The Batu Puteh community along Malaysia’s Kinabatangan River serves as a model for sustainable practices in tourism and natural resources management.
In the village of Batu Puteh on the Lower Kinabatangan River in Eastern Sabah (North East Borneo), an ecotourism cooperative was established in 2003 to ensure that the local community remains in control of tourism development in the area to support livelihoods and protect the environment.
KOPEL, which stands for Koperasi Pelancongan Mukim Batu Puteh Berhad (Batu Puteh Community Tourism Cooperative Ltd.), has more than 270 members from four villages—Batu Puteh, Mengaris, Perpaduan, and Singgah Mata. It operates a village homestay program (Misowalai Homestay), village riverboat service, forest guide services, village culture and arts program, and the Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp. It engages more than 170 villagers in full-time, part-time, and seasonal employment.
Though primarily a social enterprise, what makes KOPEL stand out is its program of natural resource and wildlife habitat conservation. Its medium-scale forest restoration program, which is funded through grants and government contracts, is a secondary yet integral activity of the cooperative.
The Batu Puteh village started its reforestation activities even before the cooperative was formally established (see Box 1). Since 1999, the community has worked to restore more than 900 hectares of critical rainforest habitat along the Kinabatangan Wildlife Corridor and has planted more than 300,000 trees.
The Kinabatangan floodplain contains highly biodiverse ecosystems (including unique freshwater swamp forest and dryland dipterocarp rainforest) that harbor an abundance of wildlife.
Box 1: KOPEL’s Forest Restoration Story
In 1998, Batu Puteh community was involved in fighting forest fires in the surrounding Pin-Supu Forest Reserve. This raised awareness in the community of the damaged and degraded condition of the forest. In 1999, villagers began to plant trees and restore 20 hectares of forest area. The work was undertaken initially with financial support from corporate sponsors and nongovernment organization grants.
Many lessons were learned in the early years about flood plain forests, forest types, phenology, and restoration dynamics. The restoration activities have become a core part of ecotourism in this part of the Kinabatangan. More than 70% of visitors are student groups and volunteers who participate in the reforestation activities.
By the time KOPEL was formed in 2003, the community had already planted trees across 60 hectares of forest. KOPEL has continued the work by planting more than 300,000 trees, representing 25 species, on more than 300 hectares. It has undertaken silviculture work, which involves removing smothering vegetation and weed species to enhance the natural regeneration of trees in affected areas, on 600 hectares. The natural regeneration process is expected to establish a closed canopy forest cover.
KOPEL’s work has been instrumental in shifting communities’ livelihoods toward sustainability and restoring degraded ecosystems. More than two-thirds of the cooperative’s employment is in the forest restoration program, even though it considers tourism as its core business.
Other important biodiversity conservation work funded by KOPEL includes the removal of invasive waterweed, Salvinia molesta, from Tungog Lake (see Box 2); a long-term wildlife monitoring program; a local water quality monitoring program; and a cave habitat restoration program.
KOPEL also supports community projects, such as village waste collection and disposal, environmental education in local schools, and revolving funds and microloans for villagers for a variety of purposes, ranging from microenterprises to improving household sanitation. All these activities are funded by tourists, students, and volunteers visiting the area.
Box 2: KOPEL’s Lake Restoration Story
Lake restoration in Tungog Lake began in 2002 when the invasive weed species Salvinia molesta began infesting the pristine waters after large floods that year. Once established, Salvinia destroyed the aquatic biodiversity and caused localized extinction.
The removal of Salvinia from Tungog Lake is critical for the conservation of fish breeding and freshwater fisheries, as well as for the preservation of three otter species and a host of rare water birds that thrive on this lake.
Initially, the community attempted to remove Salvinia by hand. The use of boats and nets later proved to be the most effective approach.
Salvinia removal is funded by visitors to the Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp and other community tourism activities, and it is supported by volunteers.
Benefits and Impacts
KOPEL is contributing to the conservation of the surrounding rainforest, wetlands, wildlife, and biodiversity in direct, long-term ways.
There are also significant indirect benefits from raising awareness among students, visitors, volunteers, and local communities. KOPEL has increased the sense of appreciation, pride, and ownership of the forest and local natural resources.
Today, KOPEL is regarded as a model for other remote and rural communities throughout Sabah. It is currently supporting capacity building for ecologically sustainable tourism development in other sites throughout the state under its Forever Sabah program. The aim of these activities is to enable communities to generate income through the sustainable management of resources, develop skills in diverse areas of ecotourism, and create community-based tourism programs that integrate many aspects of sustainability.