Can sustainable development be both profitable and prestigious?

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The Kumap river in Ba Kelalan is one of the major sources of water for the padi fields (Photo credit: Carolyn Hong)

The Kumap river in Ba Kelalan is one of the major sources of water for the padi fields (Photo credit: Carolyn Hong)

By Carolyn Hong

For three months last year, school children aged 10 to 12 traipsed down every week to the rivers that flow through the Ba Kelalan highlands in east Sarawak to take water samples.

The 50 children observed the river flow before taking water from eight intake points which they then examined for biological life. They also ran chemical tests, under the guidance of their teachers in the Ba Kelalan primary school.

“The children analyse the data, and classified the water quality as either A, B, C, D or E,” said their English teacher Sang Sigar who led this river quality monitoring project.

The children also organised a community gotong-royong to clean the rivers, so much so that most of the intake points showed a better reading by the end of the three months. A similar project will be launched again this year.

If this project sounds like pretty advanced stuff, Thiagarajan Nadeson is not surprised. Thiagarajan heads the environmental education unit of the Malaysian branch of the global green organisation World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

“When you let students take the lead in work that is meaningful to them, they will do wonders,” he said.

Indeed, student leadership is a key purpose of SK Ba Kelalan’s river project, under WWF’s eco-schools programme. The WWF provides technical and financial support but the projects are implemented by the students.

This river project has a special significance for a major transboundary conservation initiative called the Heart of Borneo. Although accessible only by a thrice-weekly flight or a rattling four-hour road journey, remote Ba Kelalan sits right in the middle of the Heart of Borneo which encompasses the highlands of Sarawak, Sabah and East Kalimantan in Indonesia.

The indigenous communities in these highlands are closely related in kinship, culture, history and language. The area holds some of the last remaining tracts of untouched forests in Borneo, and is the watershed for the rivers Rajang, Baram and Trusan in Sarawak, Padas in Sabah and Kayan, Mahakam and Kapuas in Kalimantan.

The WWF is working with the communities, beginning with Ba Kelalan, to protect the area from logging by raising its economic value through better promotion of their traditional activities of sustainable rice-farming and eco-tourism.

In short, it wants to make sustainable development in the highlands both profitable and prestigious, thus providing a strong incentive for the government and communities to conserve the area.

It is, however, a long and slow process that requires the buy-in of the people. The school river quality project is, thus, one way to create long-term momentum by working with the children who, in turn, lead the community.

The rivers are crucial to the high quality of the mountain rice. Buffaloes fertilise and plough the fields, after which planting and harvest is done by hand. Crystal clear streams irrigate the fields.

The famed Adan short-grain organic rice can fetch RM10 a kg in town but supply is limited. The emerald and gold padi fields, especially at the end of the year, are also a tourist attraction that draws visitors for their scenic beauty.

Some problems have, however, arisen after the government began building a road to link Ba Kelalan to the other highland settlement of Bario last year. Erosion has caused river pollution, leading to protests by some segments of the community. The problem remains unresolved.

The WWF is helping the Ba Kelalan community to get a better price for their rice, while maintaining the traditional farming methods. There are also plans to promote eco-tourism to high-quality tourists.

If successful, a similar strategy may be expanded to the other Heart of Borneo areas in Sarawak, Sabah and Kalimantan.

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