Saturday, October 23

Trekforce helps preserve Highlands heritage


TREKFORCE – a UK-based environmental conservation and community development volunteer organisation – has completed a major conservation project in the Kelabit Highlands, particularly in Bario, Pa’ Umor and Pa’main.

CAPTIVATING: Scenic view of fish ponds and padi field in Bario.

The project – from November 5, 2009 to June 25, 2011 – has reinforced past and present researches by the agencies concerned in documenting and preserving the priceless cultural heritage in the areas, believed to contain the most dense assemblage of culture sites in Sarawak, if not in Malaysia.

Among the agencies involved were the Sarawak Museum (1986 and 2004) and Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) while other institutions included International Tropical Timber Organisations (ITT0). Also taking part in the project were researchers such as Sarah Hitchner (2007) and an academic from Pa’ Umor, professor Poline Balang of Unimas.

Trekforce comprises groups of young self-funded volunteers who embark on extreme expeditions to remote tropical rainforest areas. A large number of them – mostly from the UK, Europe, Canada and the US – are students, aged between 18 and 30 years, who have completed their education before entering college or university.

They are normally formed into mixed teams of around 10.

Their three key aims on each expedition are:

l To help protect and conserve the tropical rainforest ecosystems.

l To help the local people with vital community development projects in remote rural areas.

l To learn vital life skills such as teamwork, initiative and self-sufficiency during the physically and mentally demanding two-month expedition.   

Survival training

Expeditions begin with a week of intensive jungle survival training where the volunteers are taught a wide range of survival skills, including fire-lighting, use of parangs, jungle navigation, building natural shelters, setting animal traps and collecting wild food.

Once trained to live and work safely and effectively in the challenging jungle environment, they trek into deep rainforests to set up basic hammock camps and begin the six-week conservation phase of their expedition.

On June 28, thesundaypost had the opportunity to interview the expedition leader and country co-ordinator, David Osborne, 30 (fondly known to the locals as ‘Os’ or by his Kelabit name ‘Berapui’ – meaning strong fire).

According to Os – along with close friends Al Davies, 31 (an English jungle survival expert) and Rian John Pasan, 40, (a local Kelabit guide and expedition leader) – Trekforce has, so far, carried out six successful expeditions in Sarawak since 2009, involving a total of 51 people, including Os himself.

He said since then, they have been working closely with the Rurum Kelabit Sarawak Association (RKS) and the community of Pa’ Umor on an ambitious cultural site and rainforest protection project, and a wide range of community development projects including teaching English at SK Bario and Pa’ Dalih.

He added that in 2009, work began with volunteer groups, protecting ancient Kelabit cultural sites such as stone megaliths, burial grounds and dragon burial jars in the jungles of the Kelabit Highlands.

The ‘pioneer’ groups trekked deep into the jungles surrounding Bario, located the sites with local guides and GPS, identified them before cutting 400-square-metre boundaries around each site, and marked them with barricade tapes.

The boundaries highlight these areas as protected to prevent logging operations entering and destroying both the invaluable cultural sites and the surrounding rainforests.

“So far, 105 cultural sites have now been protected in this way. After all of the cultural sites in Bario, Pa’ Umor and Pa’ Main areas were marked and boundaries cut, the next phase of this long-term project began.

“This involved the development of a network of trails, bridges and shelters created to provide an infrastructure framework for sustainable eco-tourism in the area and the research of the cultural sites,” Os explained.

Besides creating a network of jungle trails connecting existing trails with many of the cultural sites, Trekforce also constructed numerous wooden and bamboo bridges across difficult river passes and two major camp sites – Hornbill and Silverleaf Camp.

The bridges made of solid wood can last about 20 years while the bamboo bridges about three years.

Other benefits

Os said he is proud to be part of such important, urgent and cutting-edge conservation work.

“The benefits are myriad. Protection and preservation of the Kelabit cultural sites will allow future generations to visit these fascinating sites, as well as allowing further anthropological and scientific research into their nature and origins.”

He stressed the eco-tourism infrastructure now in place will allow tourists, trekkers, nature-lovers, scientists and the local people to visit the area and develop an appreciation for the human history, values and beauty of the rainforest environment and wildlife.

This, in turn, would benefit the communities of Pa’ Umor and Bario through increased eco-tourism to provide employment for local jungle guides and more business for the many homestays in the area.

Background of Os

Os himself had spent a year in Central America working on similar conservation projects for Trekforce before coming to Malaysia and the passion he holds for tropical rainforest environments becomes more apparent as he explained what he considers to be one of the most important aspects of the project.

“The protection of the rainforest environment and the diverse vegetation, insects, birds and animal wildlife within them is one of the important environmental challenges of our generation. Borneo has some of the most pristine and biologically diverse rainforests on Earth, but their existence is severely threatened by the obvious and immediate expansion of logging and palm oil operations.

“Many indigenous groups in Sarawak have similar cultural sites, not to mention outstanding areas of beautiful rainforest – and I hope the kind of multi-level project achieved in the Bario area could form a part of a new strategy for indigenous groups all over Borneo to protect and preserve their native lands, cultural heritage, rainforest areas and, indeed, generate income and employment through this kind of low impact sustainable development,” he said.

The climax of each expedition is a major jungle trek. In the Kelabit Highlands, the groups put both their physical fitness and jungle skills to test by undertaking a completely self-sufficient week-long trek to key landmarks.

So far, they have twice trekked from Bario to the summit of the famous Batu Lawi (2,050m) and from Bario to Long Lellang and, most impressively, conquered Sarawak’s highest peak – Mount Murud (2,424m) – on an epic eight-day trek.

Future directions

Trekforce is already planning two expeditions in 2012 as well as running a ‘Trainee Expedition Leader’ course and UK school biology trip.

“There is a great deal more that can be done both on this project and by spreading our expeditions into new areas,” Os said as he contemplates returning to Sarawak for a further year to reinforce the existing networks of jungle trails, connecting the cultural sites.

The new proposed areas for conservation are in Long Lellang and Pa’ Dalih.

“Despite the logistical difficulties and natural hazards of operating in such a remote location, I love the intense daily challenge of running these expeditions. This is a truly worthy and innovative conservation project, and to be quite honest, I have fallen in love with Sarawak – the people, the culture and the rainforest,” Os enthused.

At the same time, he plans to document the project in a detailed report for RKS and professor Poline (Unimas) with the hope that the authorities concerned could later help conserve and gazette the areas before leaving his adopted Bario to travel to other parts of Sarawak and Sabah and finally back to the UK.

Os hopes to visit, among others, the two world heritage sites – the Mulu Caves (in Sarawak) and Mount Kinabalu (Sabah) and returns home at the end of August.

“It will be very difficult to leave. The people of Sarawak have made us feel so welcome, helped us in so many ways, taught me so much and we have become good friends.

“Without the help, advice, guidance and friendship of people like Rian, the Raja family and councillor John Tarawe, our expeditions here and their success simply would not have been possible. I hope to be able to return to conduct further expeditions next year,” he said.

Among the locals actively involved in the project were Dr Philip Raja (consultant doctor), Laila Raja (transport logistic) Peter Raja (accommodation), Pastor Siwa and other local leaders.

Os also hopes the conclusion of the Trekforce expedition can spur other relevant groups to intensify their conservation and rehabilitation efforts as the cultural sites face common universal problems such as neglect, abandonment, exposure to the elements, collapse, remoteness and bulldozing for logging or access roads to longhouses.

According to the ITTO Report, most of sites are located within licensed timber areas.

Official reports from the Sarawak Museum quoted Hitchner (2007) as listing over 350 sites, consisting of menhirs (batuh sinuped), burial sites, nabang, old longhouse sites, batuh narit (engrave rocks), batuh baliu (curse stones), perupun, salt springs and sacred sites.

Further information on Trekforce can be found on their website