Sabah villagers struggle to save dwindling mangroves

Warning signs put up by members of the G6 collective near Kampung Sungai Eloi.

KOTA KINABALU: At the Telaga river in Pitas, in the northern region of Sabah, villagers are fighting to save a once thriving mangrove forest which they say is teetering on the brink of destruction thanks to a shrimp park project in the area.

A total of 2,300 acres of mangrove forest along the river has already been converted into shrimp ponds, with a further 1,000 acres earmarked for the park. The project came to a halt following protests mounted by the villagers and backed by NGOs.

Mastupang Somoi, a farmer and fishermen who led the protests, said the initial damage to the mangrove forest was done in 2015.

“The heavy machines came one night on a barge. They levelled the mangrove trees and dug a deep trench in the middle of the mangrove colony, cutting the brackish water supply to the trees.

“We managed to stop them but the damage was already done. It took more than 50 years for these trees to grow and only one night to destroy them all,” he said.

Mastupang Somoi sits in his boat as it moves through the mangrove forest near his village of Kampung Sungai Eloi.

The project was supposed to bring much needed economic development to the poverty-stricken area, with promises of jobs and clean water supply.

However, villagers claim less than 300 have been employed, the majority of whom are not even locals. The promise of clean water also remains just that, with villagers still relying on rainwater or paying the Sabah Water Department RM80 to fill their water tanks.

There are six villages along the river whose inhabitants rely on the mangroves for their livelihood. They claim the area as native customary rights (NCR) land.

Calling themselves the Group of Six (G6), the villagers’ collective action committee is working to save the remaining 1,000 acres of mangrove forest and get the area legally recognised as NCR land.

“This remaining 1,000 acres is all we have now,” said Somoi. “This is where we find food, and it is significant to our beliefs and traditions.”

They came one night on a barge and levelled the mangrove forest before we could stop them,’ Mastupang Somoi says.

At several areas, the villagers gather to pay homage to their ancestors. The river tributaries, meanwhile, all have names given by their predecessors.

“This is ours. If it is taken away from us, we will lose our identity and our history,” Somoi added.

Somoi, 54, is from Kampung Sungai Eloi. He is the founder and chairman of the G6 collective.

He told FMT that they decided to take action after a few hundred acres of mangroves near his village were destroyed.

“We painted the Hitachis (digging machines) and gave them 24 hours to leave because this is our NCR area,” he said.

“We posted notices and warned them that there would be consequences if they disobeyed. They left eventually, which was a small victory for us.”

Last year, the villagers and some NGO members undertook a massive replanting of mangrove trees in the area, setting out more than 3,000 new shoots in an effort to save the forest.

Today, the shoots are growing well, and Somoi hopes more can be done in other areas, too.

“The rows of mangrove trees look intact from the river, but less than 50 feet inside, there is massive damage,” he said.

“The trees are dead, and it will take decades to return them to the way they were before.”

A simple resting area built by villagers from all six villages which serves as a stopover for fishermen. It was built in the middle of the remaining 1,000 acres of mangrove area.

Mangroves in Pitas have for years provided a supply of fish, shellfish, prawns, crabs and other wildlife in northern Sabah.

But since the shrimp project was launched, Somoi said, the number of fish had gone down drastically. It is also harder to catch a decent amount of crabs.

He claimed this was due to pollution of the river by toxic waste from the ponds.

“They use all kinds of chemicals and antibiotics to help with the shrimps’ growth,” he said. “Everything naturally goes into the river.”

Although the new state government appears more sympathetic to their plight, he added, there has been nothing concrete about suspending the proposed expansion of the shrimp park, which is a government initiative through a state subsidiary in collaboration with a private company.

In October, Sabah Agriculture and Food Industry Minister Junz Wong said no more mangrove land would be approved for shrimp farming in Sabah.

“The destruction of valuable natural environment assets is irreversible, therefore instead of destroying the environment for wealth, we should promote and encourage agricultural economic development,” he said during a visit to the Pitas shrimp farm.

But Somoi is sceptical.

“Until we see the paperwork and until the area is formally recognised as our NCR, we will not stop. We know our rights. And we will insist that we are given what we asked for, no more and no less,” he said.