KOTA KINABALU, Nov 10 — Some two million hectares of forest land in Sabah is apparently being signed away to a group of foreign companies in a nature conservation agreement to monetise the state’s natural assets — namely carbon.

The “nature conservation agreement” is being brokered by an Australian consultancy called Tierra Australia and is purportedly aimed at restoring and protecting the forests from mining, logging and industrial agriculture for the next 100 to 200 years, conservation news website Mongabay reported today.

The trade off will reportedly allow the sale of credits for carbon and other ecosystem services to companies seeking to meet sustainability goals, such as reducing their carbon footprints by offsetting their emissions.

The two million hectares is more than half the size of Sabah’s permanent forest estate, which include forests classified for commercial exploitation, community use or full protection. It is unclear which areas the forests are located.

However, the Mongabay article claimed local communities living in and around the forests and Sabah interest groups have not been consulted prior to the signing of this agreement, even as the Heart of Borneo conservation conference takes place in the Sabah capital.

According to Mongabay, the Sabah government signed the profit-sharing deal last October 30.  

Under the terms of the deal, Tierra Australia and its partners will receive 30 per cent of the profits from the credits for natural capital sold for the next 100 to 200 years.

Tierra Australia CEO Peter Burgess reportedly said the remaining 70 per cent would go to the Sabah state government to fund economic development for people living in and around the forests.

“We’re going to employ [community members] — gainfully employ them — back into restoring jungles,” Burgess told Mongabay, but admitted “they actually don’t know that their jungles have been conserved, have been signed up and are going to be conserved for 200 years.”

“It is only the leaders at this point that have been acting on their behalf trying to actually enact and deliver some transformational change,” Burgess was quoted as saying.

He claimed some 100 elders from the Kadazan-Dusun, Murut and Rungus ethnic groups in Sabah were aware of this deal.

One of them is Burgess’ business partner and a Dusun native, Stan Lassa Golokin, who is also a former general manager of Innoprise Corporation Sdn. Bhd, an investment holding company for the state-owned Yayasan Sabah Group that is also known as the Sabah Foundation.

Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Jeffrey Kitingan was reported saying the agreement would protect forests in the state and that the proceeds of natural capital sales would alleviate poverty among indigenous communities and “will not affect them and their way of lives.”

“If it does, surely we will be talking to them,” he was quoted saying.

Burgess said Tierra Australia, along with its Singapore-based subsidiary, Global Nature Capital Sdn Bhd, and the companies’ private equity-backed funder, Hoch Standard Pte Ltd, finalised the nature conservation agreement with the chief minister, deputy chief minister, and other cabinet members of Sabah on October 30.

“Natural capital,” sometimes called “nature capital,” is an umbrella term for carbon sequestration and other services, such as water regulation, provided by ecosystems. The agreement in Sabah would theoretically result in more climate-warming carbon being siphoned from the air by healthier, more robust forests.