Help Communities in Borneo Protect their Heritage

by Global Diversity Foundation
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 (

The design of the Centre
The design of the Centre

Over the past few months, emotions have been running high among the Ulu Papar community as news of plans to build the Kaiduan Dam once again reared its ugly head. For those new to the scene, the proposed project, as outlined in earlier terms, severely threatens several of the Ulu Papar villages by essentially putting them under water. Should the plans proceed, the community would be forced to move. In 2009, the people of Ulu Papar united in a fierce fight to voice their opposition to the project, stating that no amount of compensation would make up for the loss of their homes and ancestral lands should their villages end up submerged.

Their fighting spirit clearly has not faded. The community, once again, is proving that they are up for the challenge to protect their homeland. Through the Task Force Against Kaiduan Dam, their protests are widely witnessed, both through physical presence (community members blocking access to their villages after hearing of plans by project consultants to survey the area) and online (actively creating awareness through the Save Ulu Papar Facebook page).

It is with this at the top of our mind that we hope the Bio-cultural Heritage Centre in Buayan, a communally owned and managed resource centre, will serve its original plans, as a:

  1. Focal point for community-driven activities to plan and manage access and use of resources needed for daily subsistence, such as medicinal plants, food plants, hunted animals, freshwater resources, construction and craft materials;
  2. Training base for community environmental education and outreach activities to all Ulu Papar villages to enhance community capacity to protect the ecological integrity of the Ulu Papar water catchment area;
  3. Place to foster transparent and accountable community-driven operations to build community capacity in resource use planning and management that enables the sourcing of future funding opportunities; and
  4. Headquarters to strengthen local community capacity to meaningfully and effectively engage in decision-making, management and policy on land use planning in the Ulu Papar area, including areas designated as community use, buffer and transitional zones to the Crocker Range Park and the Crocker Range Biosphere Reserve.

What does this mean, exactly?

Putting it simply, this means the Ulu Papar community can use the Centre to promote the biocultural significance of Ulu Papar. Research results obtained through collaborative initiatives between the community and both government and non-government agencies clearly define the inextricable links the Ulu Papar community have with their environment. Links that define their culture and traditions; links that should never be broken.

Progress, to date.

The construction of the community centre has progressed well over the past month, heightened by the arrival of a group of energetic young Malaysian volunteers earlier this month (read Tom’s latest blog on Buayan Work Week). Work on site continues.

As part of the outreach microprojects developed earlier, community researchers are currently converting historical stories told by Ulu Papar’s elders into exhibition materials that will feature prominently at the Centre.

Descriptions of Photos

The design of the Centre: Exhibition, performance and meeting spaces are available to carry out outreach programmes. 

The 3D model of Ulu Papar: Created through community participatory research techniques, the 3D model of Ulu Papar shows the location of sacred and other important sites in Ulu Papar. 

The Gayatas Stone in Kalangaan Village is derived from a legendary female warrior during long ago wars. The stone is protected by the Ulu Papar people due to its cultural and historical significance.

The 3D model of Ulu Papar
The 3D model of Ulu Papar
The Gayatas Stone in Kalangaan Village
The Gayatas Stone in Kalangaan Village


Treating bamboo
Treating bamboo

Last month, I had a wonderful opportunity to spend a few days in the beautiful, remote village of Buayan. I set off on the 2-hour road trip with Ching, an Arkitrek volunteer, both of us putting our trust in James, who skilfully manoeuvred his 4WD along the muddy, gravel road, and landed us safely in Buayan. With the back of the car packed with building supplies, we were greeted by Tom, who continued on in Buayan even after the departure of the rest of his team of Arkitrekkers to push for the completion of the community bio-cultural centre the team co-designed and built with the community.

I pitched in to help. It was my first experience in ‘construction’, and I have to say that I have a renewed appreciation and admiration for the Ulu Papar community and the group of Arkitrekkers who have worked so hard to get the Centre to where it is today. I was completely exhausted at the end of each day from the physical effort it took to paint timber frames and cut bamboo; I cannot even begin to imagine carrying 12-foot long bamboo the half-mile from the river!

While basic creature comforts are all available in Buayan (including satellite dishes marking the existence of cable TV in some of the houses), one quickly gets used to the Buayan way of life, a life independent of much of the modern technology we are all so accustomed to. It is a life that puts relationships with family and friends first and foremost; a life that depends on the rich resources of the area to stay vital.

Communication with the outside world is possible via mobile phones, but only if one stands at specific ‘spots’ and holds very still so that the connection does not get cut off. My addiction to being glued to a smartphone was replaced by total serenity during my time in Buayan.

The Buayan lifestyle, and that of those living in the other villages that make up Ulu Papar, is one that many will never experience, even those of us living within the boundaries of Borneo. As I listened to the passionate words of my host mother, Angela, describing her love for Buayan, I deeply understood the implacable objections that the Ulu Papar community have towards the planned development of the Kaiduan Dam. The proposed megadam would flood and displace most Ulu Papar residents, unmaking communities whose lifestyles and traditions are completely meshed with the place they have called home for so long.

Descriptions of photos

Treating bamboo: Treating the bamboo that was cut and carried from the riverside by the community. Tom and Ching fill the bamboo with Timbor to prevent the bamboo from rotting. 

The roof goes up: Tom works with Alex, a skilled roofer from Buayan, to set the sustainable roofing materials (onduline) in place.

Traditional cooking hearth: Our host mother Angela’s kitchen; using firewood to boil water. (Photo by Ching)

Local vegetables: The vegetables prepared during our stay were either grown in the garden, or harvested from the forest nearby. (Photo by Ching)

The Crocker Range: The scenic view of the Crocker Range during our journey to Buayan. (Photo taken by Ching)

Treating bamboo
Treating bamboo
The roof goes up
The roof goes up
Traditional cooking hearth
Traditional cooking hearth
Local vegetables
Local vegetables
The Crocker Range
The Crocker Range


View of the Crocker Range, Sabah
View of the Crocker Range, Sabah

* information taken from the Project Proposal on Community Biocultural Heritage Centre: in support of sustainable livelihoods in Kg. Buayan, Crocker Range, Sabah (prepared by Agnes Lee Agama)

The construction of a new building in Buayan village is now underway. While physical work began only last month, the concept of this building, what will soon be the Community Biocultural Heritage Centre, has been long in the making.

In 2004, the community of Ulu Papar started working with a group of partners in a project to document key ethnobiological resources important for their livelihoods and how these resources are used, managed and protected. Since then, through several projects and a series of activities – fieldwork, workshops, community exchanges, training courses, expeditions and travelling roadshows – community researchers have been trained to work with their community to map key resource areas and mark them on 3D models, conduct livelihoods assessments, record oral histories, collect botanical specimens of useful plants, and produce a series of participatory videos that share the concerns of their community. These collaborative initiatives, which carried on for 8 years, have been critical in promoting the role of the community in the conservation and management of Ulu Papar. The community thus launched a process to establish Ulu Papar as a Biocultural Heritage Site for Sabah, advocating for the long-term protection of the Ulu Papar landscape and the indigenous people who live there.

The Community Biocultural Heritage Centre, its first stage targeted for completion by the end of this month, will enable the community to establish Buayan as a hub for community-based conservation and environmental education for the people of Ulu Papar as well as for visiting groups such as students, field researchers, and tourists. Its design stemmed from the concept developed through earlier consultations with the community. Arkitrek, a local social enterprise focused on sustainable design, leads the project through its design and construction stages. The community has participated in different stages of its implementation since then, through initial gatherings with representatives from Arkitrek to discuss plans, roles and responsibilities, and the approval of the building design. Community members have also participated in the preparation of woven bamboo panels that will be used as building components, and the collection of natural resources that serve as raw materials for the building.

We wish to thank GlobalGiving donors who have contributed to the ‘Help Communities in Borneo Protect Their Heritage’ campaign facilitated by the Global Diversity Foundation, as funds have provided the means for community members to expend their expertise and time towards the project. This ties in with current efforts to revive and promote traditional handicraft among the Ulu Papar community as a potential alternative livelihood, and to record and showcase oral histories of the community.

Generating concept ideas during
Generating concept ideas during 'what if' workshop
Concept drawing
Concept drawing
Bamboo harvesting
Bamboo harvesting
Bamboo weaving workshop
Bamboo weaving workshop



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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
$9,665 raised of $10,000 goal
131 donations
$335 to go
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