Locals in Pitas, Sabah, suffer the consequences of a huge shrimp farm that destroyed their mangroves and then went out of business.
For nine generations, the indigenous Tombunuo villagers of Kampung Sungai Eloi in Pitas, Sabah have depended on the mangroves for food and income. Theirs is one of the poorest districts in Malaysia. In 2014, the Sabah government launched a RM1.23 billion shrimp farm mega project there. Locals were promised a better future. The shrimp farm began operation in 2016 and provided jobs. It had cleared more than 900 ha of mangrove forests, and wanted to clear another 400 ha more. But the farm closed down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, Kampung Sungai Eloi villagers reflect on how the shrimp farm has hurt their lives, even as they try to restore the damaged mangroves and fight to protect what forests remain.
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“Their machines came and destroyed the mangroves. We forage for ‘lokan’ (mollusk) [there] and really defended the place. Compared to before the shrimp farm started, the income was high. The catch could fetch RM300. Maybe 50 or 60 kg in one day, one night. Now, in a day, maybe we get 3 or 4 kg only. When the shrimp farm was operating, you could go fishing for one whole day and sometimes you would get nothing. Not even one fish. Now, its habitat is recovering.” – Murai Euos, 42
“I worked at the shrimp farm for six years in maintenance. If we got overtime, we could get around RM1,500. What I know is that the farm stopped operating because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, my income is definitely less, about half. But we go back to the basics – rubber tapping, go to sea, go to the river. If the shrimp farm operates again, the advantage is that it provides jobs for the villagers. But the disadvantages are noise pollution from the machines and water pollution because not everyone follows specified procedures. Some supervisors dispose [of waste] without proper treatment in the allocated place.” – Antony Euos, 36
“If the shrimp farm [project] continues, it means that their area might expand. So for us villagers, our area gradually shrinks. It’s possible that in the coming 10 years, there won’t be enough for our livelihood… It’s not impossible that we would have to migrate from the village. When we were kids, three of us could go out nearby in a boat ourselves, and find [enough catch to fill] a 10kg rice bag in two hours. Now, we have to go farther. Though farther, the catch is not guaranteed. Maybe to fill a small plastic bag, with 1 kg, 2 kg.” – Laura Lisua, 33
“When we were young, around 10 years old, that’s where we found food sources like [mangrove ear] snails in the mangroves. When I was a teenager, I followed my parents to collect mangrove tree bark for [construction] piling. That’s where we worked. When the shrimp farm was operating, they didn’t filter the chemicals from the pond and directly dumped them into the river. A lot [of marine life] died, like fishes, snails and crabs. We complained but it seems like they didn’t care. If they restart operations, they must be diligent, don’t dispose of what should not be in the water.” – Andika Andaras, 38
“I’m a community building trainer and took courses with [NGO] PACOS (Partners of Community Organizations in Sabah) for three years. After exchanging views with them, I found that the implementation of the shrimp farm project does not bring benefits but destruction to our area. If we do not protest [the project], our [food] source will deplete. It’s not that we protest against development, but we want a balance between development and preservation of our traditions. Because one of our traditions is our livelihood in the mangroves. We liken the mangroves to our ‘ice box’. We get fresh food from there.” – Olon Somoi, 51
“There are areas that have been destroyed by the [shrimp farm] company that can’t be reforested, seeing that it was excavated so deeply and flooded so badly, and had become a swamp. No plants can survive. We are villagers with many limitations. But we will not give up on rehabilitating the area naturally. We will defend the 1,000 acre mangrove forests in the middle of six villages, the G6. It shouldn’t be destroyed or taken by the company but given to the six villages to be passed down from this generation to the next.” – Mastupang Somoi, 58
About the photographer: Chen Yih Wen is a Malaysian documentary filmmaker and journalist.
The first-person accounts have been lightly edited for flow and clarity.