KOTA KINABALU: When Anne Lasimbang participated in a study on poverty in Sabah more than three decades ago, something stood out to her – the state of rural indigenous communities.
Being in areas such as Pitas and Kudat was a real eye opener as Lasimbang witnessed communities without access to clean water, dilapidated schools, lack of teachers, as well as high dropout rate among students.
“I came from Penampang. More or less things were okay here. For the study, we were sent to Pitas and Keningau and we noticed the big gap.
“This triggered us. Seeing how we are indigenous people ourselves, we had to do something.
“Being young back then, we just went in to do the work without hesitation,” she said.
Lasimbang, her sister Jannie and Felix Tongkul took the plunge and began their community work informally in 1983.
Some 10 years later, the Partners of Community Organisation in Sabah (PACOS Trust) was formed with a focus on supporting the rural indigenous communities alongside empowering them with the knowledge and resources to live comfortable lives.
PACOS Trust has since expanded throughout Sabah, from Pulau Banggi in the north, up to Pulau Sebatik of which half the island belongs to Indonesia.
Lasimbang, who is currently the executive director of PACOS Trust, said it was a community-based organisation and that they worked through a network.
“When we begin working with communities, a group is formed. Eventually, the group becomes an organisation, allowing it to be registered.
“For example, a group in Kampung Kiau in Ranau formed their own group, even winning various awards and managing their village well,” she said.
Lasimbang also said there were various initiatives taken up to empower the indigenous communities for a better future.
Among them include socioeconomic development programmes where farmers are taught agroecology measures to ensure their livelihoods and food security.
“We later realised marketing the produce was another challenge as most of these villages are located deep in rural areas.
“The idea of food processing then came forth where the crops such as ginger and turmeric could be collected at the PACOS centre and sold at towns nearby,” she said.
The communities were also taught ways to refine their daily items, Lasimbang added.
“Here, items such as big baskets used by the indigenous communities during harvest activities can be redesigned and utilised as handicrafts,” she said.
Land rights and resource management programmes were also initiated by PACOS Trust to raise awareness among the rural indigenous communities on their rights.
“We want to ensure the indigenous community does not lose their land.
“Land is life to the indigenous people. This is the source where they can plant crops and sustain their livelihoods.
“Those with traditional knowledge on looking after rivers are also empowered towards strengthening river ecosystems around them,” Lasimbang said, adding that some of these practices have been adopted by the state government alongside communities utilising river conservation or tagal systems as ecotourism sources.
Another venture taken up by PACOS Trust was kickstarting the Guwas Koposizon Centre (GKC), otherwise known as the “school of life”.
The GKC is a centre for out-of-school youths, focusing on agroecology and entrepreneurship skills training.
It is also aimed at enhancing food security and economic progress within communities.
Activities taught here include rearing tilapia, livestock, composting, as well as planting various produce.
The GKC is currently running its third intake of students with the first two batches having been employed or contributing back to their villages.
Lasimbang also emphasised how PACOS Trust took education seriously with various community-learning centres (CLC) all around Sabah, focusing on early education for children from indigenous communities and other empowerment activities for women and youth.
“Hopefully, we can be an inspiration to others, so more organisations or groups can do the same work we are doing,” she said.
Separately, CLC coordinator Rufina Koyou said the education aspect focused on teaching young children to read, write and count.
“This ensures the children are ready when entering primary school,” she said.
For women and youth, the centre acts as a meeting point for communities to come together and share knowledge with one another.
“Here, the women learn how to make crafts or process foods.
“Youths can learn more about their mother tongue as well as traditional knowledge,” she said.
There are currently 25 active CLCs with six of them playing the role of early education centre for children.
More than 50,000 children have come through the CLC’s doors since 1993.
For its efforts, PACOS Trust is named as one of the 10 winners of the Star Golden Hearts Award 2023.