The rivers and people of the HoBBy: Alicia Ng
The longest river in Malaysia is located in Sarawak. The Rajang River is 560km long and originates from the Iran mountains and flows into the South China Sea through the deltas of Sibu and Sarikei. The source of Rajang River shares the same watershed with the second longest river in the state, the Baram River, and the Kayan River in Indonesia-Kalimantan.
In Sarawak, the headwaters of major rivers are located in the Heart of Borneo (HoB). This vast expanse is Borneo’s lifeblood – the rivers provide a multitude of services -- natural resources, gene pools and habitats for flora and fauna, to supporting fisheries and more recently, the economic development of hydropower dams.
Most of the people living in the HoB area rely on the rivers for their daily activities, including food, means of transport, irrigation for agricultural land and as water supply for drinking and washing. To strike a balance between development and conservation, various efforts are being carried out by the governments, NGOs and other parties through programmes aimed at environmental sustainability and improving living standards of the local communities in the HoB.
In May, WWF-Malaysia visited two areas in HoB where rivers play important roles to the community in tagang fish conservation and ecotourism.
Tagang System at the Tengoa RiverTagang (the Iban word for ‘restricted’) is based on a fish conservation system widely adopted in Sabah, the neighbouring state of Sarawak. It is a system where villagers work together as a committee to limit and control the number of fishing activities along the river which has been determined for Tagang purposes. There are now 23 villages across Sarawak that have adopted the Tagang system as part of river conservation as well as economic and livelihood security.
Long Lidong is a small Lun Bawang village of 110 people, about one hour drive from Lawas town in the northeast reaches of the HoB boundary. Raut Kading from the village leads the fish conservation initiative. On a daily basis, he walks to the Tengoa River flowing by his village to feed the fish. He would call the fish from the river bank by clanging an empty tin on a huge rock. The fishes swim toward him, expecting to be fed. He places palm-full of dried fish feed and walks into the water. Fishes rush to him for their share of the nourishing reward. They are so tame that he can easily stroke them. A local newspaper calls him the Fish Whisperer of Long Lidong. For him, this conservation is an investment for his village without having to compromise the natural environment of the village he loves.
In 2006, the villagers, under a smart partnership with the guidance and support of the Inland Fisheries Division of the Department of Agriculture, Sarawak, set up the tagang system. The fish in Sungai Tengoa is the highly regarded semah fish (Tor tambra). The species was specially selected for the partnership in accordance to the river environment.
There used to be plentiful of semah fish in the river. Due to market demand, over-fishing has caused the population of of ikan semah to drop tremendously. This freshwater fish fetches up to RM60 per kilogramme due to its tender and sweet tasting flesh.
Under Long Lidong’s tagang system, a stretch of 2.4 km of the Tengoa River is divided into four zones. Harvesting or fishing activities along this area must be authorised by a committee chaired by Raut. This is a way to sustain the protein supply in the river and sustain economic income. The village’s initiative in implementing the tagang system has contributed to the protection of the river’s natural ecosystem as the semah fish needs clean running waters to survive.
Long Lidong is surrounded by beautiful and unspoilt forests. The village has potential to become an ecotourism spot for nature and bird lovers as it is close to Paya Maga, a scenic mountainous plateau at the headwaters of the Trusan River, where the endemic Bornean Oriole (also known as Black Oriole) is found.
The villagers in Long Lidong hope the tagang system can be part of a unique natural attraction that will continue to draw local and international interests for many years to come.
Ecotourism around Hydropower DamSarawak constructed its first hydropower dam on the Batang Ai river 30 years ago. The Batang Ai Hydro Electric Project (BAHEP) is located southwest of the Sarawak’s HoB boundary, and affects 21 villages. One of them is Nanga Sumpa, about two hours’ boat ride away from the dam. It is one of the longhouses that had successfully ventured into ecotourism programme. The longhouse committee collaborated with a local tour agency in 1987.
The reservoir or artificial lake created by the dam has made it easier for residents to commute to and from the mainland. Andah Lembang who works as a boatman said, “Before the dam, it would take at least two days and one night, depending on the weather and water level, to travel by boat from Nanga Sumpa to the nearest town, Lubok Antu for supplies. Now, the journey takes just 1.5 hours from the dam site to the longhouse.”
The villagers take turns to provide services for tourists to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to benefit. Most tourists stay in lodges built by the tour operator adjacent to the longhouse and at the same time enjoy visiting Nanga Sumpa for handicrafts shopping as well as participation in other traditional activities.
The villagers produce traditional handcrafts made of rattan, wood and other jungle products such as baskets, mats, bead and seed necklaces, bracelets, pottery, and wooden carvings. The products are nicely displayed on simple boards, nails and strings along the longhouse’s ruai (common balcony area). Each family has their own display board.
Most tourists visit Batang Ai for the natural beauty of the forests and to experience local Iban culture and hopefully, to see wild orangutans. Orangutans are often sighted in areas surrounding the longhouse because the longhouse villagers do not hunt or capture them. Batang Ai is also adjacent to the Lanjak Entimau wildlife sanctuary, home to Sarawak’s largest populations of orangutans.
“We respect the orangutans because according to our belief, they are related to our ancestors. It is taboo to hunt or kill them,” Andah said.
Indirectly, ecotourism has helped to reinforce the wildlife conservation value of Nanga Sumpa’s relatively undisturbed forest areas.
For WWF-Malaysia, these community-based sustainable economic activities can be considered as contribution to the protection of ecosystems and conservation of biodiversity in the HoB.
WWF-Malaysia promotes conservation, integrated management and sustainable use of natural resources that include freshwater ecosystems. WWF-Malaysia advocates for integrated policies and approaches, field projects, and enhancement of information system to improve management of freshwater ecosystems and water resources to ensure continued benefits of equitable provision of water for people, nature and economy.