I had a wonderful trip to Malaysia in May with my colleagues, Olivia, Rose, and Hani. My first trip was just before the COVID lockdown and I was happy to be back and see the progress and changes. One change for me was a woman leader at one of the longhouses, Tuai Ruman (meaning headwoman) Tinggau anak Ringin, although the team met her back in January when they made their last trip.  She is very interested and supportive of our project to involve the communities in conservation.

To begin our trip, we held a meeting with the two longhouses to share about the project and how things were going. We held the meeting at the local elementary school, which meant we also had some very interested children in the audience! Olivia and Rose demonstrated the camera traps and I shared stories about community conservation approaches around the world.

Then we visited some of the rubber plantations the community will rewild by planting native fruit they are growing in nurseries at the longhouses. One of the people with a nursery is Birai anak Danjie, who is one of about six community members who have been growing native species for a few years in their own nurseries to plant on their land. His enthusiasm for his nursery was infectious – my photo doesn’t do him justice.

Right now, they are clearing the rubber plots of exotic species and an invasive early successional tree (Bellucia pentamera). The invasive species makes it difficult to work in the rubber plantations, and it disrupts natural patterns of forest succession following swidden cultivation. 

There are  three focal species the government is interested in in this area: Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica), Bornean banded langur (Presbytis chrysomelas) —both critically endangered—and the vulnerable bearded pig (Sus barbatus). In addition to these focal species, our project will also provide information about numerous charismatic at-risk wildlife including Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), sun bears (Ursus malayanus), hornbills (Bucerotidae sp.), and orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus).  In addition to camera trapping, we are also monitoring with acoustic detectors for the first time in this area. The acoustic monitoring will help us learn more about hornbills in the area and arboreal mammals such as orangutans and langurs.  

During one visit to the rubber areas we cut down a palm to get hearts of palm, which we had for dinner that night. Rose is holding the hearts of palm.

While people’s enthusiasm for the project is high, converting such a relationship is tricky. Transitioning the project from paid research assistants to full community partners in biodiversity conservation is not easy. Another issue, one that we are lucky to have, is that we are working with the community because of the opportunity to protect their area before the threats are too great to manage. But this also means that many members of the community are not feeling the immediacy of the threats to the extent that many of the other communities we work with do.

They have problems with timber companies and wildlife poachers illegally extracting from their forests, but the impact is not so high that the communities see the degradation every day, like communities do in so many other places where we work.

I am reminded of the experience of our partner, Neotropical Primate Conservation, in Peru. When they first approached a local community and requested the community’s help to study and protect primates in the surrounding forest, the community was happy to participate. While the community remains a strong partner to this day, they have never taken full ownership of the project. As a result of this experience, NPC realized that they needed to offer to help communities, not the other way around, for communities to take full ownership of the projects. See the video below where Sam Shanee, one of the founders of NPC,  explains the difference. Essentially, the initial conversation with the community is critical. The way we approach communities and frame our goals impacts the long-term sustainability of the projects and community ownership.

With our Malaysia project, we have an even more difficult task to change their mindset from one where they are paid to help conduct research to taking ownership of the project and figuring out what questions they want to ask and the problems they want to solve. We are on the path as the communities want to understand more about the hornbills and the other wildlife that move through the different habitats in their forests, including the rubber plantations and the impact of the exotic and invasive tree species. But it takes time and this is an exciting moment in the project as they figure out the path forward.

One thought on “Return to Malaysia in 2024!

  1. This sound like a project that our Friends Malaysia returned Peace Corps volunteers would like to support. Peace Corps was asked to leave Sarawak about 1977, but some are still living and speak Iban. I will bring it up at our Board meeting July 9. Of course, there will be many questions, like where is the govt?what is the relationship, if any, to the WWF Heart of
    Borneo efforts? A couple of suggestions. Why say Borneo, Malaysia–there is no such place.
    Better to say Malaysian Borneo, State of Sarawak, Batang Lupar watershed. Today folks can go on internet find the National Park and focus on this adjacent project. Also, please be aware that there is a well established Borneo Project that is working on some similar problems, mainly in Sarawak’s Baram valley to the north.
    Thanks for your efforts. I especially like the comments about helping them make the project their
    own. That is the real Peace Corps spirit.

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