Article in Mongabay about Heart of Borneo & Citizen Science

How citizen science is transforming river management in Malaysian Borneo (commentary)
29 November 2016 / Commentary by Ken Wilson

For thousands of years Sabah’s magnificent 560-kilometer-long (about 348-mile-long) Kinabatangan River has wound its way down from the hills of Borneo’s northern interior through some of the planet’s richest lowland rainforests before flowing into the Coral Triangle through a massive and teeming delta of mangroves, peat swamp forest, and nipah palm.

Over the centuries, the richness of this delta attracted skilled fishermen from the Orang Sungai, Suluk, and other indigenous groups to make their fine stilted villages on the shifting boundaries between land, river, and sea, trading with the interior and across the Sulu Sea.

Some 2,500 of their descendants now live in the 78,000 hectares (about 193,000 acres) of the Lower Kinabatangan and Segama Wetlands (LKSW) in the river delta, which became, in 2008, Malaysia’s biggest Ramsar site. How can it be that regular mass fish deaths occur in such a well-managed protected area and nothing gets done to stop it?

Two conferences in early November 2016 in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, revealed powerful stories around why these fish deaths are happening and how – in the absence of other solutions – the villagers themselves are finding ways forward.

Crises in ecosystems unfold over time. In the late twentieth century, events up-river brought massive change in the Kinabatangan’s 16,800-square-kilometer (6,487-square-mile) catchment (which is almost a quarter of Sabah). The expansion of roads, bridges, and logging in the 1960s was followed from the 1980s by massive growth of flood plain oil palm estates. Meanwhile, parts of the delta mangroves were clear-felled for building Sandakan town’s pilings, for post-WW2 electricity generation in Hong Kong, for charcoal production across the region prior to electrification, and, in the 1980s, chipped for the manufacture of “rayon,” then a newly popular textile, as reported by Dr. Ong Jin Eong in his opening address at the second of these two conferences.

At first the landscape absorbed these shocks and many villages benefitted from better market access for their fish, prawns, and crabs, and from some new and more deadly fishing technologies, including river-based trawling. The trawling supplemented the handwoven, baited traps that can be raided by crab-eating macaques, and it decimated the giant river prawns that were once so abundant that they were sold for just two to three percent of their current price and exported as far as Hong Kong and Taiwan. The land suffered too: Many villagers recall how they joined (albeit on small scales) the logging and oil palm operations that characterized the agro-industries, particularly in the riverine areas that constitute their traditional territories.
Needless to say, however, the reckoning has been rapid, as the Kinabatangan and its tributaries reeled under massively increased sediment loads and nutrient discharge. By the early 2000s, WWF reported serious problems with respect to effluent from palm oil mills, pesticides, fertilizers and sediment from plantations, sediment from logging activities, and sewage and refuse from villages along the river.

linkRead the full article: How citizen science is transforming river management in Borneo

Ken Wilson PhD, is Technical Advisor to Land, Animals, Empowerment, People (LEAP), a Malaysian NGO. The views expressed are his own.