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Of Elephants And Men: How The Earthworm Foundation Works Towards The Coexistence Of Both Species

During the Sustainable Palm Oil Dialogue (SPOD) on 20 October 2022, Giacomo Tabacco presented the work of the Earthworm Foundation in the breakout session ‘Innovative ideas: delivering sustainable palm oil now!’

Giacomo is a Landscape Engagement Manager at Earthworm and sees his role at the intersection of business development, fundraising, and engagement with financial supporters and partners.

During SPOD, which stood under the motto “Securing Sustainability in Turbulent Times” he explained the vision of Earthworm for humans and elephants to coexist peacefully in Sabah, Malaysia.

The Earthworm Idea

The Earthworm Foundation is a non-profit organisation focusing on improving the relationship between people and nature. Earthworm describes its mission as follows:

We work with people from farm to boardroom to build value chains that work for people and nature.

To achieve its goals, Earthworm follows a comprehensive and ambitious approach working at the roots of supply chains, and on the ground in the landscapes, to improve all aspects of agricultural production and sustainability.

Central to its mission is its landscape approach.

Earthworm´s Landscape Approach

The people at Earthworm operate from the premise that agricultural activities, for instance oil palm oil production, must transition away from the currently dominant extractive model that depletes resources and destroys the environment. Rather, a regenerative modus operandi with a focus on sustainable uses of soils and forests must take over for palm oil to become sustainable.

To achieve this, Earthworm believes in collective action on the ground, bringing together businesses, governments, and local stakeholders such as farmers and consumers. The goal, in the words of Earthworm CEO Bastien Sachet, is not to become a large organisation and be everywhere, but to go deep. That means to fully understand the problem at hand, like that of the coexistence of elephants and people in palm oil cultivation areas in Sabah.

The individual components that make up Earthworm´s landscape approach are:

  • Healthy soils
  • Thriving communities
  • Resilient farmers
  • Protected and restored forests
  • Responsibly sourced materials
  • Respected workers

Humans and Wildlife in the Sabah Landscape

The state of Sabah, together with Sarawak and the Federal Territory of Labuan, forms the Malaysian portion of the island of Borneo. It is one of the largest palm oil-producing regions in the world. But Sabah is also home to the endangered Bornean pygmy elephant.

The species is the world’s smallest elephant. They can grow to a height of up to 2.5 m and weigh around 2,000 kg. They are much smaller than their counterparts in Africa or India, but are large enough to cause human-elephant conflicts (HEC). This is especially so in the areas in Sabah where extensive oil palm cultivation increasingly encroaches on the animals´ habitat.

HEC cuts both ways of course: on one hand, human activities destroy the natural environment the elephants live in, and as a consequence, the tuskers are killed by being deprived of food.

At the same time, the elephants roam the cultivated areas in search of food, thus destroying crops and depriving farmers of their livelihood. Furthermore, elephants that are in heat can be very aggressive. So, in Sabah, elephants and humans often compete for the same pieces of land, and both are struggling to survive.

There is a dire need to resolve this situation. The activities of Earthworm in Sabah are aimed at conserving wildlife and forests in the landscape. To that end, the 7Team has been established; a group of citizens from areas suffering from HEC who volunteer to monitor the situation and implement mitigation actions. Such strategies include integrated fencings, wildlife corridors, and coordinated patrolling.


As laudable as Earthworm´s stated intention of working towards the peaceful coexistence of elephants and humans in Sabah´s palm oil growing regions are, it remains somewhat opaque where the actual innovation lies.

Working with the people and animals affected in a planned and structured way while relying on data and other valuable information is hardly a radically new method.

But that notwithstanding, the idea of truly understanding the problems on the ground and recognising that Malaysian smallholders too have a right to make a living from the land, points in the right direction.

There surely is ample room for improvement in managing HEC, and the experience that organisations like Earthworm bring to the table in educating rural populations in general, and palm oil smallholders in particular, can be valuable.

After all, Sabah locals traditionally call the elephants “Aki” or “Nenek”, which means as much as ´ancestor´ or ´grandparent´. This just goes to show that the humans living alongside the animals have it in their culture to value the pachyderms, while at the same time trying to make a living through palm oil production.

That is the reason why the SPOD in Amsterdam decided to honor Earthworm´s Sabah project, by supporting it in its mission to bring the human-elephant relationship from conflict to coexistence.

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