Tuesday, March 27, 2018

From behind shadows, indigenous Borneo tribes begin to embrace eco-tourism

SAPULOT, Malaysia: The first thing to notice about Richard Gunting is his T-shirt. “I Am The Firstborn” it reads in bold white letters on black.

It is more than a fashion choice for the 67-year-old living in the heart of Borneo. It’s a life mantra.

Gunting’s home is hidden in the depths of precious, pristine jungle in Sabah, one of Southeast Asia’s most incredible treasures. This is a remote and isolated place; its custodians are secretive and traditional and the silver-haired Gunting is one of its leaders on a quest to ensure the prosperity of his people without a loss of their ancient identity.

His shirt shows his pride in the indigenous Murut tribe and their ownership of the land.

The Murut carry a fearsome reputation forged generations ago – they are known to have once been headhunters, a term Gunting believes is “misleading” and one he is ready to overhaul.

But he does not deny that survival has never been easy in this part of Malaysia. Even today, this is one of the poorest districts in Sabah where locals have seen living standards stutter and their land relinquished to oil and timber plantations, which have stimulated local economies but hurt biodiversity.

“When I was growing up, the whole area here was surrounded by pristine jungle and relatively clean streams. After this logging, I went up a hill again and I was shocked,” he said.

“The kind of jungle condition that I used to know had been dissected by a lot of roads that were constructed for logging purposes and a lot of erosion had taken place. It was so heartbreaking.

“I went up that hill some four years ago … I never went back again.”

If Gunting’s instincts and subsequent actions prove correct, the answer to saving a priceless landscape from further degradation from land concessions and industry is to stimulate eco-tourism.

He wants to open the door to communities who have long been in the shadows. But his fellow villagers mostly think he is mad to try, he admits.