Southeast Asia is a region rich in biocultural diversity. Home to more than 600 million people, the contrast between the hectic pace of rapidly growing cities and quaint rural villages spread across a vast countryside is remarkable. Kinabalu Park (1964) and Crocker Range Park (1984) were established in order to ensure the conservation of Sabah’s unique store of biodiversity. However, faced with the encroachment of global market trends, commercial enterprise and a steadily decreasing resource base, the livelihoods of the indigenous communities living on the periphery of these parks are increasingly at risk.
The Malaysian state of Sabah is situated at the northern tip of Borneo in Southeast Asia. Along its west coast, sprawling coastal plains and peat swamp forests converge with the lowland, hill dipterocarp and montane forests of the Crocker Range, which culminates at the rocky peak of Mount Kinabalu (4,095m) in the north. Both Kinabalu and the Crocker Range are renowned centers of biodiversity, famous for their spectacular flora and high endemism. Sabah has an astounding wealth of ethnic and linguistic diversity, with a range of ethnic groups and sub-groups distributed along the coastline, inland plains and hilly ranges. The Crocker Range, particularly areas around Kinabalu Park and Crocker Range Park, is home to many indigenous Kadazan, Dusun and Murut communities. For generations and pre-dating the establishment of any protected areas in Sabah, these communities have been living in, trading throughout, and managing these areas. Today, they form part of the rural population in Sabah, primarily subsistence farming communities that cultivate the land, fish and hunt, and harvest forest resources to fulfil their daily needs.
Kinabalu Park (1964) and Crocker Range Park (1984) were established in order to ensure the conservation of Sabah’s unique store of biodiversity. However, faced with the encroachment of global market trends, commercial enterprise and a steadily decreasing resource base, the livelihoods of the indigenous communities living on the periphery of these parks are increasingly at risk.
Over the course of 8 years since 2004, our programme in Southeast Asia explored ways in which protected areas and indigenous communities could converge to support both biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods.
The approaches employed in the region comprised of (1) working with Dusun communities to carry out various applied research initiatives that investigate patterns of local resource use, valuation of landscapes, transmission of indigenous ecological knowledge, and the impact of subsistence strategies on areas adjacent to, or inside, parks; (2) building local capacity to carry out these investigations through an interactive training programme that brings government officials, non-government representatives, professionals, researchers, students and community members together in a dialogue of joint learning and participatory field methods workshops; (3) supporting long-term, community-based conservation initiatives where local communities and partner agencies carry out projects that link biological and cultural aspects of their surrounding environments; and (4) supporting community-led advocacy initiatives to protect their lands and resources from destructive industrial development.
This three year project focused on strengthening community institutions and building grassroots capacity to enable indigenous communities to meaningfully engage in the conservation agenda of Sabah Parks and related government agencies, including the nomination of the Crocker Range as a Biosphere Reserve. Local communities and Sabah conservation agencies participated in a combination of training, participatory action research and community-based conservation education activities.
GDF joined a collaboration to examine traditional ecological knowledge in Sabah, delivering a series of workshops and seminars to broaden the understanding of issues and developments concerning traditional ecological knowledge, and conducting a state-wide review to explore, assess the status, and identify measures to recognize and support community conservation in Sabah, with a particular focus on Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs).
Throughout this two year project (August 2007 – July 2009), the Resource Catchment Assessment Team, comprising representatives from GDF, Buayan-Kionop Community Research Assistants, Sabah Parks and PACOS, was formed to plan, design and implement participatory resource monitoring of subsistence activities in the Buayan-Kionop Community Use Zone in the Crocker Range Park in Sabah.
This project covered a three-year (2004 – 2007) ethnobiological assessment of key resources and anthropogenic landscapes important for indigenous Dusun communities living in and adjacent to the Crocker Range Park. A participatory approach was used to examine the local knowledge of key plant and animal resources, agricultural patterns, subsistence hunting and freshwater fishing strategies.
Recognised in promoting and facilitating community engagement in conservation agendas, GDF was appointed to carry out community research and consultations during a 15-month study commissioned to ERE Consulting Group by the government of Sabah. This contributed to the Study’s recommendation of the Kinabalu Eco-Linc, a proposed ecological linkage guided by nine strategies that would achieve landscape conservation while empowering the indigenous custodians.
In 2011, our team expanded work to include hosting the SUARA Community Filmmaking programme, an integral component of the now annual Borneo Eco Film Festival, carrying forward GDF’s commitment in building community capacity in participatory approaches in conservation efforts, specifically in participatory video, reaching out to a wider audience comprising of communities throughout Sabah.