On the island of Borneo, in the northern Malaysian state of Sabah, a new green revolution is under way. But this revolution is not quite like the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which lifted a billion people out of poverty and hunger, but also led to widespread environmental damage through intense irrigation and heavy chemical use.
Instead, this revolution will focus on building up the land’s natural assets and strengthening its ecosystems for the people and animals who inhabit it. And this revolution will not ignore the role of women, but put them front and center in the change that is to come. Because this green revolution is being led by the women of Sabah themselves.
“Sabahan women have this innate, intimate connection to the land,” says Cynthia Ong, the executive director of LEAP, an environmental justice nonprofit working closely with the Sabahan community. “It’s just natural for them to go out and work their farms, plant rice, and keep their land going when everything else around them is not going very well.”
And Sabahans have certainly had it difficult. Sabah was once Malaysia’s 2nd richest state, but over the years, it’s fallen to become the poorest region in Malaysia. According to the World Bank, Sabah and the neighboring federal territory of Labuan represent a disproportionate share of Malaysia’s poor: 31% of all Malaysian households living in poverty are from Sabah and Labuan, but only 3.6% of the country’s total population is concentrated in these two areas.
The demise of Sabah’s prosperity and economy is largely rooted in the abuse of its natural resources. For decades, intense logging stripped the land of its natural forestry, and then the introduction of the Acacia mangium, a non-native plant, further led to water depletion and the collapse of many natural ecosystems. As in most tragedies, women were among the hardest hit by the environmental degradation. 22% of all female-headed households in Sabah are living in poverty.
“They were a community. They worked together, they farmed together, they fished together. And then this large-scale logging took everything away. Jobs started disappearing in rural communities, so the structures for income earning were gone. Then men started to leave for the cities, leaving the women and their families behind. Women would tend to the land as best they could, but the environment was so disturbed. It often felt like a losing battle,” Ong, who is herself from Sabah, explains.
But in a true testament to their resilience, the women did not surrender to defeat. Reaching out to people with the resources to help them, Sabahan women from the town of Pitas initiated a partnership between their own community, LEAP, a community-based organization called PACOS Trust, and the Sabah Forestry Department. One of their first initiatives together was a watershed restoration project that came to be known as Project Women Empowerment Trees – or PWET for short. With support from LEAP and the PACOS Trust, the women underwent skills training and planted trees to revive the forests.
The project was wildly successful. Originally planned for three years, PWET continues to this day and is expanding to include social enterprise as well.
“A tiny bit of support and partnership was all it took for these women to thrive. In six years, they completely transformed their lives and their community,” Ong adds. “PWET started as a project to plant saplings and trees, but then the women themselves began talking about reviving their indigenous weaving and beading arts. They set up classes to teach other, and now they’re one of the strongest communities that carry on these traditional crafts. Then after that, they started to get interested in organic farming. We raised some support for them and they were able to re-launch their community markets, another local tradition that had somehow been lost along the way. The women here are really enterprising.”
Now, the women of Pitas are working with a number of partners, including LEAP, on a new, grander project—Forever Sabah. It’s a multi-sector collaboration that combines food and agriculture; renewable energy; tourism; and water, waste and soil management. Ambitious in nature and scale, Forever Sabah would restore the Sabah’s depleted lands and turn the state into the site of a bustling new green economy. Women are central to this process.
“The women are leaders of this green economy. For them, the work is shifting from being about watershed restoration to being about enterprise, food, and leadership,” Ong says.
In particular, the women will be heavily involved in the education component of Forever Sabah. The women will become trainers to help create new employment opportunities for young Sabahans. This will help the next generation of Sabahans stay in their villages and become part of building green economies, rather than moving to cities to find work. In the next five years, Forever Sabah will build 8 Learning Centers where the local women will teach young people traditional knowledge, watershed management, crafts, enterprises, and leadership.
Throughout this process, what’s become clear to Ong and others is that women are powerful change agents. And what women need to turn their communities around is not pity, but partners willing to invest in their ideas.
“Being disempowered is not the same as being powerless. There’s been systemic marginalization and women were certainly not acknowledged as leaders in the past, but now a few of the women in this community have become political and community leaders. It’s really quite amazing. It’s inspired me to continue the work and to build alliances between urban modern women as well and indigenous women,” Ong says.
With women at the helm, the future of Sabah is looking much brighter—and much greener.