Saving the rivers of Sarawak (Part 1)

About 150 representatives, mostly from indigenous communities all over Sarawak, who are affected with state-wide plans to build 12 more mega-dams convened in Miri on the 16 – 18 February, 2012.

Among these participants included representatives from communities affected by three mega-dams that have already been built in Sarawak: Batang Ai, Bengoh and Bakun.

The workshop was to discuss about the impact of the mega-dams in Sarawak on the livelihoods of the affected communities and the adverse effects on the environment. The newly formed Save Rivers Network (SAVE Rivers), a coalition from local NGOs, communities and individuals, is the organizer of the event.

Women's group discussing plan of action for mobilizing their committees on the anti mega-dams campaign.

The first day of the workshop opened with a night of sharing stories. Various individuals, particularly from the three built mega-dams, spoke up of how their communities are dealing with the aftermath.

One community representative from the controversial Bakun dam that caused the displacement of more than 9,000 people in the 1990’s, spoke on the pros & cons of the Rumah (House/Longhouse) Bakah Asap resettlement. The cons outweighed the benefits, and he listed woes such as not enough land for farming, hunting, and lack of forests to harvest food. The lack of land had led to many conflicts among the community, he disclosed. He also spoke about despite the convenience of being closer to towns, this has led to many petty crimes from the youth, who have better access to drugs and alcohol. The income level of the new community resettlement averages below RM900/month (about USD281/month), which is below poverty level in Malaysia.

Workshop discussion between the speakers and the SAVE Rivers committee

A Batang Ai representative spoke about how the forests that they used to hunt and gather forest produce are now off-access because soon after the building of Batang Ai dam, the remaining forests were gazetted as a National Park. Currently only a handful of communities living near Batang Ai dam are allowed to hunt non-protected wildlife species, and gather non-timber forest products. He also spoke of how the communities were promised RM8000/bilik (per family room in a longhouse), two acres of land and five acres of rubber but three decades later, they are still waiting for full compensation.

Cynthia speaking about her experience with the Green SURF anti-coal campaign in Sabah

Similarly to the Rumah Bakah Asap resettlement, the Batang Ai communities live in conflict for land to plant, and hunt. The Batang Ai representative spoke of the irony of living close to the dam, but having no access to water or electricity.

The Bengoh dam representative’s story eerily mirrored the experiences of the Batang Ai and Bakun communities. He spoke of how the communities were promised RM12000 (USD3500) per family yet he added that this amount did not truly reflect how much the land is worth to his community. He added that the community was taking the case to court in regards of lack of full compensation that was promised.

“Sekatan terhadap org luar masuk dari Semanjung. Barang yg dipesan seperti paip, baja tdk dibenarkan & disekat [There are restrictions to West Malaysians coming into our area. Ordered goods such as water pipes, and fertilizer are not allowed and restricted],” he added.

He spoke of oppression, and how the communities were coerced into accepting compensations that they did not really want.

While the stories shared on the opening night were quite despondent, the energy in the room remained quite high. The participants were ready to share more stories, and to discuss the next steps for the SAVE Rivers campaign.

Cynthia Ong and Penan community elders affected by Sarawak's mega dams

Written by June Rubis

Manager, Civil Society Initiatives & Wildlife Conservation



Thankful Poachers Didn’t Get Puntung

Recognition for Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) field staff 

In her late teens when offered an office job by SOS Rhino Borneo, Rajimah Kasran was overjoyed, but within a month, was ready to call it quits. Although from a remote village in eastern Sabah, a Malaysian state in Borneo, Rajimah had never ventured into the forest – and was shocked to learn her “administrative post” required her to join team members in the tropical jungle at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, in the Lahad Datu district.

“I was told that I will work in an office, but I ended up going into the forest. I found it tough, and I wanted to go home. But when I started learning about the Sumatran rhinoceros, I hung on. For most part of the first year, each month I promised myself that I will bear it a little longer … I was starting to get used to the forest, and I wanted to know more about rhinos,” Rajimah said, recollecting her early years in rhino conservation work.

Months have turned into years – eight to be exact. Now 26, Rajimah is part of a team that works closely with the Sabah Wildlife Department to save the critically endangered Sumatran rhino – some estimates point at less than 30 in the wild in Borneo – with all known ranges in Sabah.

From having no awareness of the elusive mammal, Rajimah is now a valuable member of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) team. BORA, which took over from the role played by SOS Rhino Borneo, is a non-governmental organization with a mission to prevent the extinction of Borneo’s rhino population. It assists the Sabah Wildlife Department in the development of the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary programme – an initiative of the Sabah State Government to increase rhino births through captive breeding.

On 27th January 2012, Rajimah was among 21 BORA field staff who received certificates of appreciation from the Chairman of the BORA Board, Dr Abdul Hamid Ahmad, for their critical work in helping capture wild female rhino Puntung and dedication over the last two years. BORA Executive Director Datuk Dr Junaidi Payne and Board member Ms Cynthia Ong joined Abdul Hamid in commending staff.

Rajimah receiving her certificate

BORA staff with their certificates of appreciation

“Back then, I didn’t even know what a rhino was. I was a coordinator for a homestay programme at my village in Dagat in the Segama area and suddenly I was involved in rhino work. I slowly started learning and today, my life revolves around rhinos. I hardly return home to my village although it is not very far away from Tabin simply because when I am home, I only think of rhinos in captivity, and those in the wild. My biggest fear is that poachers will get the remaining populations,” she said.

The species is today critically endangered following a combination over the past millennium of a loss of most of their prime habitat in Southeast Asia’s lowlands and chronic hunting for their horn, used in Chinese traditional medicine. Today, the species is threatened with extinction because their numbers are extremely low.

Rajimah, one of only two women doing field work under BORA, is enthusiastic about her work and feels honoured that the management team decided to present staff with certificates of appreciation.  “I feel very valued. Our greatest achievement so far is the capture of Puntung in December last year. I am so thankful that she didn’t fall into the hands of poachers,” Rajimah said.

Puntung is currently housed at an interim facility near the proposed Borneo Rhino Sanctuary at Tabin, along with Tam and Gelogob. Estimated to be 10 to 12 years old, Puntung is potentially a mate for Tam who was discovered when he walked out of the forest and into an oil palm estate in 2008.

Puntung - her first attempt into her enclosure

Interim facility

Interim facility

Gelogob in her wallow

To read more about the certificate of appreciation story, the following are news reports of the event:

Borneo Post

Borneo Post

Daily Express

Berita Harian

Berita Harian

New Sabah Times

New Straits Times

To learn more about BORA, visit


Wild female rhino Puntung was finally captured on 18th December 2011, after a wait of more than one and a half years. Puntung was found in an area of Tabin Wildlife Reserve where no signs of any male rhinos have been seen for several years, so it was unlikely she would be able to breed in the wild.

Estimated at about 10-12 years old, and lean and healthy, Puntung will hopefully be able to mate naturally with male rhino Tam who has been in captivity in Tabin since 2008.

This is a huge boost for the prospects of captive breeding of this Critically Endangered species and we wish the BORA team and the rhinos the best of luck in 2012!

Puntung in a temporary paddock where she was placed after capture, before being helicoptered to her new home in Tabin on Christmas Day! Photo: BORA/Abdul Hamid Ahmad

Puntung has no hooves on her front left foot, hence her name which means ‘stump’ in Malay. Examination of her foot revealed that the terminal bones of the leg were missing, a sure sign that the foot had been ripped off by a snare trap when she was an infant. Miraculously, she survived!

Male rhino Tam in his night stall prior to the arrival of Puntung, with BORA vet and Field Manager Dr Zainal Z. Zainuddin.

Described as a ‘Christmas miracle’ in the press, Puntung’s capture was reported across the world and made headlines in the local media, and has been hailed as a new and auspicious start to 2012 for rhino conservation.

In the New Sabah Times 25 December 2011

Daily Express 25 December 2011

Borneo Post 25 December 2011


In fact Sumatran rhinos have appeared quite a bit in the press in recent weeks. LEAP facilitated the publication of several articles written by Dr Junaidi Payne of BORA in the national and local press, in particular in relation to the recent disturbing announcement of the extinction of the Javan rhino in Vietnam, and its implications for Sumatran rhino conservation.

On the ground, the Rhino Quarantine Facility at Tabin has been completed and a temporary water supply connected. Solar power was installed at the end of November.

Photovoltaic cells on the roof of the Rhino Quarantine Facility

Elderly female rhino Gelogob was moved to the Rhino Quarantine Facility on 23rd August 2011 and seems to have settled in well. Tests carried out by Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), Berlin at the end of October confirmed that Gelogob is unfortunately unable to produce any eggs, and attempts to induce ovulation will cease.

Moving Gelogob to the Rhino Quarantine Facility

Gelogob in her new wallow

Work on the construction of the 1.24km road to the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary (BRS) facilities commenced in August but then lapsed again due to the return of wet weather. Funding from the federal government to build BRS is still not available and alternative funding is being sought from the Sabah government.

New gravel road leading to the proposed Borneo Rhino Sanctuary site

Happy Holidays!!

One Step Forward For Indigenous People in Land Tussle

Wearing black traditional outfits decked with colourful beads and brass belts, over 300 men, women and children gathered at the Kota Kinabalu Courts Complex on 24th November 2011 to listen to an argument appealing for the High Court to hear a land rights case.

A plea by the Tongod villagers "Dont take away our customary land"

The indigenous people, largely from the Kadazandusun group, arrived at a nearby city park at 7am, as a sign of solidarity for villagers in remote Tongod, a district in central Sabah.

Villager Darinsuk Pangiran Apan and four others are in a land tussle with private company Hap Seng Consolidated Berhad and four other parties – a matter that has dragged on all the way to Malaysia’s highest judiciary level – the Federal Court.

Cynthia Ong lending support to one of the villagers claiming native customary rights over land. Pictured here with Darinsuk Pangiran Apan.

Just before 9am, villagers marched silently to the High Court building, not bothered by curious looks from passers-by, minutes before the Federal Court sat to listen to their appeal.

Those who were unable to find a seat in the building watched a video of the proceedings – streamed live from a laptop to a large mobile screen.

Watching the deliberation from a live feed outside the court room.

Six hours later, the Federal Court allowed the appeal and remitted the case to the High Court. The nation’s highest court also ruled that the High Court should not have dismissed the villagers’ claim based on preliminary objection, and that the order of the High Court as affirmed by the Court of Appeal should be set aside.

The fight is not over.

Although the legal battle is still on, the Federal Court’s decision is viewed as a positive step in the need to continuously advocate the rights of indigenous people over land – a thorny issue in Sabah, and in many other places around the world.

More photos on our Facebook page.

Engaging All Quarters Crucial in Resolving Land Issues: LEAP

As part of an assessment of a local land rights programme, two independent evaluators met the Sabah Lands and Surveys Department to gather information on related issues, in particular claims for native customary rights (NCR).

The recent meeting saw Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP) Executive Director Cynthia Ong and independent consultant Birgitte Feiring of Denmark, getting feedback from Department Director Datuk Osman Jamal and his Deputy (Land) Lee Chun Khiong on land ownership among natives, including the state’s current focus in issuing Communal Titles.

Ong and Feiring sought the meeting to get the Government’s perspective on land claims, a subject that remains controversial as individuals, communities and private entities continue to apply for land ownership.

“We visited several remote villages in Tenom, Keningau, Tongod and Ranau last week, and one of the main grouses raised by communities was their right to land ownership.

“To make a fair assessment of the situation, we followed up by speaking to lawyers, the media and to Government departments. We are glad that the Lands and Surveys Department was open to answering some of our queries,” she said in a statement issued today by LEAP.

Ong and Feiring spent 10 days until Oct 26 evaluating local NGO Partners of Community Organisations (PACOS) Trust’s Land Rights and Natural Resource Management programme.

The evaluation will provide the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) with an assessment on the impacts, results and effectiveness of activities carried out under the said programme.

Ong said it is important to continue engaging with all quarters in finding solutions to complicated issues, such as land ownership. She said some situations may require solutions that are based on unique characteristics of a certain area or community.

(From left) Independent consultant Birgitte Feiring and Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP) Executive Director Cynthia Ong in a discussion with Sabah Lands and Surveys Department Director Datuk Osman Jamal and his Deputy (Land) Lee Chun Khiong.
Independent consultant Birgitte Feiring (left) and Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP) Executive Director Cynthia Ong getting answers from Sabah Lands and Surveys Department Director Datuk Osman Jamal (right) on the issuance of titles to natives.


In a related development, LEAP Executive Director Cynthia Ong and independent consultant Birgitte Feiring of Denmark took part in media dialogue with representatives from several local Sabah newspapers. The following is an article that appeared in the Daily Express, as a result of the Press meet.

Indigenous people and contemporary crises

Newspaper article written by our staff member June Rubis.

Indigenous people and contemporary crises - looking for solution. Daily Express 14th Nov 2011