Project changes the lives of two ethnic communities in the Sungai Medihit Watershed, Malaysia
The Sungai Medihit Watershed is located in northern Sarawak, Malaysia, where it is the home of the Kelabit and Penan ethnic communities.
The Kelabits were the first inhabitants, having lived in this watershed since the early 1890s. They occupy a village of longhouses and practise a generations-old form of shifting agriculture. The Penans, in contrast, were formerly nomadic indigenous people living in the deep forests of Sarawak and Brunei; they were settled in the Sungai Medihit Watershed by the Sarawak State Government in 1972.
The Kelabit community in Long Napir, Sungai Medihit Watershed.
Both communities live traditionally and formerly depended on the forest for their livelihoods. The Kelabits, who have practised shifting cultivation ever since they settled in the present area, discovered that the forests where they hunted were disappearing and the rivers for fishing were becoming polluted due their own shifting cultivation practice, as well as logging operations by local companies. The Penans depend more heavily on forests and rivers for hunting and fishing, while facing similar environmental challenges. Additionally, compared to the Kelabits, they are fairly inexperienced in agricultural practices. For example, the large-scale hill paddy cultivation they have learned and grown accustomed to is rather unsuitable in this area due to the steepness of the hills and their lack of experience in terracing.
Overall, low agricultural yields and the depletion of forest resources have trapped both communities in severe poverty.

Children from the Kelabit community.

Support from APFNet

In order to restore forest resources and help the communities to improve their living conditions, in 2015, APFNet, together with the Sarawak Forest Department of Malaysia and the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) signed a tripartite agreement to launch the Community-Based Sustainable Forest Management of Sungai Medihit Watershed project. The project aims to restore degraded forests and promote sustainable forest management (SFM) in Sungai Medihit Watershed, as well as develop the capacity of the local communities, demonstrate innovative operational models and establish a new governance mechanism on community development.
The project was designed to involve the direct participation of the Kelabit and Penan communities and maximize their involvement to help achieve sustainable livelihoods and improve the sustainability of forest management. After three years of implementation, the project has realized its expected goal and objectives through various activities on alternative livelihood improvement and capacity development on community forest management. The project benefits the communities financially and enhances economic returns to the village.
On 10 January 2019, a project completion seminar was organized in Kuching, Sarawak. Fifty participants from various ministries, government departments and agencies, as well as organizations and institutions of higher learning, attended the seminar where project achievements were shared. Ten presentations on key project findings and achievements were made during the seminar by representatives from APFNet, ITTO, Sarawak Forest Department and consultants.
Participants at the project completion seminar.
“The state government remains committed to ensuring the forest and forest resources are managed in a sustainable manner … and this project is very much in line with these goals” said Hamden Mohammad, Director of Sarawak Forest Department, who at the last minute could not attend himself, in his speech read by the deputy director, Jack Liam.

Improving community forest management

During the seminar, Mr Mohd. Shahbudin Haji Sabki, the project coordinator, explained that to achieve project goals, the project initially carried out two surveys. The surveys enabled the researchers to collect data on both forest resources and the socioeconomic circumstances of both communities, which helped in the development of the Community Forest Management Plan (CFMP).
Dr Katherine Pearce, the project consultant, explained that with support from the Sarawak Forest Department, two SFM demonstration sites – one at Long San for the Kelabit community (753 hectares) and one at Ulu Sg Terasak for the Penan community (678 hectares) – had been established and earmarked to be reserved for community use. She also introduced the CMFPs (2018–2023) for the Kelabit and Penan communities with key priorities and strategies identified for the development of forest resources. The management objectives include: 1) Engage stakeholders; 2) Empower communities to manage community conservation areas; 3) Establish further resources that can be traded to earn money or make saleable products; and 4) Enforce laws and regulations pertaining to the catchment. This was the first time that the Sarawak Forest Department had been a party to the development of CFMPs, and it is keen to see these plans work in practice and possibly develop CFMPs elsewhere in Sarawak.
Top left – nurseries established for forest tree seedlings; top right – the project provided seedlings of fruit trees, timber trees and rattan
to be planted in the community conservation areas; bottom – villagers being introduced to the concept of raising commercial tree species in a nursery.

Mr Sulaiman Jamahari, the project manager, introduced the co-management agreement between Sarawak Forest Department and the two target communities, which will support the co-management of forest resources in Sungai Medihit Watershed. The communities are being given a role and have opportunities to give inputs on the management of their local forests, in particular, their SFM demonstration sites. The Sarawak Forest Department is supporting the communities in every step of rehabilitating their forests via the co-management agreement.

Better community living conditions

Mr Sulaiman Jamahari also showed how implementation of the APFNet project has contributed to improved livelihoods of the local Kelabit and Penan communities within the area. Four alternative livelihood activities have been introduced. One is the establishment of the Tagang System at the Sungai Medihit River, which encourages sustainable fishing practices. Furthermore, locals have been trained in chicken rearing and vegetable farming; selected homestay sites have been upgraded to be tourist-ready. All of these activities equip the communities with new skills and increase their household income without depending too much on timber and NTFPs.
Of significant importance to the local community in the Sungai Medihit Watershed area is the improvement of infrastructure, something that had been directly requested by the community at multiple points during the project design phase. This includes the construction of a road from Long Napir to Kampung Bahagia to which landowners in the area have agreed. The installation of a solar energy power system would allow for access to green electricity for the households in Long Napir and Kampung Bahagia.
Two households, one each from the Kelabit and Penan communities, were identified to demonstrate chicken farming.
Handicrafts produced by women from the Penan community.
“Initially, the APFNet Project gave overall USD 400 to four women, including me, in my community for developing a handicraft business. I now earn USD750 per month from selling handicrafts I make,” said Ms Nomie from the Penan community. Handicrafts are sent to Limbang every Sunday and are collected by the NGO Helping Hand Penan that helps to sell the goods to Brunei Darussalam, Miri, Bintulu, Kuala Lumpur and even to the United States.
Dr Tetra Yanuariadi, ITTO’s project manager who conducted the terminal evaluation of this project, was glad to say that the project has been completed with all project outputs almost fully delivered. This has been the first step in the improvement of both the living conditions and environment and it will only require a little more time until all the project impacts can be truly appreciated with respect to how they have changed lives in the two communities.
The seminar also launched a project documentary film, see here.
The APFNet-funded project Community-Based Sustainable Forest Management of Sungai Medihit Watershed (2013P5-MAS), was launched in 2015 with a three-year project duration. The total grant for the project is USD 666,710 of which USD 460,000 is provided by APFNet.