Help Communities in Borneo Protect their Heritage

by Global Diversity Foundation
T-shirts for sale are available in blue and red.
T-shirts for sale are available in blue and red.

The youth from Buayan recently embarked on a fundraising drive, selling t-shirts to the Ulu Papar community and the general public in Kota Kinabalu. Proceeds from the sale will be channeled to the TAKADA taskfoce to cover activity expenses to fight the proposed Kaiduan Dam, which would flood Ulu Papar traditional territory. Indirectly, this drive is also an opportunity to carry out a peaceful campaign to raise awareness, particularly among government authorities responsible in preserving and conserving sacred and cultural sites in Ulu Papar that are important features for the state of Sabah. It demonstrates the power and strength of a united community that does not agree with the proposed dam.

Anne and Khairulfattah volunteered to design the t-shirts, with full support of other Buayan youth, and are also spearheading the sales of the t-shirts. The youth are hopeful for both advice and financial support from concerned parties, enabling them to continue efforts to object to the construction of the dam. Jenny, who has been involved in research activities and outreach efforts highlighting the biocultural heritage of Ulu Papar, says “We need to stand together to fight for our land; our traditional lifestyles are strongly intertwined with nature.”

The printing of the 200 t-shirts available for this drive was made possible through the generous support of GlobalGiving donors.

Dusun mountain guides help a young injured climber
Dusun mountain guides help a young injured climber

Dusun communities living in the hilly district of Ranau bore the brunt of the earthquake, measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale, that struck the Malaysian State of Sabah early in the morning on June 5th. Local and international attention quickly focused on climbers at the peak of Mount Kinabalu, trapped due to the destroyed trail caused by the earthquake. With the experience of having scaled the mountain countless times, local mountain guides emerged as heroes, braving risky conditions to lead and assist scared and injured climbers back to safety. However, alongside tales of heroism came deep tragedy. Eighteen lives perished at the hands of the quake, four of whom were Dusun guides from the nearby villages of Kiau, Bundu Tuhan and Kundasang.

Robbi, Joseph, Valerian and Ricky are among many from the local community whose livelihoods depend on Mount Kinabalu and its surroundings. As families and friends continue to mourn the loss of their loved ones, their immediate future is dismal. Livelihoods of Dusun mountain guides and porters (there are 250 mountain guides and 50 porters registered under the Kinabalu Mountain Guides Association) were crushed as climbing activities were brought to a grinding halt. While preliminary announcements have indicated that the mountain will reopen in September, the absence of climbers for three months translates to an absence of income for the community.

To the Dusun families, the natural environment is intertwined with their culture and traditions. Many of them play active roles in preserving this heritage which includes the revered Mount Kinabalu, a place deemed sacred as it is believed to be the site where the deceased rest before making their way to Libabou, their eternal resting place. Faced with disaster, this community has risen above all expectations. Those on the risky pathways put their own safety aside for others. Those at the foothills banded together to source and prepare food during search and rescue efforts. 

Adding to the immediate and severe impacts of the earthquake are the landslides and mud floods following heavy downpours of rain in the following weeks, causing further damage to property and the unavailability of clean and treated water. In the three weeks since the earthquake, the Meteorological Department recorded one hundred aftershocks. Life is, in a word, unstable. 

Earthquake affected communities are now challenged with restoring their lives and carving out a living for themselves. We channelled a modest amount of funds to support initial search and rescue efforts immediately following the June 5th incidence. We now urge you to consider making a contribution to ease the hardship felt by these communities in the aftermath of the earthquake.

* Note: All donations made to this project during the month of July 2015 will be channelled to support grieving families, families of those dependent on Mount Kinabalu who have lost their source of income, and other affected families in the process of recovering from the devastating effects of the earthquake.

* Photos courtesy of Julia Chan.

Local guides instrumental in search and rescue.
Local guides instrumental in search and rescue.
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

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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
$9,640 raised of $10,000 goal
130 donations
$360 to go
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