Wielding Parangs to Grow a Forest

In Sabah’s Lower Kinabatangan, a group made up entirely of mothers and housewives is wielding parangs, driving boats and nurturing saplings to link forests. These are their voices.

Text and images by Chen Yih Wen.

Published: November 29, 2021 [Update December 17, 2021]

An all-female team is reconnecting forests fragmented by logging in Sabah’s Kinabatangan river basin. Norinah Braim (centre), works with her sister Haslina Braim (right) and niece Azrimah Aslee (left) to plant and nurture trees.  “It’s beneficial for them – they can work and earn an income in their own village, and gain new knowledge about conservation,” says Norinah. “It’s better than just being a stay-at-home mother taking care of children.” All 20 members of their team are women, largely indigenous Orang Sungai. The project is an initiative by NGO HUTAN. Initially helmed by the men in their Sukau village, the tree planting did not really take off until the womenfolk took over in 2008.

“Before I joined the reforestation team in 2008, I had no experience whatsoever in tree planting. When the opportunity arose, the first thing I thought of was that I could earn a living. Because before, there wasn’t much work available in Sukau village. What more for women? The housewives, mothers. This is a great opportunity because our women are seldom exposed to conservation work, so this is what we gain from the reforestation unit. I used to work in Sandakan town, in the factories. But because I had to be apart from my family, I wasn’t very keen to continue. I prefer to do work like this, in my own village, close to my own family.” – Norinah Braim (52), project pioneer

“Since I was in high school, I would see them (women tree planters) going to work in the mornings. And I’d ask them what they were doing. So after I completed my high school, after a year, I heard they were recruiting. So I met with the team leader and registered my name, because I’m interested to try out this reforestation work. Although I grew up in this village, when I was little, I didn’t really go into the forests. So after I joined this team, every day, I’d have to work in the forests. Sometimes, I felt a little scared. But after a while, I got used to it and I discovered, actually the forest is a serene place. I think reforestation is important not just for wildlife but also human beings. Because with the forests and its canopies, that’s where we get the clean air and oxygen that we need.” – Azrimah Aslee (21), joined 2019

“I’ve lived here (in Sukau) for 45 years, I’m a native Orang Sungai. The village is really different now, with all the developments – logging, palm oil, factories. Now, there is also tourism. When I was a child, there was just logging. Before, it was difficult to see wildlife like elephants, monkeys. You’d have to go into the forests to see them. But now, you can say that elephant sightings occur almost once a month. You can see monkeys every day, and quite often also orangutans. Before joining this team, I didn’t have any work. I was only a housewife. With this job, I get to make new friends and also learn new skills. And now, I’m tasked to lead the team.” – Haslina Braim (45), joined 2016

Kinabatangan tree-planter Mariana Singgong (Chen Yih Wen)

“I have nine children and had been a housewife for 16 years before I joined the reforestation team. My family could get by with our daily lives but I wanted to earn my own money. It’s different when you can buy things with your own hard-earned money, you know. In 2008, when I heard HUTAN was hiring women workers, I offered myself, even though I’ve never worked in a forest and I’m not really the tough type. So in the first month, the (then) person-in-charge took us to see a plot which we had to clear for tree planting. It was 2.4 acres! I thought to myself, ‘How are we going to clear it with just parangs (machetes)? No machines. And it was overgrown.’ But because we needed the job, we just had to do it. And we managed to do it in 13 days. You know why? We worked in the rain. Because when it’s dry, the grass is harder to cut. When it’s wet, it’s easier. So we went to work in the rain. We didn’t care and we didn’t even stop to rest.” – Mariana “Dadai” Singgong (52), project pioneer

“My mother (Dadai) is the one who encouraged me to try out working in the reforestation team when there was an opening. If not, I had wanted to stay home to care for my young children. But I had to help my husband with our family finances, because we have four kids. After my first week, I was really almost in tears and told my mother that I wanted to quit. I told her, ‘I can’t stand the hilly slopes and my hands are sore from using the parang.’ I have never done such hard work before. But she told me, ‘Just persevere, just one month, wait till you get your paycheck.’ And when I got my first salary, I was so happy and just continued! The work is still tiring but now it has become like a hobby to me, like a breeze.” – Fatimah “Jong” Pastor (36), joined 2019

“I’m really impressed with the senior team members. Once, they brought us to an old planting site to do maintenance. The trees had all grown. And what’s amazing is that before, they only had parangs. For us now, we have grass cutters to help us. So I think my mother is really awesome. And the fact is, our reforestation team are mostly working moms. I think this is good for the mothers, so that our minds are not closed up – just staying home to take care of our kids. We can learn about reforestation and gain new knowledge.” – Jong (right) with her mother, Dadai

About the photographer: Chen Yih Wen is a Malaysian documentary filmmaker and journalist. Watch her documentary ‘The Women Tree Planters of Sukau’ here.

The first-person accounts have been lightly edited for flow and clarity. This work was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. 

[Edited by SL Wong]

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