Imagine you’ve been working tirelessly, and passionately for decades with indigenous communities in the face of a changing climate that’s been rearing its ugly head on your land. This land has already been ravaged by deforestation and land grabbing. You have spent the last decade studying ecological restoration, environmental protection and regenerative agriculture. You have used this knowledge to teach your neighbors, the community farmers and local governments about the benefits of conserving what’s left of the precious old-growth rainforests and encouraged many to adopt regenerative agriculture and leave behind the detrimental palm oil plantations. You have personally grown up watching the country’s rich biodiversity being erased, knowing some species may never return. You’ve seen livelihoods shattered and many ancestral grounds are long gone. You have spent the last decade of your life trying to create a more equitable world.
After three years of taking on a new initiative, you have created an environmental science hub and research center as well as an ecosystem restoration site for education and technical training for the local farmers. You are the first Ecosystem Restoration Community on the island of Borneo, Malaysia.
You leave for an environmental conference 700 km away…and you get the call. A neighbor has deforested and destroyed a portion of your conservation land to use as a water drainage site for an architecture project…
You have fallen victim to land encroachment.
This is unfortunately a true story. The team at ERC DoKu, in Sarawak, Malaysia has recently felt the deeply wounding pains of the brutal betrayal of a wealthy neighbor that illegally destroyed land that belonged to the ERC initiative. What’s worse is that this land that was leveled was protected, ancient rainforest. This is called land encroachment. Land encroachment is the illegal possession and/or destruction of a rightful landowner’s property without their permission.
Pictures courtesy of Ecosystem Restoration Community DoKu – March 23, 2023 – Trees and understory were cleared 3 meters out from the new tree line.
Land conflicts are not a new problem, it may, perhaps, be encrusted into the fibers of our human existence. It’s the reason most of us were born in the part of the world we are in. Someone fought over that piece of land, and you are the product of this confrontation. But today, in the 21st century, land grabbing and encroachment anywhere, especially your neighbors’ land definitely screams injustice, and warrants immediate action and public attention, especially since arable land and biodiverse natural forests are dwindling on the island.
So, here’s what happened: Just weeks prior, the wealthy landscaper neighbor from Singapore told Chan, DoKu’s ecosystem restoration leader, about his project and said that he would like to use some of his property. Chan, upset by this intrusive request, said no and firmly asked him to leave his land alone because this was sacred conservation land. The neighbor’s response was that ‘things should be orderly and developed’. The project was soon underway as soon as Chan left town and was 700 km away.
On March 23, 2023, the construction workers illegally cleared off 3 meters deep of surface soil from portions of the perimeter of Doku’s land and now the thriving ecosystem, the forest floors and understories teeming with life are gone. The precious skin of the forest has been violently ripped away.
Chan, his team, and the community are rightfully devastated. Since 2009, DoKu has been advocating for regenerative bamboo planting to restore the region’s diverse microclimates, and to planting vetiver grasses to recharge groundwater. As a knowledge hub, DoKu has partnered with local universities for extensive research in microbial life. They have been working diligently to restore their degraded land that was destroyed by logging, palm oil plantations, and intensive agriculture farming.
In 2020, the DoKu community initiative was granted the opportunity to purchase 10 acres of land. Six acres were secondary rainforest and 4 acres were completely deforested. This site served as an opportunity to preserve, protect, and learn from. Because they now have this land, they have been able to monitor and study the portion of the remaining old-growth rainforest as a baseline of what could be. And then learn how to work with nature and not against it in order to mitigate climate change and establish regenerative food systems for their communities.
Photo courtesy of Ziyu Chan, community gathering 2017
Throughout this devastating ordeal and the searing hurt, Chan shares a poignant realisation… “Can you imagine how indigenous tribal communities feel when millions of hectares of land from their ancestors are stolen from them by big logging companies? The pain and sorrow they have to bear and endure is unimaginable”. Sadly, this is not the first time this island, these communities, these people, are facing this.
Land encroachment became a regional problem in the 1980’s when commercial logging companies targeted the beautiful, richly diverse jewel of the ocean. The majority of Sarawak’s forests have been “sold” as plantation concessions, which are public lands (home to the majority of the indigenous populations) sold by the government to large companies for developing palm oil plantations. And just for some geo-environmental factoids, palm oil farming is responsible for more than 8% of the world’s deforestation, which is primarily taking place in Indonesia, Brazil and Malaysia according to a study from the European Commission. Did you know that Borneo is the third largest island in the world and is/was home to some of the oldest rainforests in the world, some dating back to an estimated 140 million years ago?
Land encroachment leading to deforestation for any reason, whether its commercial or private use, as is the case for Chan and DoKu, presents the same disastrous problems, short term and long term. There’s the destruction of natural habitats, which leads to soil erosion, then severe land degradation. This not only affects the plant and animal communities, or CO2 sequestration but also impacts agriculture, food security and in the case of the largely affected population of indigenous Bornean people, loss of land resources that they relied on for survival and loss of ancestral grounds.
Photo courtesy of Doku Community 2021
The risk of natural disasters increases, which become much less “natural”, like landslides, floods and forest fires because the natural buffers and barriers are now gone. All of these environmental dilemmas often lead to land conflict and forced migration, which adds a whole new layer of burden on other communities financially and space-wise.
So what are local governments doing about this?
Surprise, surprise, nothing much. Technically, encroachment is illegal, but it seems to be that there are alot of blind eyes being turned in this national situation. Some Bornean governments had recently promised to begin implementing ‘Transformational Change’ in land use policy in 202, but unfortunately have not seen much progress due to fast political turnover and lack of broad institutional support.
Ziyu Chan, Ecosystem Restoration Community leader at Doku, Malaysia.
So what needs to happen?
As usual, it seems we have reached a stalemate with the governments in waiting for them to take action. They are making it too easy for the wealthy private sector and the industrial sector to take advantage of small-scale stakeholders and indigenous communities, like Chan and his Ecosystem Restoration Community DoKu. So, it’s up to us, the people on the ground, outside of the gilded towers of politics and power to incite change.
Public awareness and community engagement is something we can make happen RIGHT NOW. We all have social media; we all have the internet. Let’s get sharing these stories. Share THIS story. The more negative light shown upon this despicable practice, the more public support the Malaysian citizens will have. They need this coverage.
We must work together as a global community to support the people who are living off the lands, the people who are restoring the lands, the people who are trying to create a world that we all want to live in. If we can’t fix this problem with common sense making and well-justified arguments to the large investors and governments turning a blind eye, let’s give them some negative press! It’s time to stand up and protect the small-scale stakeholders, the ecosystems we depend on and the Native Customary Rights (NPR) land that continues to be stolen from indigenous communities. We can use the power of persuasion and peer pressure for good. But we MUST make some noise! Please share this story.
Please help DoKu! Do you want to help Chan and the team at DoKu directly? DoKu needs a large enough perimeter fence to mark its territory so that there is no mistake in where its land begins. They also need more secure storage units, and the funds to purchase materials to restore the destroyed strip of land. We can help them achieve this. Go here to make a donation to help restore this sacred land.