Help Communities in Borneo Protect their Heritage

by Global Diversity Foundation
Natural resources are a livelihood source
Natural resources are a livelihood source

Almost a year has passed since approval was given to designate the Crocker Range in Sabah as a Biosphere Reserve, making it, at 350,584 hectares, the largest protected area in Malaysia. This Reserve includes areas inhabited by Dusun communities with whom Global Diversity Foundation has been collaborating for over a decade. Through a combination of training, participatory action research and community-based conservation education activities, the communities have provided input in the process of its nomination. Given recent uprising against the controversial Kaiduan Dam, it is timely to reflect on the processes used to achieve gazettement, and the core characteristics of Biosphere Reserves. It is crucial to gauge the level of our commitment to this reputable designation.

A key characteristic of Biosphere Reserves is the use of a multi-stakeholder approach, strongly emphasising local community involvement in management. Dusun communities in the Crocker Range are not new to asking that their rights be met, a call backed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A collaborative project that began in August 2009, the third in a sequence of projects carried out in the Buayan-Kionop area, was actually designed as a response to community request asking for assistance to strengthen community institutions and build grassroots capacity that would allow them to meaningfully engage in the conservation agenda of Sabah Parks, which included the nomination of the Reserve.

During the three year project, community research groups successfully raised awareness on Biosphere Reserves and other aspects of community conservation among communities living in Ulu Papar and governmental institutions in Sabah. The Ulu Papar Biocultural Community Protocol was developed, a document representing the voice of the Ulu Papar community about the importance of their way of life and culture, ancestral lands and territories, especially in relation to the use of natural resources as a livelihood source for the community and the conservation of biodiversity. GIS maps and participatory 3D models of Buayan-Kionop and Ulu Papar were created from new knowledge to display livelihood patterns and resource use of each community. Since the project officially ended in 2012, the community also pushed ahead with constructing a community outreach centre in Buayan village through fresh partnerships with both local and foreign organisations. This was partly funded through generous donations made by GlobalGiving donors.

Having collaborated with the Ulu Papar community, Sabah Parks, Sabah Biodiversity Centre and PACOS Trust throughout the project, the Global Diversity Foundation continues to appreciate local community efforts in preserving their traditional ways. Dusun communities in the Crocker Range continue to push their way into the forefront to make their voices heard. They have called out to local authorities to consider other solutions to the water shortage in Sabah. They make repeated requests for satisfactory consultations to be carried out with those who would eventually be displaced if the construction of the Dam proceeds. These requests are, after all, in line with a second characteristic of Biosphere Reserves, stated as fostering dialogue for conflict resolution of natural resourse use.


Photo by Rabani Ayub. Natural resources are a livelihood source for the Dusun communities of Ulu Papar in the Crocker Range.

Japanese students dig hole for septic tank
Japanese students dig hole for septic tank

Ulu Papar communities’ continued enthusiasm in engaging with partners was apparent through their active participation in planning for and being involved in the DISSOLVA Borneo Project 2014; a visit by a group comprising predominantly Japanese undergraduates, joined by Malaysian students and supervised by leaders from their respective institutions. Apart from regular daily interactions, the Dusun communities from Buayan and Kalanggaan shared their traditional knowledge by involving their visitors in hunting activities, giving theatrical performances in their local language, and teaching the art of bamboo weaving. Through collaborative efforts, the toilet and septic tank for the Biocultural Heritage Centre was successfully constructed during the visit, a project led by social enterprise, Arkitrek. 

Community researchers from Ulu Papar have built on their experiences in a variety of ways. Some have to gone on to pursue other priorities, leaving their homefront for gainful employment. A select few, however, maintain their aspirations as environmental and cultural champions in the local sphere. One step they and other community members took recently was the inauguration of a youth committee in Buayan village, followed by initial discussions to outline specific aims relating to preserving their biocultural heritage. One of the committee members, Raymond, trained over the years in various participatory research methods including community filmmaking and participatory mapping, notes that his employment at the local district office allows him to utilise his in-depth knowledge about Ulu Papar to contribute towards upholding the traditional values that define the people of Ulu Papar.

(Photos courtesy of Arkitrek)

Taking time to learn about each other
Taking time to learn about each other's culture


Arriving in Buayan by 4WD
Arriving in Buayan by 4WD

The strong living biocultural heritage of Ulu Papar, and the welcoming and self-reflective character of the communities continues to build and strengthen connections, so that visitors tend to keep returning. Early last month, Shinobu from Gakushuin University once again headed into the depths of the Crocker Range, joined by local counterparts, including representatives from the local university, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, and from Arkitrek, the social enterprise fundamental in the design and construction of the community-action centre in Buayan. Raymond, who hails from Buayan, acted as community liaison and guide during the visit.

The purpose? To finalise plans for the DISSOLVA 2014 Borneo Project, a Gakushuin International Culture and Community Exchange Programme that brought 16 Japanese students to Sabah from 7th – 24th August 2014. Why are we excited about this? As with their two earlier visits, this year’s schedule included a good mix of activities. The Japanese students trekked deep into the dense tropical rainforest of Borneo to live with, learn about, and try to integrate with local Dusun communities in two villages in the Crocker Range. There, they assisted with the completion of the Bio-cultural Heritage Centre in Buayan, a hub for future outreach, self-advocacy and learning activities.

It is interesting to learn of similarities between cultures in two countries set more than three thousand miles apart. As Shinobu noted, forwarding photos from her July trip to Buayan, “Flat baskets made of bamboo are also common in Japan”. She added then that her student group hoped to make these baskets while in Kalangaan Village, and use them in their planned daily activities. “They also planned to use these baskets for the dance they prepared to show before their departure from Kota Kinabalu,” she added.

We thank Shinobu for sharing her story, and for Gakushuin University’s ongoing interaction with and support for the Ulu Papar community. 

Additional note: 

VOTE NOW! The photo of a Dusun child from Bundu Tuhan, taken by GDF photographer, Inanc Tekguc, made it through to GlobalGiving's Photo Contest this year! This opens up a new way you can support this project; the project with the photo that receives the most votes by noon EDT on August 29 will be awarded a $1,000 bonus. Vote now (it takes less than 1 minute)! Click here, enter your e-mail address, and verify your vote! If you’d like to learn about the story behind this phoo, click here. Thank you!

Photo descriptions

Shinobu, second from right, with the others on the trip in front of the 4WD that ferried them to Buayan. The group took an 8-hour trek on the way out. 

With the main structure and internal walls of the Bio-cultural Heritage Centre put in place last year, this year’s aim set out was to add finishing touches, construct a toilet and introduce the design of a septic tank/phytoremediation system.

The community centre in Buayan
The community centre in Buayan
Woven baskets in Buayan
Woven baskets in Buayan
A Dusun child from Bundu Tuhan
A Dusun child from Bundu Tuhan
The 3D model of Ulu Papar
The 3D model of Ulu Papar

In our last update, we reported on the continued collaboration among the community of Buayan and several external groups. Their passion and commitment for Ulu Papar, we are happy to report, have not waned. In this report, we bring you up to speed on developments with three different partners.

Intense planning is now underway for an upcoming visit by Japanese students from Gakushuin University to Buayan later this year. This visit will be the third of its kind under the university’s Dissolva Borneo Project. As in two earlier visits, strong focus is being placed on learning about and experiencing the local, indigenous culture, while lending a helping hand in task-specific projects.

In March this year, two Buayan community researchers were invited under the Gakushuin International Culture and Community Exchange Programme to visit Japan, alongside a representative from Universiti Malaysia Sabah. This visit successfully opened a direct channel of communications for the young people involved. They exchanged fruitful ideas, including the establishment of a ‘youth committee’ to plan for future exchanges. Following discussions with Arkitrek, the organization coordinating construction of the Bio-cultural Heritage Centre, a programme is now in place for the Japanese student group visit in August. They will participate in putting some final touches on the Centre.

Arkitrek continues in the realm of the construction of the Centre in Buayan (see their post on Ulu Papar Sustainable Livelihoods Programme). In addition, due to their involvement with other communities throughout Sabah, they have now opened up a new opportunity for engagement. Given their training in participatory research techniques, three community researchers from Buayan have been invited by Arkitrek to share their knowledge and experience on community-based mapping with an island community in Sabah. For the Buayan community (part of the larger area called Ulu Papar), learning this technique has resulted in the creation of 3D maps highlighting important traditional, customary and sacred landmarks in their area, and has been used as a tool in advocating for the protection of lands in Ulu Papar. The opportunity to share this knowledge with other indigenous communities is a step towards strengthening the voices of communities in Sabah; we hope to share this with you in future updates.

To end, we would like to thank our GlobalGiving supporters, who provide the much-needed funds to carry out activities on the ground, and all the organisations who continue to support the Ulu Papar community through ongoing engagement and encouragement.

Photo captions:

The 3D Model of Ulu Papar: The building of the Ulu Papar 3D model a few years ago, features sacred sites among other localities.

Community sharing on participatory mapping: A community researcher from Buayan introduces the concept of Participatory 3D Mapping to the Bundu Tuhan community; an earlier experience of ‘sharing’ knowledge and skills in participatory research methods with other communities.

Community sharing on participatory mapping
Community sharing on participatory mapping


Buayan girls; faces of the future
Buayan girls; faces of the future

As construction of the first stage of the Biocultural Heritage Centre in Buayan village comes to an end, we would like to send a special thank you to those who supported this project.

This Centre is not just a building. Original plans laid out a few years ago defined the Centre as ‘a communally owned and managed resource centre’; it was ambitious, yes, but the progress since then has shown us it is something that can be achieved. Enthusiastic youth from Buayan are now taking steps to reenergise a legally registered community entity that will provide formal grounds for the community to take matters into their own hands. For example, a legal entity enables the community to effectively engage with individuals and organisations who believe in and will support the upholding of their traditional values.

A collaboration already exists between the Buayan community with Gakushuin University in Japan under the Dissolva Borneo Project. With their third annual visit being planned for the later part of this year, a team of community collaborators sanctioned by Tungkusan (the name of the community body in Buayan) could play a much greater role in all aspects of the visit. This includes designing community outreach programmes for the Japanese students to take part in; engaging with service professionals such as Arkitrek, which currently leads all aspects of design and build of the Centre, to create an extension to the current project; and collaborating with educational institutions such as Universiti Malaysia Sabah, which played a key role in promoting Ulu Papar to the Japanese university. Beyond that, as an officially recognised entity, the community can also seek further support by developing and managing fundraising campaigns for the long-term continuity of community-driven initiatives to improve their livelihoods while protecting their precious heritage.

Progress is well underway, with ongoing encouragement, both locally and from abroad, and with on-site developments, both tangible (the construction of the Centre) and intangible (community capacity building in conducting workshops; read this blog post by one of the participants on the first workshop, a second workshop is being planned for 22nd February).

Today (Wednesday, 12th February) is GlobalGiving’s first Bonus Day this year. If you’d like to consider making another donation to boost community action in Buayan, please do take advantage of the 30% in matching funds offered by GlobalGiving. Matching is available from 9 am EST ( or until funds run out or 11:59 pm EST (


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Organization Information

Global Diversity Foundation

Location: Bristol, VT - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Susannah McCandless
GDF International Program Director
Bristol, Vermont United States
$9,465 raised of $10,000 goal
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$535 to go
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