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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 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.


Stories From The Ground: The Indigenous Tidung People

By Cassandra Albanus, 6 December 2016


The indigenous Tidung people from the Lower Segama Conservation Area are one of the eight communities Forever Sabah is engaging with in the Ramsar Community Group process. It is a long- term programme under Communities, Islands and Seas, to bring together communities, civil society and government in advancing governance towards a thriving wetland.

This short film was produced by the KOPEL media unit and Forever Sabah in collaboration with the communities in the Lower Kinabatangan Segama Wetlands with support from the GEF SGP Malaysia and International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The story of Kampung Dagat was chosen at this year’s Borneo Eco Film Festival, held in Suria Sabah from 6th to 8th of October 2016.


Forever Sabah Featured at IUCN World Conservation Congress

By Holly Jonas, September 2016

The world’s oldest largest and most diverse environmental network – the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – held its 6th World Conservation Congress from 1-10 September 2016 in Honolulu, Hawai’i. During the Congress, the World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL), the Environmental Law Centre and the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law organised a wide range of events focusing on the instrumental role of environmental law in the conservation of nature and natural resources.


Dr. Michelle Lim, Sarawakian lawyer, Co-chair of the IUCN WCEL Early Career Group and Griffith Law School Lecturer at Griffith University (Australia). Credit: Nick Bryner / IUCN WCEL.


One such event – entitled “Emerging Leaders and the Future of Environmental Law” – was hosted by the University of Hawai’i’s William S. Richardson School of Law and the IUCN WCEL Early Career Group on 2 September. This interactive event included presentations by 9 ‘emerging environmental law experts’ and a ‘speed dating’ idea incubator in which participants identified key challenges and potential ways forward for the future of environmental law.

As part of the round of presentations, Holly Jonas (Legal Innovation Programme Coordinator, Forever Sabah) spoke about the nature of laws (as they currently stand in most countries) as incompatible with the laws of nature. She proposed the concept of ‘circular law’ as the basis for a fundamentally different approach to the law – one that is non-linear, inclusive and regenerative and necessarily supports pluralism, complexity and connectivity.

Other presenters considered topics such as the rule of law, Indigenous and customary law, earth jurisprudence, and climate change and renewable energy.

In addition to University of Hawai’i students, a number of eminent judges and lawyers attended the event, including Hon. Antonio Benjamin (Chair of WCEL and Justice of the National High Court of Brazil), Professor Nilufer Oral (Chair of the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law) and Professor Nicholas Robinson (founder of the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law and University Professor on the Environment at Pace Law School). For more information, please contact Holly Jonas (holly (at)


Re-imagining the Roles of Lawyers with Singaporean Law Students

By Holly Jonas, August 2016

The academic year often begins with a heady mix of trepidation and excitement. At the National University of Singapore (NUS), students eased into their demanding schedules with a week of orientation events in early August. As part of these events, NUS and the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law hosted a seminar by Holly Jonas (Legal Innovation Programme Coordinator, Forever Sabah) entitled, “Beyond the Courtroom: Pushing the Boundaries of Environmental Law in Malaysian Borneo”. The packed room included NUS students from undergraduate and graduate programmes in law, environmental studies and science, NUS faculty, students from other Singaporean universities, and staff of Singaporean government agencies, business associations and NGOs.

During the seminar, Holly highlighted how the law has contributed to economic growth but also ecological crises, and underscored Forever Sabah’s approach to the law as a ‘legal ecosystem’ and as a catalyst for broader change. She described three major initiatives in which Forever Sabah is using the law to help shift the trajectories of the oil palm, forestry and shark finning industries in collaboration with NGOs, indigenous peoples, government agencies, and the private sector.

An interactive photo-based discussion on the roles of lawyers identified the limitations of ‘traditional’ roles and the potential of alternative roles for supporting environmental and social issues. The seminar concluded with a discussion about how the participants – and particularly students – can get involved, including through hands-on engagement with Forever Sabah, making personal connections with the issues discussed (for example, through action on haze pollution in Singapore), and thinking and acting outside of the typical constraints of the legal profession.

The NUS Law Faculty is regularly ranked the top law school in Asia and among the top 15-20 globally. Forever Sabah is pleased to be working with NUS to develop internship and pro bono opportunities for law students. For more information, please contact Holly Jonas (holly (at)


Associate Professor Lye Lin Heng, Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre of Environmental Law, NUS, and Holly Jonas, Coordinator of the Legal Innovation Programme, Forever Sabah. Credit: Shirley Mak / NUS Faculty of Law.

Associate Professor Lye Lin Heng, Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre of Environmental Law, NUS, and Holly Jonas, Coordinator of the Legal Innovation Programme, Forever Sabah. Credit: Shirley Mak / NUS Faculty of Law.


Sabah Supermarket Leads The Way In Green Waste Composting

By Cassandra Albanus, 6th July 2016

A team from Forever Sabah recently checked in with a local supermarket chain on its green waste composting efforts carried out since early 2016. Maria Lasimbang, Irene Mositol, Winnie Jimis and Cassandra Albanus sat with Chua Kah Seng (CKS) Supermarket’s Purchasing Manager, Grace Chua on a sunny Monday in Donggonggon to learn why this supermarket is taking the lead in composting.


Grace Chua (in red pants), Purchasing Manager of CKS giving us a private tour of the supermarket. Their staff are very welcoming and helpful.

Forever Sabah (FS): First of all, thank you so much for your ongoing support supplying green waste for our composting efforts. What made you do this?

Grace (G): You’re welcome! Rather than throwing our green waste away in our dumpster behind our store and letting it rot, we choose to do our part for the environment and pass it to you to be reused and turned into compost. We know the benefits of organic compost so we are more than happy to supply our green waste to you.


Maria Lasimbang and the rest of the FS crew inspecting the dumpster behind the supermarket.

FS: How many outlets do you have? And are all outlets planning to supply their green waste too?

G: Currently we have 8 outlets – Donggongon, Plaza Millennium, Bundusan, Lok Kawi, Papar, Sepanggar, Telipok and Menggatal, and soon we’ll be opening more in Tuaran and Beaufort. Each store generates about 50-100kg of green waste per day, more during the weekend, so the answer is yes, all stores are onboard supplying them to you – you can even start today if you want!

FS: Do you have a team that segregates the green waste from all the other waste?

G: Yes. We have 8-10 people in charge of packaging and they are the ones who segregate the waste every day. Our staff makes sure all plastic wrappers are removed and they’re more than happy to do it.


Thank you, CKS!

FS: What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed since CKS in Donggongon started supplying green waste to us?

G: The stench! Our dumpsters are not as smelly and we have you to thank. We wish we had more rubbish and green waste bins around Donggongon but here’s our problem – our rubbish bins get stolen. There are people who throw their rubbish into the river and drains, and this causes an eyesore during the rainy season. All that rubbish reappears when the water level rises.

FS: That sounds like a nightmare. How do you think we can solve this problem?

G: Enforcement would play an important role. The authorities must make their rounds to ensure that the law is followed. Besides that, the community can be the eyes and ears. For example, if you catch someone littering or stealing rubbish bins, make a report and get the authorities to issue them a fine. A lot of us grew up here in Penampang and love Sabah so much. We want to see our land prosper and maintain its uniqueness, so it is sad to see some people not respecting it. The community has to take responsibility – we need to advice each other and share our knowledge so that everyone understands the effects we have on the environment. We know it will be a challenge to change people’s mindset but we must start somewhere before it’s too late.