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Dagat Village


Conservation benefit: Protection of 550 acres of rainforest for 15 years

Community benefit: Construction of swiftlet hut to generate sustainable livelihood

Date Approved: 02.2018


This project protects forest, preventing the release of greenhouse gases and reducing erosion that damages coastal and ocean ecosystems.

The people of Dagat Village will protect a 550-acre forest that lies between Malaysia’s largest forest preserve (Tabin Wildlife Reserve) and its largest Ramsar wetland (Lower Kinabatangan Segama Wetland). This forest is a critical wildlife corridor, home to many endemic and endangered animals such as pygmy elephants and orangutans. Other fascinating species include the bearded pig, slow loris, proboscis monkey, and nine of Borneo’s 11 hornbill species.

Logging and the explosive growth of oil palm plantations, however, have devastated rainforests in eastern Borneo. Cutting down so much spectacular rainforest has severely degraded riparian and marine ecosystems.

The lives of Dagat’s indigenous Tidung people are closely tied to the forest. They weave baskets and prawn traps from rattan, gather wild vegetables, and make small boats from trees. They fish mainly for subsistence—markets are too far away—but also dry some fish to sell. Poverty is the biggest threat to the forest, because it creates pressure to sell the land for logging or oil palm farming. Village residents, however, have refused to allow logging and have obtained Native Reserve status for the forest. Many people have taken part in conservation initiatives in the nearby Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

A group of young men and women, after working in tourism in the city of Kota Kinabalu, are leading an effort to revitalize the village economy. Their goal is to start a community-owned swiftlet farming business. For a century, people in the area have “farmed” swiftlets, the small birds whose nests are prized for birds’-nest soup. The community will use Seacology support to build a small structure that mimics the caves the birds naturally nest in. (The building will actually replace some nearby nesting habitat that was lost when caves collapsed.) After the birds build nests and raise their young, the people will gather the nests to sell. The community has already set up a collective, created a business plan, and secured mentoring from a local expert.

Project Updates

December 2019

The people of Dagat are actively protecting their forest. They have contributed to a revision of the management plan for the nearby Tabin Wildlife Reserve, providing data from their community mapping exercise. Working with the NGO PACOS Trust, they also thwarted attempts by outsiders to illegally gain ownership of community forest. Three community members have been trained as forest rangers.

About 65 community members built three swiftlet houses. Some materials came to the village by boat; families who own pickups took turns buying materials in Lahad Datu, which is a five-hour drive away over mostly unpaved roads. (When rain washed out the road, they also had to switch to boats for part of the trip.) People tracked the time they contributed (men by putting up the buildings, women by feeding the workers), which translates into shares in the business. When the buildings were complete, everyone celebrated with a thanksgiving feast. Community members now take turns to clean the structures daily. They also check for insects and other pests that might discourage birds from nesting. Birds have already moved in, but nests haven’t been harvested yet.

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March 2019

Seacology’s Malaysia field representative Chris Wright and program manager Mary Randolph visited Dagat with Neville Yapp of our nonprofit partner LEAP. They met with project leaders, including Najib Ramsa, and saw the protected forest and swiftlet houses first-hand. The houses are almost finished; all that remains to be done is to install the solar-powered sound system, which will attract the birds. The village gave Seacology a warm welcome, with a community gathering, boat tour and hike through the rainforest, and delicious local food.

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December 2018

In September, a local expert visited the village to train community members on all aspects of the swiftlet nest business. Topics included the latest developments in swiftlet farming, how to attract birds, and design of the swiftlet huts. Members then scheduled construction, discussed construction safety, and agreed on how to divide work, shares, and profits among members. Community members began construction began later that month. So far, 65 people have actively participated and finished two huts.

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August 2018

Members of the Dagat village community, village heads, and LEAP recently attended a Tabin Wildlife Reserve management plan workshop. Dagat is a major stakeholder in the area, and its representatives were invited to give a presentation on the community-based participatory mapping of their traditional territory. Mapping let the community gain government recognition of the role that they can play in conserving the wildlife reserve and protecting their customary rights as indigenous peoples.

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May 2018

The swiftlet hut design has been finalized after meetings with the community’s local mentor, and the community has held a series of planning meetings to determine the communal allocation of benefits and salary, based on contribution to construction of the hut. Construction should begin in mid-June.

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