. However, this floodplain supports a staggeringly high amount of biodiversity. It’s also home to the Borneo Big 5 which consists of the Borneo Pygmy Elephant, Orang Utan, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Proboscis Monkey and Estuarine Crocodile.

The project draws on the longstanding collaboration between Cardiff University’s Sustainable Places Research Institute and the Danau Girang Field  Centre (DGFC) in Sabah. It also builds on a successful restoration undertaken through a collaboration with a local community-based ecotourism, Koperasi Pelancongan Mukim Batu Puteh Berhad (KOPEL).

KOPEL is responsible for growing seedlings, planting and maintaining the trees for 3 years (because the trees are able to continue growing on their own after that period of time). KOPEL offers over 20 years of experience, in developing nurseries, identifying appropriate species, and in reforestation in the area.

Whereas, DGFC will be measuring the total carbon sequestration[1] within the forests at different stages of the restoration. This is to understand how the amount of carbon sequestration in forests change through time due to environmental and human interventions, to measure changes in biodiversity of plants and animals associated with reforestation, and to investigate the impact of the restoration projects on the communities in relation to the enhancement of local livelihoods and the provision of ecosystem services[2].

 

Visiting DGFC/Regrow Borneo

Based on the above information, I was just as confused as you probably are now. To further understand this project I was inspired to get out there and have a look at Regrow Borneo’s reforestation sites, meet the people involved and experience what it’s like to be in the frontlines of reforestation.

The moment interdistrict travel was allowed, I made arrangements with DGFC for a two week stay. Aside from checking out the reforestation work, I was also hoping to see the Borneo Pygmy Elephants in the wild, hence the long stay. Fast forward to October 2021, I’m on a boat cruising down the mighty Kinabatangan River, on my way to one of the reforestation plots with Amaziasizamoria (Maz) Jumail, Research Officer at DGFC, the project manager for Regrow Borneo.

The boat docked by the riverbank where a small path can be seen heading into the Laab plot. The short trek through the mildly dense forest wasn’t tough but you would need to be careful on where you step. I got my foot stuck in the mud but thanks to durable wellies, I got out just fine. The mud here is very wet and sticky not only because it’s by the river but also because this area is prone to heavy floods, usually around November to February rainy season. You can see the estimated height of the flood waters by looking at the marks on the trees.

Maz and flood marks on the trees.
Maz and flood marks on the trees.

As we headed closer to the plot, we heard another group of people, they’re from KOPEL, doing some vine clearing and maintenance work.

Vines to be cleared.
Vines to be cleared.
The KOPEL team clearing the vines using only small tools like the parang and chainsaw.
The KOPEL team clearing the vines using only small tools like the parang and chainsaw.

As you can see in these photos, the overgrown vines need to be removed in order for trees to grow without any restrictions, part of the maintenance work is also removing these baby vines from the small saplings.

Vine slowly takes over a sapling.
Vine slowly takes over a sapling.

When we reached the plot, it was an entire flat area with just one massive tree towering over in the middle. Surrounding it are saplings that have recently been planted, if I remember correctly there were over 500 saplings in just this area alone. Part of the task of the day, Maz and her research assistant, Koko, will be tagging all these saplings. Aside from that they also set up camera traps to observe the wildlife roaming the area to better understand the effects of the reforestation efforts.

The big tree compared to the new saplings.
The big tree compared to the new saplings.
This is Maz.
This is Maz.
Maz and research assistant, Koko.
Maz and research assistant, Koko.
Tagged sapling.
Tagged sapling.

As I mentioned earlier, planting trees isn’t as simple as you might think, the trees here have been carefully selected, mainly species local to the area that can withstand the flooding season and can also be a food source to wildlife. Unfortunately not all the planted saplings would survive. Either they get drowned by the flood or fed on by monkeys before they could mature. It can be quite disappointing to have something you worked on, not just hours but days and months destroyed just like that but such is life and the team’s drive to continue was not affected.

Flower from a tree around Laab plot, some of the wildlife snack on them.
Flower from a tree around Laab plot, some of the wildlife snack on them.

Hope for the Future

Even though I didn’t get the chance to plant a tree this time, I’m truly grateful to have this chance to observe the team from DGFC and KOPEL actively doing the work, inspiring us and reviving hope that it is not too late! We can still save our forests.

You might be asking, what can I do to get involved? Great question!

There are many ways to support the reforestation efforts. You can either donate to organizations involved in reforestation, or take some time out of your busy schedule and volunteer! I personally would love to come back again to volunteer, and to also spend some quiet time in nature. (Not to mention I didn’t get to see any elephants on my last trip, so I will definitely be back!)

If volunteer work isn’t your thing, you can also utilize what’s already in your hands, the power of social media, to spread awareness by liking and sharing their updates. Feel free to follow Regrow Borneo on twitter (@RegrowBorneo) and visit their website too!

You can also follow their journey by subscribing to DGFC’s YouTube Channel for video updates.

Other organizations you can check out involved in reforestation:
Animal Projects & Environmental Education Sdn. Bhd. (APE Malaysia)
HUTAN Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme (HUTAN KOCP)

With the enthusiasm of planting, let’s not just learn about house plants but we should also take the initiative to learn about the biodiversity of our rainforest plants.

Citations:
[1] Carbon sequestration: The process of capturing produced carbon dioxide (CO2) and subsequently storing it safely, away from the atmosphere. It is a method that reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, aiming at reducing global warming and climate change.
[2] Ecosystem services: Defined as the gains acquired by humankind from surrounding ecosystems. For example, the pollination of crops provided by bees and other organisms contributes to food production and is thus considered an ecosystem service. Another example, reduction of flooding in residential areas provided by riparian buffers and wetlands.