A story of hope, culture, and social business in Borneo

I wandered into the village of Batu Puteh on the Kinabatangan River in eastern Malaysian Borneo after a tip-off, but without much of an idea of what I would find there. I had heard that they were looking for volunteers and it was possible to stay with local families which sounded interesting enough to me.

A man at the first house I came to pointed me towards a larger building at the other end of the village, next to the river. When I arrived at the Batu Puteh community centre, the local people there were a bit surprised to see me as most of their volunteers book through international volunteering agencies whereas I had just turned up with a backpack. However within an hour or two I had moved into a room in a house where Majid lived with his wife Judda and their four small children, who seemed to be very comfortable with strangers in their house and took great interest if invetigating all of the strange stuff in my rucksack, especially my iPhone.

I had dinner with the family that evening (chicken, rice and jungle fern all eaten with our hands) and was given some smart local clothes made from silk to wear to a ‘cultural event’ later that night.

I was really excited to see how a small village got together to enjoy itself, but when I arrived back at the community centre my bubble was burst when I realised that it was just a little event put on for tourists and everyone else there was staying at a nearby eco-resort. It was quite interesting seeing some local music and dance, but it felt contrived. At that moment I thought I would probably only stay there a night or two, but it wasn’t until the next day that I realised how wrong my first impressions had been.

At 8:00 the next morning after breakfast I turned up for work. I met couple of other volunteers who had been there for a while and we set to work shifting saplings from a tree nursery in the village, down to a boat on the river where we took them to a site that had been cleared ready for us to plant them. I learned that this area of jungle had been badly damaged by logging and fire, and we were working on a programme to replant it.

The next day a batch of new volunteers arrived together and I joined them for their briefing. This was the first time that I heard the full story of what they had created in the village. Everything changed at that moment and I was deeply moved by what I heard.

Batu Puteh with its position on the Kinabatangan was once a hive of activity as a major crossing point on the river. However most of its income came from the surrounding jungle through activities such as collecting rattan (like the stuff used to make wicker furniture) and honey. Over last few decades things began to change. A road bridge was built right over the village and the traditional activities in the jungle changed as the villagers discovered the money that could be made through logging. Of course, logging is unsustainable because you can’t grow new trees as quickly as they are chopped down. Each year it was becoming more and more difficult to find the things that they needed in the depleted jungle around the village.

At this point someone from WWF began a three year investigation into the idea of eco-tourism to look at whether this could provide a new, sustainable future for the village. The outcome of this research was a working paper put forward by a number of villagers with the help of WWF. The path was not easy and there were many doubters in the village. Many people had lost hope and believed that the only solution was to move to the cities to find work. There were also false accusations of illegal logging leveled at the project founders to try to undermine their efforts. However, with help of some corporate and government grants, the eco-tourism project started and the first visitors came to Batu Puteh. They paid to stay with local familes and helped the villagers to grow and plant new trees to rejuvinate the rainforest.

Disaster struck not long after when a huge fire swept through the already damaged rainforest. Many local people left the village and it was a time of incredible pain. I was told about the tears that were shed. But gradually the people returned and the doubters saw too that the eco-tourism project could offer them a new future.

The project grew into a community-owned co-operative called MESCOT. Familes pay 100 Ringit (about £20) to join and become part owners. This has grown to 400 members which is a large proportion of the entire village. Volunteers pay 110 Ringit per night in a homestay which includes 3 meals per day, so a family usually breaks even on their investment the first time they have someone to stay. The families receive guests on a rotation basis.
The volunteers work mostly on conservation projects like work in the tree nursery (and the never-ending task of filling small seeding bags with earth.) There are also improvised English lessons for the children and I helped them out a bit with marketing and created their Facebook page.

The project is careful to limit the number of volunteers in the village at any one time. It’s healthy for the local people to see and interact with other cultures, but local people should rightly remain the majority so that their own culture is not destroyed. They also encourage local families to not become reliant on the income for the homestays, which can actually exceed what they earn in their main job. It is important that people still work in order to keep everything else in the village running.

One of the things I loved the most about the village is that work stops at 4:00pm and everyone – local people and volunteers – all play sport. There are games of badminton and football going on, but I played volleyball every day. There was a lovely, relaxed atmosphere of fun and fair play. Something I had to adjust to, curbing my competitiveness and explitives when I frequently lost points for my team!

The village is Muslim, but very moderate. All of the women and girls including volunteers kept their shoulders and legs down to their knees covered, but that was the only dress code. Some women wore headscarves but this was not mandatory. I haven’t spent much time in more conservative cultures, but the very slight restrictions seemed to actually make the place more relaxed. There was no pressure on women to ‘look sexy’ and it removed the element of the guys gawping at the girls. Because everyone was dressed casually, you quickly forgot that there were any rules at all. The most senior jobs in the community project were shared between the men and women.

There was no alchohol in the village and so none of the problems that alcohol brings, but you didn’t feel like anyone missed it. When you play sport every night you feel happily occupied. Being a staunch liberal myself I don’t generally like control that limits people’s choice about how they live, but in this village I only saw benefits which gave me a new perspective.

The villagers were all absolutely lovely, and those working in the community project a real inspiration. In particular, a man called Taing who supervised much of the conservation work. There was nothing that he didn’t know about how to re-grow a rainforest, from collecting and plants seeds, nurturing saplings in the nursery then clearing and re-planting areas of deforestation. Taing had difficulties hearing and speaking which I hardly noticed at first, partly because not many people there spoke great English, but mostly because he was one of the most charismatic and expressive people I have ever met. He could explain what we needed to do in improvised sign language and hilarious looks of cheeky, comedy disappointment when we got things wrong. Taing was also my volleyball mentor and his gentle way of making fun out of me had me laughing every day.

I wished I could have stayed longer in Batu Puteh but unfortunately my week there came to an end far too quickly. It was a lesson in hope, culture and how communities in crisis with a bit of outside support to get them started can build happy, sustainable futures for themselves. I hope to be able to return there some day.