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Indigenous Communities Speak Up for Nature Conservation and Learn from Each Other

Indigenous Communities Speak Up for Nature Conservation 
and Learn from Each Other
- Youths also aspire to contribute in nature conservation -

Kuching, Sarawak: The word, sustainability, is abuzz these days. Perhaps we should take a brief moment to delve into the true meaning of sustainability. In this pursuit, we can learn a thing or two from the indigenous peoples who have lived harmoniously and sustainably with nature for ages.  

In Sarawak, one such indigenous community is the Penan, who rely on the forests for food and shelter. They practice minuk which means to harvest or gather forest produce and use them responsibly and avoid wastage. They also practice mihau that only allows them to harvest something that they really need from the forests like rattan that has reached maturity, leaving younger plants to grow bigger for another time.

Asai Berat, 48, a Penan from Long Siang in Ulu Tutoh, Baram, recently shared that the community still practice minuk and mihau in their daily lives although they have learned to settle down like other communities, and harvesting non-timber forest products to sell to supplement their livelihoods. 

For instance, the community used to harvest rattan to make simple baskets and mats for their own use. Nowadays, the community have refined their weaving skills to make a variety of rattan products to sell, said the age-year old man.

“Besides practising minuk and mihau, we are also involved in rattan replanting projects to ensure continuous supply of the raw materials for years to come. 

“We also practice molong, meaning to take only what has been planted or taken care of since young. It is our hope that Penan youth in villages will continue to replant after harvesting rattans in the wild and take care of our environment,” he said during a forum on Communities in Conservation hosted by WWF-Malaysia here recently. 

WWF-Malaysia held the forum and mini exhibition to celebrate communities who have been championing conservation efforts in Sarawak, in conjunction with the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on 19 August at Borneo Cultures Museum. Deputy Minister in the Sarawak Premier’s Department Datuk Gerawat Gala who is also the advisor to The Alliance of the Indigenous Peoples of the Highlands in the Heart of Borneo (FORMADAT) officiated at the event.

Indigenous communities from WWF-Malaysia’s project areas in Sarawak come from diverse backgrounds comprising the Bidayuh, Melanau, Malay, Ibans, Penans, Lun Bawang and Kelabit. The event provided a platform for communities and other stakeholders to network and cross-learn from each other on their conservation efforts and how their deep-rooted cultures help to conserve the natural resources.

In line with this year’s themed “'Indigenous Youth as Agents of Change for Self-determination”, youths from each project site and WWF staff also took part in the forum, also shared their aspirations, experiences of challenges and successes with hopes that people can live in harmony with nature.

Village headwoman for Kampung Menangkin Tengah, Telin Kaloni said remaining forests in Gunung Lesong, Sri Aman need to be conserved so that future generations can continue to enjoy the presence of forests and wildlife in the area. 

Some villagers in Gunung Lesong do not realise the importance of conserving forests and wildlife, and that other socio-economic activities still can be carried out with minimal negative impacts to the environment such as agroforestry, bee keeping  and ecotourism activities. 

“I hope Gunung Lesong forests will be a source of income for the communities through ecotourism and be a globally renowned destination one day,” said the 36-year old.   

Thirty-year old fisherman Mohammad Asyraf Qaedi Ansari from Kampung Kedang, Tanjung Manis shared that fishers in Rajang-Belawai-Paloh also had a unique relationship with Irrawaddy dolphins because their presence also meant a school of fish are at a particular spot which made fishing easier. 

Although some fishers like himself did not know that Irrawaddy dolphins or bung in Melanau language are totally protected animals in the state, they normally left the mammal alone.

“But sometimes bung were accidentally caught in our fishermen’s nets,” he said, adding that after Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) and WWF-Malaysia held awareness activities for villagers recently, they realised the status and importance of better protecting bung.

Local communities from Rajang-Belawai-Paloh are currently working with WWF-Malaysia to conserve the mangroves and marine mammals in the area. This project is also supported by Forest Department Sarawak (FDS), SFC, Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation-Universiti Sarawak Malaysia (IBEC UNIMAS) and Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation (STIDC). Currently, identified degraded mangrove areas are being replanted to maintain important ecosystem functions including important for fisheries and marine mammals.

“It is my hope to see government agencies such as SFC and FDS, along with WWF-Malaysia will organise more programmes on conservation awareness so that the beautiful mangrove forests in Rajang-Belawai-Paloh area will flourish and be conserved for the next generation and for bung.” Asyraf said. 

In Datuk Gerawat’s speech, he said the culture, tradition and rights of the indigenous people are respected and recognised in Malaysia's constitution. 

He said there are ways to realise the economic values of the rich natural assets that we have due to the connection that we have with our land. 

“For instance, instead of hunting wildlife, we can bring tourists to see the animals which can contribute to livelihood and tourism. Protecting and conserving the forest is not only beneficial in terms of reducing carbon dioxide, it can also help to generate income through carbon trading,” he added.

In the welcoming remarks of WWF-Malaysia Head of Sarawak Conservation Dr Jason Hon, he said, the indigenous communities have over many generations, shaped the landscapes of Sarawak to be what they are today, comprising large tracts of forests with unique and abundant plants and animals within. 

“These forests and surrounding areas, provide for the needs and well-being of the local communities and indigenous peoples. Many areas are now threatened, converted to other land uses resulting in loss of key ecosystem services, such as the very basic needs of clean water and air. What we have not lost are human resilience and determination to undo what has failed us, only if we own up to our failures.”

“For WWF, our vision is to build a future in which people live in harmony with nature. We recognise that people, and the indigenous culture and nature, are inseparable from each other, and the livelihoods and cultures of these people are closely dependent on nature.”

Also present at the event were Permanent Secretary for Ministry of Tourism, Creative Industry & Performing Arts Sarawak, Datu Sherrina binti Hussaini, Special Administrative Officer for Sri Aman Development Agency, Datu Indit Bangai, WWF-Malaysia Trustee, Prof Dr Lau Seng, Jagoi Area Development Committee Chairman (JADC), Prof Dr Gabriel Tonga and Gunung Lesong Community-Based Ecotourism Committee Chairman, Dr Victor Luna.

On the next day, communities coming from outside Kuching visited a community-managed area called Jagoi Heritage Forest in Bau, which is one of the Sarawak Delta Geopark sites. They had first-hand experience learning from the Jagoi community about their self-driven and operated ecotourism and natural resource management.  

WWF-Malaysia Trustee Prof Dr Lau Seng (centre) presenting a memento to Datuk Gerawat. At left is Dr Jason Hon. Photo © Ezen Chan / WWF-Malaysia

Iban communities from Gunung Lesong-Ulu Sebuyau posing for a photo with Datu Indit Bangai (second right) and Dr Victor Luna (far right). Photo © Ezen Chan / WWF-Malaysia

A welcoming dance or ngajat ngalu temuai performed by WWF staff and Gunung Lesong-Ulu Sebuyau communities. Photo © Ezen Chan / WWF-Malaysia

From right: Jagoi Area Development Committee chairman and Jagoi Buow village headman, Dael Nagek performed a Bidayuh song normally sung during the honey bee harvesting. Photo © Ezen Chan / WWF-Malaysia

Participants and the public visiting the mini exhibition featuring community products.  Photo © Ezen Chan / WWF-Malaysia

Asai Berat (second left) shared what his community have been practising to sustain the environment that they rely on during one of the forum sessions. Photo © Ezen Chan / WWF-Malaysia

WWF-Malaysia staff shared their working experience with indigenous communities at different project  areas. Photo © Ailyn Nau / WWF-Malaysia 

Participants and forum panellists shared their insights on the forum topic. Photo © Grace Lim / WWF-Malaysia

Communities posing for a group photo with Datuk Gerawat Gala (front row, centre) and invited stakeholders. Photo © Ezen Chan / WWF-Malaysia 

Participants at the Bung Jagoi foothill before hiking up the mountain. Photo © Ezen Chan / WWF-Malaysia 

Telin Kaloni. Photo © Ezen Chan / WWF-Malaysia

Asai Berat. Photo © Ezen Chan / WWF-Malaysia

Mohammad Asyraf Qaedi Ansari. Photo © Grace Lim / WWF-Malaysia

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