Page: Turning to Eco-tourism in the Bakun Dam region

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January 1, 2012

It’s time to move on


The Orang Ulu of Balui are now turning to eco-tourism in the Bakun Dam region.

THE 101-door longhouse in Uma Belor was eerily silent as all lights in the hallway had been switched off, leaving only flickering flames from the candles held by eight Kenyah women.

It was a solemn yet surreal moment as the Govina dance was re-enacted. First performed half a century ago, the Govina was held to mark the peace accord struck between warring Orang Ulu tribes living in the vicinity of the Kalimantan border during the Indonesian confrontation.

In the recent performance held at the longhouse in Sungai Asap in Bakun, Belaga, Penghulu Saging Bit took on the role of a tribal chief as he listened to his people's advice to make peace so that they can go on living harmoniously.

Longhouse experience: The beautiful Uma Belor – home to Nora Igang and the pioneer homestay area for Sungai Asap.

The Govina could have been just another dance at a cultural show but for the tribal people of Balui who moved out from their ancestral homes to make way for the Bakun Hydroelectric Dam 16 years ago and in Sungai Asap, the performance reflected their inner emotions as they came to terms with the changes wrought on them and move on in life.

For Nora Igang of Uma Belor, 16 years of bemoaning the loss of their ancestral homes in the rainforest is too long.

“We need to move on. We need to revive the survival spirit of the Balui people and make our peace. Now, we just have to take whatever opportunities given to us to put food on our table,” said Nora, who is barely five feet tall but harbours a big dream for her people.

We have lost our traditional homes along the Balui, we cannot afford to lose this place again. — NOR IGANG
The primary school teacher hopes to promote the tranquil Sungai Asap as the biggest homestay hub in Sarawak. The settlement is located between a man-made lake (Bakun Reservoir) and one of the world's largest hydro dams the Bakun Dam which is already a tourist attraction.

The dam equivalent to the size of Singapore is situated at Sungai Balui, a tributary of Rajang River and 37km from Belaga town in the Kapit Division. About 9,000 indigenous Orang Ulu, mainly subsistence farmers and hunters in the upstream and downstream areas of Sungai Balui were relocated from 15 longhouses to Kampung Sungai Asap over three years. Flooding of the Bakun Dam began in October last year, putting 700 sq km of land underwater.

Many of the tribal people who could not fit into the communal settlement at Sungai Asap have moved back into the jungles while some had migrated elsewhere. Those who remained in Sungai Asap now welcome government plans to develop fishing and tourism industries within the Bakun Dam.

Nora, 42, a Kayan, believes that the people must take “the bull by the horns” to survive. And one way to do so is to open their extra rooms to visitors under the homestay programme.

Nora has been playing a pivotal role on the ground she has been busy over the last two years trying to start the homestay project in Bakun whenever she is not working at SK Sambop in Belaga.

Her sentiment is shared and supported by important members of the community the Marens (aristocrat leaders) namely Maren Uma equivalent to village headman Ajang Bit of Uma Belor, Penghulu Saging Bit, Hulu Rejang MP Datuk Billy Abit Joo, Pemanca Tony Kulleh and many others in Sungai Asap.

With their support, she has rallied 11 other relatives staying in Uma Belor to attend homestay courses organised by the Tourism Ministry recently. Now, they are duly certified as licensed longhouse homestay operators.

As a pioneer homestay operator and project coordinator, Nora has to develop tourism products as well as get tour operators to market them. She also has to mobilise the local folk to put up cultural performances and get involved in logistics like food, transport and guiding.

“I know I will be facing many challenges ahead but am staying focused as I believe this project can help boost our people's income,” said Nora.

“We have lost our traditional homes along the Balui, we cannot afford to lose this place again. What we are doing is to get people to see the beauty of this setting and our lifestyle.”

Sungai Asap, during normal working days, is rather deserted as many locals work outside the settlement. Those left behind are housewives, old folk and children. The womenfolk, who make up about 70% of population, stay behind to man the village fort.

Ajang said the government has been very supportive of the whole project and has even organised courses and promised grants for the operators.

One staunch supporter is Mary Wan Mering, Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) marketing manager.

In Sungai Asap recently, Mary said: “The spirit of the Balui has touched you and me and now is the time to rejuvenate.”

Mary is a Kayan from Ulu Baram while I am a Melanau from Mukah, both outsiders linked to the people of Balui through our professional involvement (myself, as a journalist covering the plight of the Balui people since 1995).

From the first time I stepped foot on Balui until the people were evacuated in 1998, I have witnessed the their emotional reaction that ranged from bafflement to fear, anger, confusion, helplessness, resignation and hope.

But it is perhaps the tenacity of the people that touched me the most the human capacity and spirit to survive as epitomised by Nora and many of her fellow settlers at Sungai Asap recently.

Mary, who participated in a familiarisation group visit organised by the State Ministry of Tourism and Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) recently, is confident the homestay programme has great potential.

“We already have the Bakun Dam as an attraction, the people's varied cultures are an added bonus. Where else in Sarawak can you find all five different indigenous groups of people staying within one area?” she said.

There are 15 longhouses in Sungai Asap inhabited by the Kayan, Kenyah, Lahanan, Ukit and Penan Talun people. The Kayan and Kenyah communities first migrated downstream from the Mahakam river in East Kalimantan to the Balui river about 500 years ago whereas the Kayans of Uma Belor had crossed over the Balui as late as the 1920s. The Lahanan, Ukit and Penan Talun are minority groups in Sungai Asap.

Billy, a Kayan from Uma Belor, aptly described their situation in Sungai Asap: “This is a nice place to live in beautiful sceneries everywhere but we have to be realistic.

“We cannot depend on farming anymore because we do not have any land to farm other than the 1.2ha allocated by the government to each household.

“That is why we are turning to tourism. We need to put food on the table.”

The Sungai Asap settlers are hoping that Bakun Dam will be the pulling factor where tourism is concerned.

As Nora put it: “Bakun Dam has taken our homes. Now, it is time for Bakun to return the favour.”

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