From high heels to outdoor shoes: Venturing into the Heart of Borneo where development and conservation meet
Never in my life would I have thought that I would be packing high heels and outdoor shoes at the same time. I had a wedding to attend to in Sabah and a working trip in West Kalimantan – held back-to-back in the same week.
From being dolled up on a Saturday night, I caught the first flight out of Kota Kinabalu to Kuching early the next morning, and hopped onto an express bus to explore West Kalimantan.
West Kalimantan forms part of Heart of Borneo (HoB), an area earmarked for sustainable development. WWF-Malaysia and WWF-Indonesia are embarking on a new pilot transboundary corridor project that aims to drive HoB’s future towards a green economy that will benefit human and nature for posterity.
The new pilot project, which began in 2016, is a two-million hectare area, spanning northern West Kalimantan to central Sarawak, and runs for four years.
I was on the cross-visit organised by WWF-Malaysia and WWF-Indonesia to West Kalimantan from February 27 to March 3. The visit aimed at giving stakeholders in Sarawak, such as Forest Department Sarawak, State Planning Unit and community leaders, a first-hand experience of how people in Meliau and Empangau integrate nature conservation with economic development.
Our first destination in West Kalimantan was Lanjak, a small town situated an hour away from Lubok Antu Immigration Post in Sarawak. After dinner and settling in a homestay in Lanjak, my colleagues gave briefings to stakeholders on objectives of the new pilot transboundary corridor project and cross-visit.
On the second day, from Lanjak, we headed towards Meliau, a conservation area that WWF-Indonesia is working in. In a five-seater boat with the capacity of 40 horsepower, we cramped ourselves with our bags to venture through Sentarum Lake. Two hours in the boat may sound long, but the spectacular view of the lake made the trip feel short. We passed several villages on our way to Meliau and what captured my attention were egrets sitting on the village jetty waiting for an easy catch. Too bad it was drizzling; I could not take a decent photo from the boat.
In Meliau, we received a warm welcome from the longhouse communities. WWF-Indonesia Environmental Services Coordinator Hermas Maring briefed us on the conservation works by local communities in the area, and how the organization helped in shaping the people’s mindset to be proactive in conservation.
A tour around Meliau longhouse showed how the community has evolved throughout the years. For example, they no longer bathe in the river and now have communal areas in every room in the longhouse. Clean water comes directly from Peninjau Hill, which is located behind their village, filling up their pipeline. There are also a small library and communication towers located in the village.
In the evening, we hopped onto a long boat and toured the many lakes surrounding Meliau. As we cruised into a lake, the brownish water slowly turned black. We turned into narrow streams to venture into Lake Merebung, protected by the villagers through customary laws.
Generally, fishing is permitted in the lakes throughout the year, though the activity and equipment are strictly regulated. Fishermen can only use harsh mesh with the size of above four inches, thus allowing small fishes to pass through their nets. Fishermen are also prohibited from using crickets, cockroaches and frogs as baits as these will increase the chances of arowanas being caught. The Asian arowana is listed in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and is a protected species in Indonesia. Those who break the rules will risk getting a fishing ban for up to three years.
We spotted some old orangutan nests built high up on trees along the streams. The locals claimed that orangutan sightings are common in the area, but whenever tourists happen to be around, orangutans somehow disappear. Orangutans are known to be shy creatures and usually will avoid any contact, even with other animals.
For me, the best part of this tour was witnessing a flock of hornbills flying freely in the sky. Previously my only encounter with hornbills was in a zoo. I was so excited that in five seconds all I did was point ecstatically at the birds. I only remembered to take photos at the last minute when they were already flying away from us.
At night, the villagers served us fish freshly caught from their backyard. There were so many choices of fish that I couldn’t help tasting them all.
After dinner, Sodik Asmoro, the leader for a local ecotourism committee group called Kaban Mayas (loosely translated from Iban as Friends of Orangutan), gave a short presentation on how the development of ecotourism has changed things for the better in the area over the past few years.
Communities are now more open to conservation after realising that they can capitalise on flora and fauna found in their surroundings. Through ecotourism, they are able to benefit from homestay, boat and canoe rental services.
With the help from WWF-Indonesia, the villagers set up Kaban Mayas as the guardian to ensure sustainability of the ecosystem and orangutan habitat in the area.
Besides arowana, Meliau is home to a number of other fish species such as toman, piang, kerandang and piyam. The area is also blessed with 28 species of mammals including orangutan, avifauna (201), amphibians (22), reptiles (18) and plants (353).
We left Meliau for Empangau on the third day. It was a three-hour journey in the same five-seater boat we used earlier. We were informed by Empangau villagers that they would do a fish restocking activity to tie in with our visit there.
The highlight of the event was when Kapuas Hulu Regent Head, Abang Muhammad Nasir, officiated at the fish stocking event by releasing 10 super red arowana into the lake. Much like Meliau, Empangau also has arowana. It is also home to other fish species such as toman, baung, jelawat and tengadak.
During the late 90s, Empangau depleted almost all of its arowana stock due to overharvesting. This was because of the widely spread belief that arowana would bring peace and luck to its owner. Depending on size, one arowana can fetch up to around RM800.
The community then realised that overharvesting of the fish was harming their economy. With the help of WWF-Indonesia, the villagers agreed to start protecting their lakes in 2000. They also imposed heavy penalties. Those who were caught breaking the law more than three times will be banished from the village.
We left West Kalimantan on the fifth day to return to the hustle and bustle of city life. I admire the Meliau and Empangau communities’ determination in balancing nature conservation and economic development. Hopefully, the ongoing sustainable activities in the two areas will inspire other villages to strike a balance between economic gains and conservation, not only in Indonesia but also in Malaysia.