Backyard Explorers


Supporters of BIG CMIS

We’d like to thank the following organisations and individuals for their help with this project.


The Habitat Foundation

Kota Damansara Community Forest Society (KDCF) under UNDP GEF SGP grant


Centre for Malaysian Indigenous Studies (CMIS)

Children of Soil (CoS)

Dr. Welyne Jehom

Dr. Sugumaran Manickam

Dr. Yong Kein Thai

Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden, a National Heritage Site

Chia Yong Ling

Syarifah Nadhirah 


Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden, a National Heritage Site

Free Tree Society


Why plant introduced species?

Written by Thary Gazi Goh

Photo by Dr Saw Leng Guan (CC BY-NC-SA)

To be fair, here is why you should plant introduced plants, or rather when it is appropriate to plant introduced species.

  1. Often they are tough and easier to handle. Many commercial species are chosen because they are tough enough to be bred for hostile environments like cities. In some places native species might not be able to survive, but introduced plants can do fine.
  2. They have useful ecological functions. Just because a plant is not native doesn’t mean that wildlife can’t use it. Flowers will attract pollinators whether they are native or introduced. Oil palm is an introduced species, but often it supports fruit eating birds and mammals in the city.
  3. Easier to obtain. Many introduced species can be bought from nurseries, which is easier than looking for native plants which may be in forests and hard to identify. If you need plants fast, then it may be a feasible option.


Why plant native?

Written by Thary Gazi Goh

Setawar air (Costus speciosus). Photo by Syuhada Sapno.

Why should you go through the effort of planting native plants? It’s a good question that many people ask. Here’s 4 reasons:

  1. There is a higher diversity of native plants. Often these plants are able to coexist with local wildlife and integrated into the food chains and interactions of native wildlife.
  2. Native plants create more stable food chains. Many native plants can function as food or host plants for wildlife. This creates more stable and resilient food chains.
  3. More possibility. There is a larger variety of native plants, which means that these plants hold more possibility in terms of what habitats they can create in the future. They also hold in them many potential cures or useful compounds to humans in the future. To lose native plants is an act of destroying the biological legacy of future generations.
  4. This is their home. Where else do our native plants have to go if we remove them completely? It’s beyond cruel to destroy entire species and take their land from them.

Invasive species

Written by Thary Gazi Goh

A golden apple snail (Pomacea maculata) is laying eggs. Photo by Jpatokal (CC BY-SA 4.0)

An invasive species is a species that has been introduced by people and has gone somewhat out of control. These species come from other parts of the world, like South America or Africa.

Some invasive species are introduced by accident. For example, brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) were introduced through shipping. During the 70’s they were mostly confined to ports, but rapid urbanisation has allowed them to colonise the rest of the Klang Valley and Malaysia as well. 

Brown rats are larger than black rats, when older people comment that rats are growing larger they are just observing a larger rat species colonising more urban areas.

Other invasive species are brought in for a purpose and then something goes wrong and it unexpectedly becomes uncontrollable. Black cobras were introduced as a way to control rats in plantations, but they started to follow humans and rats into urban spaces as well and are now one of the most common poisonous snakes in cities.

Some invasive species are escapees from various projects that people do. Many animals escape from the aquarium trade into our waterways and become dangerous to our native wildlife. Others like the Giant African land snail were brought for experimental food programs during World War II and escaped into farm pests.

Not all introduced species are bad. Species like pineapple and papaya are relatively benign and have become staples of our village gardens. But often the line between invasive and introduced is vague.


Rain forests and rain

Written by Thary Gazi Goh
Photos by Goh Shang Ming

A carpet of dense, untouched forest

Ever wonder why it is called a rain forest? Rain forests are important controllers of the water cycle in tropical ecosystems.

Rain forests do 2 important functions with water:

  1. They control the intensity of water. This means that they control how much rain flows into rivers and floodplains. The root systems or rain forests allow water to pass into the soil instead of washing out as surface run off.
  2. They make rain. Rain forests can control how regular the rainfall is, in essence a rain forest produces its own rain. The tall trees of the rain forest take water from their roots and releases it from its leaves, often more than 30m off the ground.
Trees are closely arranged in a rain forest

These rise as fog and mist into clouds that come back down as rain. The rain forest is a living system. It can create more rain when it is too hot or put more water back into the air if there is too much in the ground.

You can actually observe this phenomenon near the forest patches in our cities, clouds of moisture can be seen rising from them, especially in early mornings and rainy days.

Rain forests are important infrastructure that carry out functions that make our lives more livable. We need rain forests to live stable lives.

If someone plans to cut down our power grid to harvest the copper and steel in it, we would think that they are an idiot. However, that is the kind of thinking that goes into our forest management. This is what happens when you view a utility as a single use resource.


Keystone species

Written by Thary Gazi Goh
Photo by Goh Shang Ming

Fig is food for bats, squirrels and many other animals.

Keystone species are species that cause the entire ecosystem to fall apart if they are removed. 

We can imagine an ecosystem to be a network of connections between various species. Some species are more connected than others, and they can be the ones holding the entire network together.

Keystone species take their name from the keystone in stone bridges, this is the stone that holds the entire bridge structure together, and if removed causes the collapse of the entire bridge.

The biggest problem with keystone species is that we are rarely able to identify them without close study, and sometimes we only understand how they function when we see the results when they are gone.

A cautionary tale of disaster caused by removal of a keystone species is China’s “War on four Pests”. One of those pests was the sparrow, which sometimes ate the grain of farmers. 

A quarrel of Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) roaming at the edge of a fountain

Farmers were given quotas to kill sparrows, believing that this will increase their crop yields. What happened was a great ecological tragedy of the modern world.

Without sparrows to control them, the population of grasshoppers and other insects exploded. These insects started destroying crops and a massive famine followed.

This case really illustrates the folly of removing species from ecosystems. We often have no understanding of their functions and removing the wrong species can cause collapses of ecosystems with horrible consequences.

This is one of the reasons why we have to try to protect as much of our native ecosystems as possible. We sometimes do not know what a keystone species is until it is too late.



Written by Thary Gazi Goh
Photo by Goh Shang Ming

An island of trees standing amid roads and buildings

Imagine biodiversity as water, it can flow from one place to another, it can stagnate and it can seep out.

Some places have more biodiversity, some places have less. When conditions are right and there is a   pathway available, the biodiversity can flow from areas of high diversity to areas with lower diversity.

In ecology we usually call the places that can export biodiversity as “sources”, while places that accept biodiversity are called “sinks”. Like a spring of water, if you connect them the biodiversity can flow from a “source” into a “sink” until it fills up as much as it can hold.

When planning biodiversity enrichment in cities, it is important to be able to think about where your sources are. Planting a bunch of isolated trees is not the same as planting trees near a forest patch where wildlife can flow into it.

Also worth thinking about is the barriers that can prevent the flow of biodiversity. Is it a noisy road that crawling animals can’t get past? Or is it a row of buildings that block flying animals? Understanding where your pathways are can be just as important as identifying “sources” and making new “sinks”. 

Movement of urban-dwelling animals may be restricted by urban roads

A good example of a “sink” is an area that is large so it can be easily found by randomly moving wildlife and it has to have resources that the wildlife can exploit, so they decide to stay there. 

This analogy really helps when planning for wildlife intervention in the city. How we plan for the movement of wildlife can help us to have healthier ecosystems that are in less conflict with the humans around them.

Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop

Soil Conservation and Indigenous Farming by Chan Zi Xiang

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Chan Zi Xiang, Langit Collective (Co-founder and Chief Financial Officer)

Langit Collective is a social enterprise that primarily works with paddy farmer communities in Sabah and Sarawak. It was first started in 2015. However, the team really started to learn about agriculture in 2017. Aside from agriculture, they also learn the language and traditional knowledge of the local communities. 

The Lun Bawang farmer communities are based in Long Semadoh, Sarawak. It is a highland which is 800m above sea level. The average temperature there is around 16 to 28 degree Celsius. The temperature difference is big between day and night. 

The Lun Bawang communities are mostly subsistence farmers. They plant crops for their own consumption. Therefore, the way they farm is very different from the way of conventional farming. The communities started to plant wet paddy 70 years ago. Before this, they implemented the hill paddy system, which is also known as swiddening, slash and burn or shifting cultivation. There are still people practicing this method. However, wet paddy is the main crop. 

Heirloom crops

Basically, heirloom crops are ‘’what you see is what you get’’. It is not hybridised. Instead, it is open-pollinated. We can collect the seeds from the plant and propagate them. The properties of the next generation will be similar to its parent generation. In contrast, a hybridised seed may lose its desired properties in the next generation or generation after that.

The farmers in Long Semadoh do not buy seeds from the store. Instead, they plant more than 30 varieties of heirloom rice which have been passed down for more than 70 years. They acquired the varieties from the local regions and this goes back hundreds of years. The rice produced is black in colour, but it is not the black glutinous rice that we usually see. 

Job’s tears is also one of the heirloom crops in Long Semadoh. Job’s tears is native to Southeast Asia. It has two varieties. One is edible; the other is wild and not edible. Seeds of the non-edible variety can be used as beads to make bracelets. This plant is now purported to be the new Quinoa. Yet, most of us do not know that it is native to Malaysia. The Koreans and Japanese use this plant in their skincare products due to its whitening properties. 

The another heirloom crop is the foxtail millet. It is not native in Malaysia, but has been naturalised for a long time. The local foxtail millet is very fine and glutinous, which is different from the millet we usually eat. The millet that we commonly consume is imported from countries like China and India.   

It is a saddening fact that most of the Malaysians do not know the existence of these plants. Even among the Lun Bawang communities, there are less and less people planting these heirloom crops. As these crops are annuals, their germination rates drop drastically if they are not planted immediately. Because of this, the communities have lost some of the varieties as they no longer possess the seeds. In fact, these heirloom crops are the farmers’ asset. This is also where we can find new ways of fooding in this era. 

Aside from Job’s tears and foxtail millet, there is a more commonly-known heirloom crop: pineapple. The Sarawak pineapple is quite famous and has been naturalised since a very long time ago. None can remember where they got the pineapple from. According to Zi, the pineapple tastes extraordinarily good. Once you taste it, you will never go back again. The fruit is not available elsewhere as it is produced at a place four hours off-road from the nearest town, Lawas. 

The heirloom crops are very diverse. For example, there are more than 30 varieties of rice being cultivated by the Lun Bawang communities. Unfortunately, the Malaysians nowadays hardly recognise these varieties. We probably hear of foreign varieties e.g. Basmati rice and are able to name few local rice brands e.g. Cap Rambutan, but not the local varieties. Maybe some Kelantanese can remember the purplish rice that they use to cook nasi dagang, which is known as beras dagang. Even then, we do not see much being planted anymore. Most of the farmers in West Malaysia are using hybrid seeds that are sold commercially. 

One good thing about heirloom crops is their huge biodiversity.

The Lun Bawang farmers can tell you that among three types of black rice that they produce, which type is suitable for making kuih while which type is suitable for cooking porridge etc. The white rice that they produce has at least 7 to 8 varieties, and each has different flavours and culinary uses. This is just like a treasure trove and we have no idea that it still exists in Malaysia. 

As these heirloom seeds have to be planted every year, they are actually more resilient than the introduced crops or varieties. They acclimatise to local weather patterns and environmental changes. So, the crop plants that are being harvested are actually survivors. From an evolutionary point of view, they are the fittest ones. Zi is confident that when the other seeds do not do well, their heirloom seeds will not have any problem. 

As a social enterprise, Zi and his team see the heirloom crop as a specialty. These heirloom plants are so unique to them as well as to Malaysia. They believe that this is the opportunity to bridge the economy gap between urban & rural communities. 

Indigenous farming wisdom

The system that they incorporate is very concerted. There are a lot of features worth mentioning. One is the buffalo. The buffalo plays a very interesting role in Long Semadoh. It is not being used till the land. In fact, the buffalos are released into the fields to roam freely after the harvest. They will eat up the remaining paddy stalks in the field. At the same time, they fall in the mud and trample around. This is where the turning of the soil happens. Of course, they defecate. Their faeces go in and re-fertilise the whole field. 

The harvest is done by January or February every year. Then, the buffalos are released to the fields. They will be in the fields until July. These buffalos clean up the fields so that the soil will be just nice to start the planting. The farmers just need to remove some grasses that grow wildly during the resting period. The whole process is very labour-saving. Tilling is not needed. This is a surprising fact to us as we have always been taught that tilling is compulsory for farming. 

Without any input e.g. fertiliser or pesticide, the soil quality in the paddy field is good enough. It is naturally organic. Furthermore, the yields of traditional farming in Long Semadoh is actually quite comparable to the average yields of typical conventional farming, which consume a lot of chemical inputs. With much lesser input cost, the farmers in Long Semadoh gain good-quality rice to sustain themselves. They even feed their livestock when there is an excess of rice. 

Another interesting farming method is minimum intervention. The farmers in Long Semadoh do not uproot the pineapple plants after the first harvest. Instead, they leave the plants in soil and let them fruit again and again. Although the fruits subsequently shrink in size, the flavour actually improves. The farmers normally sell the firstly harvested fruits but keep the latter produce for their own consumption. 

The swiddening or slash-and-burn technique is often blamed for haze or greenhouse gas emission. However, it is unfair to accuse this traditional farming practice without understanding its actual process. Swiddening is part of the communities’ culture, and the way that it is being done is almost impossible to cause the kind of catastrophe. Farmers have been practicing swiddening for hundreds of years, while the haze issue only arises in recent decades. Also, the swiddeners may be used as scapegoats by many big-scale agriculture companies, especially the oil-palm companies. 

In the drier months, the farmers chop down big trees and clear the particular forest area. They dry the chopped materials before torching it. The whole process is done by a single person with a chainsaw. Each family will work on just a piece of land, so the swiddened area would not be large. As they torch the dry materials, they control the fire so that it does not spread to non-targeted area or land of other farmers. 

You may see the lush vegetation as a forest in Long Semadoh, but to the locals, it is their kebun. The forested land was probably opened by their older generation several decades ago. The same plot of land would not be re-visited for five, ten or even twenty years. Again, minimal intervention is involved as the swidden is left without adding any input. The farmers let the land regenerate itself before coming back to cultivate it. 

So, there is a natural system of applying the technique. And, as the land is cultivated by families, they do not consume much carbon. The farmers do not even use electricity, and they barely travel. Their carbon footprints are probably smaller than any of us. 

Aside from swiddening, they practice intercropping by collecting a cocktail of seeds. A single patch of land may be crowded by amaranth, mustard, corn, pumpkin, and many other crop plants. The farmers grow the plants altogether without beautiful raised beds. The crops mature and are harvested at different times.  There are some local varieties of plant. For example, the Brassica juncea variety which is known as Ensabi, Don Abi or Don Sadai. The local cucumber is similar in size to a huge lemon. It is very juicy and tastes like a bland melon. There are plants that rely on swiddening practice. These plants sprout only when the forest canopy is removed. One of the examples is the Don Likad plant. It has hairy leaves which are used as gloves or food wrappers. Another plant, Don Ipong, is used to cool the body.

Balanced ecosystem

In Lun Bawang, there are plenty of pollinators that help to flower the crop plants. These insects come from surrounding untouched forests. With the help of these beneficial insects, the communities get an abundance of fruits throughout the year. As they hardly export the fruits, the excess fruits just grow wildly in their gardens or farmland. 

“When you take care of the ecosystem, the ecosystem will take care of you.” This is how Zi describes the farmers’ mindset. After learning the language of local communities, Zi found that they have names for all insects, but do not have a word for pest. The concept of pest is not valid when you have a balanced ecosystem, as the insects do not cause serious problems as what they do in conventional or monocropping farming. 

This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

Watch a recorded version of this online workshop here:


Reforestation contemplative garden

This garden looks into challenges and issues faced by the indigenous peoples like land-clearing, logging activities, water problem etc. The aim is to get people to think about how environmental issues and indigenous people are interlinked, and how we can help to restore land. The garden demonstrates replanting, regenerating soil and the creation of new habitat for wildlife.


The selected plants increase the spatial complexity of the area. They provide different structures for biodiversity. Some of these plants have nitrogen-fixing properties and/or are used as cover crops to improve soil quality. Some less common fruit trees which are also beneficial to wildlife are planted here.



There are different kinds of microhabitats that allow animals to feed and breed. For example, a rain garden that holds overflowing water, the container ponds that attract insects e.g. water skaters and dragonfly to lay eggs, and birdbaths that provide water for our feathered friends. 

Ginger showcase garden & Wetland plants

The arrangement and appearance of vegetation is somewhat wilder and more natural, creating more space for wildlife. There is a variety of native ginger plants e.g. torch ginger (Etlingera elatior), temu kunci (Boesenbergia pandurata), temu hitam (Curcuma aeruginosa), setawar (Costus speciosus) etc., wild bananas, ground covers such as kaduk (Piper sarmentosum) and pegaga (Centella asiatica). Adjacent to the dry pond, there are plants growing in wetlands such as taro (Colocasia esculenta), mexican sword (Echinodorus palaefolius) and kangkung (Ipomoea aquatica). 

Flowering plants

There are flowering plants that attract pollinators such as bamboo orchid (Arundina graminifolia), ulam raja (Cosmos caudatus), globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa) and rose periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus).

Mini nursery

A mini nursery that houses young plants before they are transferred to other parts of the garden.