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Restoring Our Mangroves Sustaining Life in Rajang-Belawai-Paloh

As the world celebrates World Environment Day on June 5th, one of the themes for 2024, "Land Restoration," could not be more relevant to the work in the Rajang-Belawai-Paloh area of Sarawak. The slogan, "Our Land. Our Future. We are #GenerationRestoration," urges everyone to take responsibility for healing and restoring our planet's degraded lands. It reminds us that restoring our environment isn't just a good idea — it's something we need to do together to ensure a better future for everyone. 

The Rajang-Belawai-Paloh area is where three rivers meet — the Paloh River to the north, the Rajang River to the south, and Belawai River in between. It is a special place with vast mangrove forests that are teeming with life, from fish to marine mammals like Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) and finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides). It is also home to primates such as proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) and silver leaf monkeys (Trachypithecus cristatus), and an array of bird species, including lesser adjutant storks (Leptoptilos javanicus). The mudflats created by the mangroves provide crucial feeding and roosting sites for migratory birds that travel from the northern hemisphere during the winter months. These birds find abundant food and a safe environment here before continuing their journey southward or back north. 

For the people living in the Rajang-Belawai-Paloh area, mangroves are more than just trees — they are lifelines. WWF-Malaysia mangrove and dolphin conservation senior officer Vivien Yeo says mangroves act as nurseries and feeding grounds for fishes, crabs, and prawns, supporting the local fisheries and livelihoods. 

“They also provide firewood used in the production of smoked prawn, a local delicacy, known as sesar udang. Additionally, mangroves play a vital role in protecting the coastal areas from storm surges and erosion, while helping combat climate change by serving as carbon sinks,” she elaborates.

Mangroves are known for their resilience and remarkable capacity for self-regeneration, bouncing back even after minor disturbances. However, there are instances where natural regeneration is impeded by degradation or destruction of the habitat. In such cases, active replanting efforts become essential to restore the mangrove ecosystem. 

Yeo points out that restoring mangroves involves much more than just planting trees. “Given that mangroves exhibit distinct zonation patterns defined by salinity levels, tidal inundation frequencies, and soil types, the selection of species becomes critical to ensure their survival in specific site conditions. Hence, careful consideration of these factors are vital to ensure the success of mangrove restoration endeavours,” she explains.

An important key to success is for WWF to work in close collaboration with the government of Sarawak. Together with Forest Department Sarawak, local planning authorities and other government agencies, dedicated communities in Rajang-Belawai-Paloh are leading the restoration work in degraded mangrove areas nearby. Their aim is to preserve ecosystems vital for their livelihoods and biodiversity.

Penghulu Abu Seman Masri, a community leader from Kampung Rajang, shares that the mangrove conservation project can bring benefits to the local communities. “It can help to prevent coastal and riverbank erosion as well as conserving the ecosystem. It also helps to improve the local economy. I hope that this project and efforts can be continued not only in this area but also in other degraded mangrove areas around the world.”

Abu Seman, who also serves as the secretary for the Community Participatory Committee of  Mangrove and Dolphin Conservation in Rajang-Belawai-Paloh, is thankful to WWF and donors for supporting the restoration and conservation of the mangrove ecosystem in this area.

Kampung Stalon headman, Maoh Bohom concurs with Abu Seman, saying that the project also ensures the sustainability of mangroves resources for future generations. As the head of the mangrove replanting  group in the project, he says, “This project benefits the rural communities and future generations that require a sustainable environment. I hope these efforts can be continued for the benefit of all.”

Mangrove restoration, however, is far from a walk in the park. It involves trudging through mud under the relentless sun, enduring insect bites, and facing the risk of encounters with crocodiles. Yet, the challenges don't end with replanting. 

Yeo emphasises that continuous care, monitoring, and maintenance are imperative as threats like crabs and goats feeding on mangrove shoots can hinder growth. “The tireless efforts of these local communities in the restoration endeavour are truly commendable as they strive to enrich the lives of both individuals and the environment,” she adds. 

Mangrove restoration in the Rajang-Belawai-Paloh area is a prime example of the World Environment Day theme, "Land Restoration." By planting native mangroves, we are not just rejuvenating the land; we are creating a future where both nature and people can thrive. This initiative embodies this year’s celebration slogan, "Our Land. Our Future. We are #GenerationRestoration.”.

World Environment Day is a time to celebrate our achievements, but our efforts to restore and conserve forests must continue long after the celebrations end. Let’s draw inspiration from the Sarawak government's plan to plant 35 million trees — about one-third of Malaysia's goal of 100 million trees by 2025. This initiative reflects our shared commitment to making Sarawak the greenest state in Malaysia.

We all have a role to play in this journey. When we take care of mangroves, we are taking care of our own future. The restoration efforts in the Rajang-Belawai-Paloh area are just one of many ways we can come together to create a sustainable future. The work has begun, and we invite you to join us on this path of restoration. Let's work together to make a lasting impact.
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Rajang-Belawai-Paloh is home to the largest mangrove complex in Sarawak, rich in biodiversity but highly sensitive to unsustainable activities. © Mazidi Abd Ghani / WWF-Malaysia
We need healthy mangroves - for humans and nature to thrive. © Mazidi Abd Ghani / WWF-Malaysia
The lesser adjutant storm, is a protected bird under the Sarawak Wild Life Ordinance 1998. © Jaynsen Sibat / WWF-Malaysia
Rajang-Belawai-Paloh area is home to one of the world’s endangered species, Irrawaddy dolphins. © Jaynsen Sibat / WWF-Malaysia
Mudflats in Rajang-Belawai-Paloh area is a haven for migratory shorebirds. © Vivien Yeo / WWF-Malaysia
Mangrove seedlings are growing well. © Belinda Lip / WWF-Malaysia
Local specialty, smoked prawn or sesar udang, is sold between RM140 and RM180 per kilogramme depending on the season. This provides income to local communities who are mainly fishers. © Belinda Lip / WWF-Malaysia
To date 11,763 mangrove seedlings have been planted by the local communities. © Belinda Lip / WWF-Malaysia
A small nursery has been set up to nurture young mangroves. © Belinda Lip / WWF-Malaysia
WWF-Malaysia programme officer for mangrove and dolphin conservation Vivien Yeo © Vivien Yeo / WWF-Malaysia
Penghulu Abu Seman Masri from Kampung Rajang. © Vivien Yeo / WWF-Malaysia
Maoh Bohom, the Penghulu of Kampung Stalon. © Vivien Yeo / WWF-Malaysia

About WWF-Malaysia:
Established in 1972, WWF-Malaysia (World Wide Fund for Nature-Malaysia) is part of WWF (World Wildlife Fund), the international conservation organisation. Working to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, WWF-Malaysia’s efforts to conserve nature focus on six major goals - forests, oceans, wildlife, food, climate and energy, as well as freshwater – and three key drivers of environmental problems – markets, finance and governance. Our mission is to stop the degradation of the earth’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.

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