Sunday, May 19, 2013

Batang Ai – 30 years on

THE Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) which includes a slew of ambitious projects such as manufacturing and heavy industries and industrial areas, is projected to be the state’s main engine of growth over the next few decades.

The state also plans to build a series of large hydroelectric power dams (HEP) as clean, renewable energy sources to fuel the expected demand for cheap electricity by power-intensive industries wooed by SCORE.

However, despite the numerous expected socio-economic benefits, changes to the natural landscape and biodiversity has thrown a spotlight on the nature of man’s relationship with the environment and how closely they are intertwined.

Recently, thesundaypost visited Nanga Sumpa, Rumah Skarok and Nanga Mepi – three villages affected by Batang Ai HEP (BAHEP) – the state’s first and oldest operating HEP – to learn more about how the dam has impacted their daily lives.

The trip revealed that while BAHEP had brought significant improvements in terms of infrastructure and access to public facilities and services such as education and healthcare, it also created a number of additional challenges for the local communities.

For better or worse, those that had depended heavily on a natural resources-based livelihood had to learn to adapt to a cash-based economy. Some are still struggling to adjust and rebuild their socio-economic independence after nearly 30 years.

Interviews with residents from the three Iban longhouses also suggested that while nature is resilient in some ways to relatively drastic changes, it’s also surprisingly fragile in others.

While far from being an accurate survey of the wide range of experiences of the estimated 21 villages affected by BAHEP, the interviews show any decision to modify the environment on a large scale, needs to be thoroughly studied from all angles, and supports the notion that all other options be given due scrutiny before any action is taken.

Tourism model

Nanga Sumpa is seen as one of BAHEP’s success stories for managing to successfully tap into the locality’s eco-tourism potential. An exclusive collaboration with a local tour agency dating as far back as 1987 has opened many opportunities for residents to earn additional income.

The villagers make traditional handcrafts such as baskets, mats, bead and seed necklaces, bracelets, pottery, and wooden carvings. They hang their products on simple boards, nails and strings along the length of the longhouse’s ruai (communal verandah area) — ready for sale to browsing tourists.

Andah Lembang, 65, works as a boatman, ferrying tourists in between creating traditional Iban pottery and taking care of his garden plot.

He receives a monthly salary as a boatman but was reluctant to reveal how much he earns, only saying it’s enough.

Andah’s wife helps to demonstrate traditional weaving techniques to tourists.

His granddaughter Lenenggau Manggin takes turns with other villagers to cook for the tourist lodge residents for a small daily wage. In her spare time, she creates bead necklaces and sometimes accompanies Andah to craft exhibitions and workshops.

His son Jackson Engkamat, 32, helps with maintaining facilities at the lodge and accompanying researchers and tourists on jungle walks while also developing his skills as a tattoo artist in his spare time.

The villagers take turns to provide services for tourists to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to benefit.

The tourists stay in specially built lodges adjacent to the longhouse but are able to visit Nanga Sumpa at certain times to buy handcrafts and participate in certain activities.

Most tourists come because they are eager to experience Batang Ai’s natural beauty, learn more about local Iban culture and hopefully, catch a glimpse of orang utans.

Orang utans are often sighted in areas surrounding the longhouse because the longhouse folk leave them alone. So the primates don’t perceive humans as a threat.

“We respect the orang utans because according to our culture, they are related to our ancestors. It is taboo to hunt or kill them,” Jackson said.

Thus, indirectly, tourism has helped to reinforce the wildlife conservation value of Nanga Sumpa’s relatively undisturbed forest areas.

The dam lake has made it much easier for residents to commute to and from the mainland.

According to Andah, before the dam, it would take at least two days and one night, depending on the weather, to travel by boat between Nanga Sumpa and Lubok Antu for supplies. Now, the journey takes just 1.5 hours from the dam site to the longhouse.

However, travel is not without its obstacles. During the journey to Nanga Sumpa, boats have to run a gauntlet of floating logs and other debris trapped in the limbo of where dam waters meet the river waters, unable to flow upstream or downstream.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Batang Ai – 30 years on