Being carried out for the first time in Malaysia, it would start with corporate plantations below the bridge in Lower Kinabatangan through a mandate given to the Forestry Director by Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman.
"Fix the problem, get it done, turn it around and make a good story.
It is in the interest of everyone, it has taken far too long," Forestry Director Datuk Sam Manan told a gathering at his office to discuss restoration activities associated with the Kinabatangan Corridor of Life (K-COL) on Thursday.
It was attended by top officers of major Malaysian corpoarate plantation companies, Malaysian Oil Palm Association (MPOA), Nestle (M) Bhd, Sime Darby Foundation, DID, Department of Wildlife Sabah, Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Environment, Environment Protection Department, District Office Kinabatangan, KOPPEL, Kinabatangan Orang Utan Conservation Programme (Hutan), Living Landscape Alliance and Monash University.
A recent joint study found orang utans forced to make their nests atop oil palm trees in plantations due to the lack of native trees for miles around.
"I want this to be a success. Otherwise I will not bother and if it is not going to be a success, then I am going to find out why to see who is at fault - we or the companies," said Manan, and appealed to corporate planters to look beyond money.
"It's not about money, it's about your standing in society, it's about publicity, there are so many who have more money than you but what's the extra thing that you have that makes Sabah palm oil different from Indonesan oil?" Manan asked.
He cited governance and branding Sabah positively with top quality products to turn bad publicity around things and this is one of those efforts to make to make the work think the best of Sabah.
"So let's fix the problem, it's within our means, we have the money, it's within our technology and we have so much experience starting with WWF-Malaysia which first hatched the Vision Kinabatangan Corridor of Life in 2002 and the baton has been passed down (Project Rileaf of Nestle Malaysia Bhd)," Manan noted.
But because they had largely played the "underdog" game, success was consistently denied to the slew of NGOs which fought battles to realise WWFs lofty goals to restore forest connectivity to forge a balance between flagship wildlife needs and private development, because they never had any political clout to clear illegal oil palm out of riparian reserves.
When Nestle (M) Bhd took over the baton from WWF in 2011 with Project RiLeaf, their replanting work also got stuck in largely degraded areas inside the Wildife Sanctuary and and even though Sime Darby Foundation signed a collaborative agreement on Nov. 15, 2013, with with Nestle and pledged RM2 milllion to optimse the funding of Project Rileaf for 2015, lack of progress due to obstruction of oil palm threatened to derail the collaborative effort.
But at this time around, Manan told the meeting that the mandate has come from the State Government's highest level (Office of the Chief Minister which oversees both the Forestry Department and the Land & Survey Department), to clear illegal oil palm out of riparian reserves so that reforestation can move forward without hindrance.
"This is a political decision," Manan said..
"I have also consulted the Director of Land & Survey to verify with him whether the land title conditions on riparian reserves still apply and he said yes," Manan confirmed.
"So, focus on your land title. Go back and look at your land title conditions and decide whether you have encroached or not.
"That's up to you to decide but you understand that we are moving forward, understand that Land Ordinance Sabah deems encroachment of riparian reserve as an offence and there are definitely encroachment we know for sure, so we sort that out," he added.
"There are so many laws in Sabah that can be enforced for this purpose, most important is the Land Ordinance, EIA laws, you get now the Sabah Water Resources Enactment (1998), Forestry Enactment 1968 with aerial photos which can show one-time forest now with oil palm which is not within their land. That means there is no license for it but who destroyed the forest or was timber stolen and who stole it? Some body must have.
So get it done."
Due to the width of riparian reserve being always debated, Hutan Director Dr Marc Ancreaz questioned what one chain actually meant.
To which Manan replied 22.5 yards.
"I remember all the land titles demarcate a one chain (22.5 yards) width of river buffer, so we start with one chain," he said.
Although Dr Marc thought it's too little, Manan assured that this is the width to start work on Phase 1 without delay.
"Theirs is the other bit - the major bit, 100m or 150m, for which the Land and Survey is doing a systematic survey. But we don't want to wait for that. We know Sime Darby had predicated money pledge they would pump in more than RM2m if they see progress on the ground," Manan said.
"If we get rid of the illegal oil palms and start work immediately, it is seen that work is going on and the land belongs to some one (State Government) and nobody will not think these are free lands any more and invade them."
Manan also explained the need for a time frame to start work which he later fixed at mid August. Because the 20m width presents little or no legal issue, Project RiLeaf can get moving as soon as possible.
"When I went to see the Chief Minister and explained to him that we wanted to address this problem, I said we wanted to modest with our goal, that we would see what's the title conditions on riparian reserves were, that Sime Darby had come with the finances to restore them, that we would deal with individual land owners but leave the communities alone for the moment as we don't want to complicate things, he said fine," Manan noted.
"So while we try our best, we'll be modest about our goals, one step at a time, build up the confidence, like what we did with the FMUs (Forest Management Units) where we get this voluntary work from them.
This is a voluntary basis system where we encourage self examination, self discipline and there is no better enforcement than self enforcement," Manan stressed.
Chairman of Malaysian Palm Oil Association Sabah branch, Hj Mohd Tarmizi Hi Taufek, promised to call for a meeting of members to talk to their bosses.
Manan responded: "Good, emphasise to them that this is not negotiable.
Tell them that you got to get this done, make sure they don't resist.
We can be flexible but the objective will remain. You talk to the land owners, you go back to your boss and we want a response from them in writing by July 15.
Throughout the meeting, Manan underscored to importance of a resounding Phase 1 success in Lower Kinabatangan.
"If this is successful, we'll move upstream Kinabatangan north of the bridge and the Segama River is the next to join up forests reserves but let's confine to Kinabatangan first."
Riparian reserves protect river banks from erosion, protect rivers from unlimited pollution, has a filtering effect, act as a corridor for wildlife to connect from one big bloc of forest to another.
"Riparian reserves are vital. They have always been with us from the time the Land Ordinance Sabah was drafted in 1930!" Manan pointed out.