Tribal resettlement in the Sarawak mountains
SJ: The bamboo porch creaked as two young Bidayuh girls unloaded a grass basket filled with old plastic Coco-Cola bottles of tuak (rice wine). A delivery that had been eagerly awaited by the seven men sat cross-legged in front of us. The lids were removed and the milky-white moonshine liberally sloshed into blue plastic cups; cheap, Malaysian-brand cigarettes were then lit and the conversation returned to the one topic that had dominated the night – the resettlement.
The village – Kampung Semban – has recently been purchased by the Malaysian Government and the residents, along with those of 3 other villages in the area, are being relocated to a purpose-built ‘resettlement scheme’ of identical concrete units 20km away. The villagers can take their belongings, but the organic cluster of wood-and-bamboo stilt-houses, the delicate vegetable gardens, the durian trees, the hand-dug football pitch and the forested hills, will have to stay. The evocative smell of wood smoke mixed with damp moss, will fade, and with it the murmur of Bidayuh voices and crowing cockerels… Above us, a large praying mantis clattered into a single bare bulb that illuminated expressions of anger, confusion and disbelief.
We had reached the Bidayuh (one of Borneo’s many indigenous ethnic groups) village the morning before, following a sweaty 4-hour walk up through the bushy green mountains on the Kalimantan/Sarawak border – a region of lush bamboo and silt-laden rivers crossed on precarious bridges that looked as if they had been washed down by the rivers and left hanging in the trees. We had been put in contact with Swen, the religious leader of the village, who had agreed to let us stay, and as there are no roads to the village, sent his son Martin down the mountain to show us the way – a scowling, chain-smoking 19-year old built like a silverback gorilla who made for an intimating guide, until he flashed us a shy smile and pointed to the path.
Despite the cooler altitudinal temperatures, the humidity drenched us in sweat, then the sky burst and we were drenched all over again. The paths were transformed into treacherous rivers of mud and the neat little bamboo steps became slippery blocks of ice. We finally reached the village amongst the machine-gun staccato of rain on tin roof – a deafening clatter that almost drowned-out Swen’s loud “Hello! Hello! Hello!” as we blindly stumbled past a rustic, and very flooded, football pitch. Thin wisps of wood smoke lamely fought the deluge whilst bedraggled chickens bickered from beneath the boxy stilt-houses. Swen’s face appeared from behind a glistening curtain of rainwater, and we were waved beneath the eaves to waiting cups of homemade chocolate milk made from his own homegrown cocoa beans.
Swen gave us a brief tour of his home: the long communal room with its roll mats for sleeping on; the TV that received sound but no picture; the kitchen with its open fire and dusty radio, from which crackled the BBC World Service; and the damp outhouse of old boards and polythene with its single chest-height tap and squat bog. It rained throughout, and showed no sign of stopping, so once the introductions were out the way, we settled down on his bamboo porch for a day of broken, but enthusiastic, conversation.
Swen explained that his village was over 300 years old (one of the oldest in whole of Sarawak) and home to some 450+ Bidayuh people, although the 3 other villages on the mountain all form part of the same community bringing the total up to around 1600 friends, family and neighbours. The villagers all grow rice, veg and fruit for themselves and cash crops of peppercorn, rubber and cocoa for the market – all grown using a rotating system of ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture. An entirely organic – and in this case sustainable – technique that involves burning, and then clearing, small patches of land, cultivating it for a year or two, and then once the nutrients are depleted, moving on and letting it grow wild.
They also hunt wild pig and rats (whilst we’re talking Swen’s neighbor – a heavily muscled 27 year old covered in Iban tattoos – popped away at palm rats with an air rifle), but they don’t keep any livestock themselves beyond the ubiquitous chickens. A past endeavor actually resulted in the last relocation of the village, as Swen explained; “The last time we moved was because of the piiig – the pig and the coconut. My grandfathers, they buy the piiig – you know the pig? They buy the pig – lots of pigs – and they let the pigs walk free around the kampung (village) and they bother all the articles (the vegetables growing around the porch). They eat all the articles so then we cannot grow the articles. Also they plant the coconut, they grow tall and the coconuts fall…very dangerous….so 25 years ago the head man he say; we must move!”
That last move resulted in the villagers relocating the entire village to the other side of a hill, and they still use the old village ground as a kind of permanent wild pig and coconut larder. The upcoming move is far less entertaining. The villagers have been told that their land falls within the catchment of the new Bengoh dam being built in one of the valleys below, and that all 4 villages, along with 5000ha of their Bidayuh Native Customary Rights land, is to be gazetted as a national park and turned into a water catchment area. In exchange, the villagers are being given a small amount of compensation that just about covers the cost of the new units, and accompanying plots of land, that they have now been told they have to buy (134ha of land is being divided up amongst 204 families).
Swen is a good Christian and the sort of positive, optimistic person that can’t even be coaxed into pointing the finger or laying blame. Despite the obvious sadness in his eyes, he seemed determined to focus on the positives; the fact that the new units have 24hr electricity, that they’re going to be connected by a road, and that the buildings don’t have to be completely rebuilt every 8-10 years… His current house is version number 3. The soft, untreated planks hand-cut and the tough ironwood stilts felled from deep in the forest and dragged back to the village one by one – a sense of pride and attachment that’s going to be hard to replicate in the new units; “It’s so funny they’re all the same; the same walls, the same porch, the same rooms…except for the roof. My roof is brown and my sister’s is green.”
The next morning we’re up early to watch sunrise over a cloud-filled valley below. The backlit peppercorn plants glowing orange against crinkled hills of green. Then it’s off into the forest to spend the day by a wild, raging waterfall beneath orchid-clad figs tangled with vines, creepers and ferns. The deep shade and cool plunge pools sheltering us from the midday heat.
When we returned, the Reverend Tony George, and his Anglican Fellowship of local Christian leaders, had arrived at Swen’s to carry out a service at the village chapel – an important occasion. The Reverend’s congregation includes more than 40 Bidayuh villages, most of which are tucked away in remote corners of the mountains, and it takes him almost 3 months to complete his circuit. They all shook our hands and greeted us – the Reverend (a heavily muscled, bare-chested and tattooed Iban man, who looked more warrior than priest) introducing himself as “like Tony Blair and George Bush!” which Molly couldn’t help but reply with; “Oh no! They are horrible people!” A slightly inappropriate comment that luckily got lost in translation…
Almost 90% of the 46,000 or so Bidayuh people living in Malaysia and Indonesia are Christian. Most of them converted from animism during the ‘50s and ‘60s by the British; a fact that was not lost on the Fellowship who seemed genuinely pleased to be sharing their evening with real, authentic British people. We carefully dodged invitations to attend their service and the accompanying awkward questions about our religious bent (or lack of), and instead watched the village kids kick a football around the muddy pitch. Once the service was out the way the villagers, all dressed in their Sunday best, drifted back to their homes and we returned to Swen’s porch to chat to the fellowship.
Unlike Swen, who seemed completely baffled by the looming resettlement, the Fellowship were fired-up and angry. They were all well educated and almost fluent in English having grown-up during our colonial past, and two of them in particular had done their research. They had looked into their rights and searched the Internet for past cases of tribal resettlement, and seemed far from convinced by the explanations given to them by the Government. Unfortunately, the justification of the dam catchment essentially gives the Malaysian Government the power to compulsory-purchase whatever land they want and cover-up, what looks to the Fellowship, like land-grab and a chance to ‘modernize’ almost 2000 indigenous tribals. To make matters worse they had heard rumours that the Government wants to build a large tourist resort on their land once they’re gone…
It’s not the first time that a dam built in Sarawak has been surrounded in controversy and confusion. The prime example is the massive Bakun dam on a tributary of the Rajang River – a huge hydroelectric project with the potential to generate far more electricity than Sarawak needs, but with no obvious market for the surplus energy. The dam took almost 20 years to complete and in 2011 an area of rainforest the size of Singapore was finally flooded displacing more than 10,000 Orang Ulu people, who were all resettled in a single town. Environmentalists and human rights activists are still asking what the point was. Yet despite this, another dam is already being built just up river with talks of another 3 in years to come.
After a huge meal of homegrown rice, stewed jackfruit, fresh bamboo shoots, fried green banana, stewed banana shoots, pineapple soup, salted tapioca leaf and ‘jungle greens’, the rice wine appeared and the conversation mellowed. The oldest of the group, a grinning, wrinkled 75 year old with just three, very chipped and nicotine-stained, teeth took center stage. He was one of the first to be converted from animism, and ‘head-hunting ’ as he called it, in the 1950s, then acted as a scout for the British SAS during the 1970s. For the past 20 years he has worked alongside a British midwife in the surrounding mountains, he said; “All my life I have spoken English with English people, but I have never been to England!” I mentioned that it was a cold, wet country, to which he said; “Yes, but you have lots of cows. Cows make good hunting!”
The next morning the Priest and his entourage were up at dawn and on their way to the next village. Once they had left, we settled down to a breakfast of sweet black coffee and fried rice with Swen and Martin. Whilst we ate, I asked Swen what he was going to take with him to the next village and he said that besides his clothing and pots and pans, there was only one thing that really mattered: his framed, sun-bleached photograph of the village chapel; the only concrete building in the village, which was paid for and built by the villagers themselves just 2 years before. He said; “We only agreed to move if they promised to build us a new church and school, but it’s funny, they have built the all houses and the builders have left, but there is still no church or school?”