AFTER driving more than five hours with a road-damaged carburettor from Pa Berunut and Camp Merarap along a dusty timber track on a hot day, we reached the village of Long Semadoh A.
On arrival, our driver, Usup Pak, came up with a timely reminder, “Take note again that Long Semadoh A, like any other Lun Bawang villages, is built around a football field with a church to the south.
“The church bell – not really a bell but a bamboo gong – is struck by an elder to signal the time for early prayers (at 4.30am).”
What I had seen in the rural Lawas highlands during my stay there really amazed me – the traditional and organic cultivation of their land by the locals, their love for fruit trees, the rice land and rivers, and the serenity of the rustic landscape.
We arrived at about four in the afternoon and had time, before sunset, to explore the place with our friends.
The village was first settled by a small group of highlanders in the 1920s and it slowly evolved.
Later, the first generation of Lun Bawang Christians built up the village and brought about changes. The White Rajah was impressed by the cleanliness of the village when he visited before the war.
The SIB church has been the centre of life in the village which was built in the shape of square on the fringes of a football field.
AF Belcher served as the first pastor for many years. He translated the Bible into the Lun Bawang language.
Most recently, the church was led by the late Pastor Meechang Tuie, who served as principal of St Columba’s Secondary School in Miri until he retired.
He was also a gifted lyricist, having composed more than 40 songs.
Why is the village built around a football field?
“We Lun Bawangs like to watch football from our homes,” a friend from the village told thesundaypost.
“When a game is on, we come out to sit at our patio and watch until sunset. It’s a wonderful idea.”
Their spiritual attachment to the land makes them proud of their clean village, well-maintained football field and well-tilled river valley and mountain slopes.
I was surprised when I met the villagers carrying walkie-talkies in the valley since landlines are not available and mobile phones cannot be used because of bad connectivity.
Some even try to overcome the problem by getting three mobile phones, serviced individually by different providers. But none really works.
For example, to receive overseas messages, you have to drive 100km to Lawas.
“The connection in Long Semadoh is pitiful. We’re fortunate a company here is lending us a line, so we can call each other. But since everyone can hear what is being said, we cannot simply talk.
“So it’s good to have walkie-talkies at home. Lives can be saved as everyone can be contacted during an emergency. But really, the walkie-talkie is a very noisy device,” a villager explained amidst laughter.
Cattle on the hills
Litad Langub and her husband Lalo rear cattle with the help of workers from the village.
She is working on a big piece of land, mostly hilly, she inherited from her parents and grandparents and shares with her siblings, who are professionals working outside of Long Semadoh.
Litad now has more than 20 head of cattle and every evening, she will call the herd home.
She is out in the field by sun-up, checking the fences of her farm on the hills before walking round the 10 acres of land.
She has great passion for her land, her people, and her livestock, and is determined to make her farm economically viable, having invested a lot of time and money in her land in Long Semadoh.
One of her greatest hopes is being able to get going her organic fertiliser project using cow dung.
“I don’t mind people calling me the cow dung lady,” she quipped.
After her husband retired from Shell in Miri, they decided to return to take care of the farm. It has been more than five years now. And they have managed to reap good padi harvests and their cattle are also doing well.
But Litad admitted there have also been a lot of obstacles.
“How do we sell our rice and cattle? Help is not often there. Sometimes we farmers really feel hopeless.
“I remember a long time ago, our elders walked our pigs to Lawas town to sell them. Are we to do the same? Do we have to herd our cattle to Lawas on foot? It’s three hours by car on a dusty earth road, mind you.”
Litad is also passionate about the Adan variety of rice which she and her fellow women planters continue to cultivate organically. Most of them produce at least 30 gunny sacks a year.
“We’ll grow more if there’re buyers. It’s not difficult. We have good soil here,” she said.
The different shades of rectangular padi plots below in the valley are beautiful to look at – jade green, yellowish green, and pale green – like a huge patchwork of earthy colours created by Providence.
The atmosphere is clean and the beauty of the valley breath-taking. One can happily take in the fresh air and the beautiful scenery of an unpolluted idyllic environment.
Litad personally mills the harvested rice and sells the freshly milled grains in Lawas, Miri, and beyond.
She and her sister farmers in Long Semadoh hope to market their Adan rice in properly vacuumed packets to prevent weevils developing.
“Unlike other parts of the world, the rice fields here are owned by individual families – no one is a big landlord and no one is a tenant.
“Our rice fields are fertile because of the ancient soils and the floods, which bring down fertile alluvial sediments. Our river may be small but it’s a blessing to us. For the past 60 or more years, we have had good harvests. This can be maintained as long as we have the people and energy to continue planting,” she explained.
Litad had to fight another battle recently.
She said although a contractor was given the licence to extract gravel from the Trusan River, which flows through Long Semadoh, she had noticed a hydraulic excavator scrapping “the very bottom of the river” over the past few months, causing the banks to crumble.
Some of the padi fields also got covered by sand washed in by high tide. Thousands of tons of river gravel have been taken away from the village. The dust, churned up by moving trucks, has collected on the roofs and windows of many farmhouses and the surrounding vegetation.
“The dust never seems to settle. We can be covered by fine dust for walking just a kilometre to our farms,” she noted.
Litad decided to do something about it. She put up a one-woman blockade and eventually had a meeting with the authorities concerned. Negotiations are on-going.
Litad hopes she would be able to keep especially the Trusan River and the valley, in general, from further damage.
According to one of the elders, the extraction should not be concentrated on a single area but spread out evenly along the riverbed.
Pollution in the river must be kept to the minimum and the contractor should take the responsibility for the pollution caused, if any.
“As villagers, we deserve to have a good environment. So far, our valley has been green but is turning white to some extent,” he said.
Sand, dust all round
Litad pointed out that “sand and dust fly about and my fellow villagers are afraid to open their doors and windows”. She brought us to see the river and the continuing removal of gravel. Some machines were seen working on the pebbled beach.
Egrets flew around looking for fish, and while we enjoyed looking at the beautiful bamboo groves, we also noticed many of the beautiful trees were covered with dust. Some parts of the riverbanks had collapsed and we saw a few nearby padi fields apparently abandoned due to soil problems.
We stayed overnight, enjoying the fresh mountain air and the warmth of a camp fire. A million stars twinkled above as we chatted cordially with Litad, her husband, and a few relatives who came by. They talked fondly about their hopes and joys of living in the green valley.
At daybreak the mist lifted and the church was bathed in the golden rays of the rising sun as the long shadows of the early hours began to disappear.
How blessed the Lun Bawangs are. May their hopes rise above the mountains and the sun continue to shine on the green valley of Long Semadoh.
We left the village with lingering heartfelt thoughts of Litad working at her farm – planting padi and other crops with her fellow villagers, tending to her livestock and protecting the life-giving Trusan River.