According to Forestry Director Datuk Sam Mannan the report of the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) Mangkuwagu Project 2006 stated a total of 20,000 people statewide lived within the forest reserves.
He said this is followed by an unaccounted number of people who live on the fringes of forest reserves.
"Most of these people are hardcore poor, with no or little access to basic facilities and amenities and experience below average health and educational outcomes," he said, adding that if the matter when left unchecked would lead to further loss of the forest, reducing economic options for the community.
Mannan, however, said that the subject is not new and that Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) had taken various measures to safeguard the forests from further degradation.
He said this during the 5th Conference of the Asean Social Forestry Network (ASFN) at the Dewan Kuliah Pusat 2, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Saturday.
He later explained the activities by SFM in improving the living conditions and livelihood of the affected community giving as example the forest restoration efforts involving local communities through the Community Forestry Project and Forest Rehabilitation Fund.
Besides, there are also the partnership with The Model of Ecologically Sustainable Community-based Conservation and Tourism (MESCOT) at Batu Putih, Kota Kinabatangan and the Joint Forest Management (JFM) Project at Kelawat Forest Reserve, Kota Belud.
According to him, it took them years to come up with a solution through the JFM Project, as they had to build trust with the group of people who encroached the forest reserve.
"There is a better and easiest way of course which is to evict them, take legal action and prosecute them in court but we thought that we might want to try other ways in doing things since they are natives nearby," he said.
The major part of the catchment forest according to him had been restored using indigenous species along with the given input and supply.
They also provided rubber trees for the natives' livelihood whereby they are allowed to tap them with no charges. However, they are given the responsibility to maintain the forest.
"We do not give them land titles because it's a forest reserve, which by right belongs to everybody, but we do offer them a land permit," he said, adding that there are 21 families who are currently living in the Kelawat forest reserve area.
"Hopefully they would build their socio-economic standing and with better education and better economic opportunities outside, there would be no need for them to stay there forever," he said, explaining that it is a temporary measure set by their party in elevating poverty.
The natives, he said are prohibited to bring in people or employ foreigners as the permits were given to them as a privilege.
Mannan explained that it was the first time that permits were given to the natives, as it had never been done in Sarawak or peninsula before, hoping it would become a model in the future.
The forest, which is 229 hectares according to him, was earlier used as water catchment to feed the district of Kota Belud and for irrigation downstream.
The permit issued to the natives covered 130 hectares of the forest and would be used in an environment friendly manner.
"There is electricity connection and the rain would be the villagers' water supply. However, we will not allow additional facilities as this is not an outright development project," he said.
"We don't want to create the wrong interpretations because this is a forest reserve. After all, this area is situated near the road and whatever needs to be done had been done," he added.
Mannan also said that they had planted indigenous species at the area, which over a period of 20 years would overcome the rubber trees and will look similar as a forest from a landscape point of view.
"By that time, the community would not want to live there anymore due to better economic opportunities and their children would be sufficiently educated," he explained.