Citizen Science: Transforming River Management in Malaysian Borneo

By Cassandra Albanus, 9 December 2016

After having multiple cups of coffee (to stay awake and brave the cold) at Sabah’s International Heart of Borneo Conference, the Forever Sabah team made its way to Meeting Room 4 where the ‘Community Engagement’ talks were taking place. Informative, touching, highly entertaining and inspiring are a few words to describe the people and stories they shared.

Below are excerpts taken from mongabay.com written by Ken Wilson PhD, Technical Advisor to Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP), a Malaysian NGO, on how citizen science is transforming river management in Malaysian Borneo.


Indigenous citizen science is not for technophobes: here villagers on the Moyog River use an affordable underwater sonar scanner donated by a sympathetic fisherman from England to assess populations on a “Tagal” section where taboos mean only “non-intrusive” sampling techniques can be used.

Casey Ng runs Forever Sabah’s “Freshwater For the Future” (FFF) program. Among other things, FFF deploys citizen science in documenting fish species so as to enable Kadazandusun villagers to monitor river water quality in the Moyog catchment of Western Sabah, and the impacts of their “Tagal” indigenous river management systems (which uses community oath-stones and taboos to manage fishing intensity in space and time). In the Moyog the issue is not oil palm: it is about maintaining forest in the face of hill cutting for construction material, rubber establishment, poorly conceived settlements, a poultry facility, waste disposal, etc.

In his presentation on the Moyog River at the Heart of Borneo conference Casey emphasized how citizen science often built off indigenous knowledge – such as where and how to catch indicator fish species – and that its power was the fact that it was driven by local questions that immediately connected people to what they value about “their own place.” Despite challenges with getting citizen science published and accepted by mainstream science, Casey described it as “relevant, practical, affordable, inclusive, and above all communicative to the stewards of local rivers.” At this point in the proceedings over 200 people from communities and government, civic organizations, universities and private companies in Sabah savored this new idea, perhaps compared it to the performance of mainstream science at solving local problems, and applauded him enthusiastically.

Casey’s presentation at the Heart of Borneo was alongside Notoruss village elder Vitalis Galasun, who, in 1994, ushered in the modern era for “Tagal” management systems when his community took a collective oath to not fish their section of the river with formal recognition for the first time from the Native Courts, local Assemblyman, Police, and ultimately the Fisheries Department. To frequent applause, Vitalis told his audience at Heart of Borneo that there are now 29 registered “Tagal” programs in the Moyog region alone (the Fisheries Department now registers about 600 state-wide on 200 rivers in 17 districts) and Vitalis welcomed current efforts to integrate citizen science with traditional knowledge in the management of these programs. Explaining this, he described how they didn’t need any measurements to be convinced how rapidly most fish stocks recovered, but that other questions remained, like why some species declined even as others expanded, and whether there were invisible pollutants getting into their rivers. This matters because, as Vitalis explains in this delightful video about the making of “bosou,” a local fish pickle, “all of the species in this river are delicious” – and fish are the main source of protein in Borneo.

Read the full article here.

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