Not all people believe the cost of modernity has to come at the price of the natural splendor of Borneo. Maria Amit of Sukau River Homestay is one such person.
Maria was our awesome host. The eldest daughter in a family of nine, she grew up with her siblings on the Kinabatangan River. It is a small community consisting of 48 villages. They call themselves the Orang Sungai (River people). When she finished grade school her father insisted she continue her studies in a Catholic school. He boated her down the Kinabatangan River to the Sulu Sea and then up to Sandakan. Because the trip was seven hours long, she had to live at a hostel there from January to October for four years to finish her secondary school studies. She worked for a tour company in Sandakan for a few years, then returned to her village and worked as a tour guide for bit. Following the death of her older brother she moved back home to care for her mom.
She married and opened a home stay as a way to support her family and younger siblings.
She is bubbly, positive, devout in her Muslim beliefs, and firmly committed to the environmental improvement of her local homeland. I asked her about the changes she has seen in her lifetime. “I have seen the forest disappear and change into plantations, I have seen roads connect our village to Sandakan, bringing many modern conveniences such as running water and electricity within the last five years.”
“The wildlife poaching is a big problem. The wildlife department of Sabah has make our people wardens for this area. When we see poaching we are obligated to confiscate. We are supposed to capture people too, but I take a different approach. You have to understand why they are doing it. They say monkeys are all around. Birds are all around. This means they are taking their land for granted and I explain to them. Don’t you see all the people coming from all over the world to see what we have here. That shows that we have a special place. The wildlife helps make it special.”
She helps rescue stray cats and dogs and turns them into a local vet. “They are really not good for the local wildlife, but that is not their fault. Somebody may want them.”
She believes in educating. She partners with a variety of NGOs. One in particular has her volunteering her time in local schools to teach trash awareness and recycling to the youth of her village. “They don’t know. No one teaches recycling. A truck does come nearby every once in a while to collect plastics. But the young people must know that the river is our life.”
She also educates herself. She read and saw an artificial box made for nesting horn bills on the river made by Ravinder Kaur. She read about that success and said to herself: “My husband is a good climber, we can make our own box. We tried a couple of different models. We took pictures of the birds and finally found a design that the horn bill liked. Our first nest couple we named Matic and Auto (Automatic). Their fledgling fell out of the nest and we had to care for it until it could fly itself. Every year we have four horn bills visit our box.” News has reported on her successes. (Click Here). Her work has created a partnership with 1stopBorneoWildlife. In our last morning with her, she took us to the Hornbill Bird Box build by professionals on the river. As we talked, a male hornbill flew up to feed the nesting female in side. “Oh this is so special, let’s watch.” We took dozens of pictures, watching the male coughing up fruit and feeding it to his spouse inside. Kylie and Alyssa looked on with the same amazement we had. In the end we looked back at Maria, and she had been filming it. “Five minutes and thirty-seven seconds. It must have been feeding it fruits and figs. If it was a snail or a worm, it would have delivered it right away and not coughed it up. I have to send this footage to my friend at 1stopBorneoWildlife so they can tabulate the statistics.” Ever the citizen scientist. Savoring the moment and collecting data for the greater good.
One of the reasons we chose to stay with Maria was her work with reforestation. “Twelve years ago I read about a man from India who planted many trees and changed a whole eco system, and I though I could plant trees.” (She’s referring to Jadev Payeng). She has been planting trees off and on since then. She let us join in her work. We motored down the river with six trees to plant. “Today we want to plant Laran, Rambutan, and Dillenia trees. We need a mix of fruit trees to attract the monkeys and tall trees for support their movement. In this area we have maybe 2-3 acre plot. There are no trees here. The arboreal animals cannot pass. So they do not.” In seeing the monkeys go from tree to tree in the past few days, we started to see the importance of trees on this corridor. She is not alone. Villages up and down the Kinabatangan River are reforesting sections, relinking the forests and enlarging the habitats of many of the critically endangered animals.
Before planting, Maria and her husband Raman treated us to tea and curried potatoes along the side of the river. “We have to come here every few weeks to chop down the grass to give the new trees a chance to grow. Look at all this grass. This is two weeks.” We asked her how she got the land to plant. “I partner with PONGO Alliance. The big plantations along the river partner with them too. We ask if we can plant and they say ok. I am not mad at the plantations. I understand the bring a lot of money into our communities. However, we need to work together to find a solution that works for us, the animals, and them.” She also works with KOCP (Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project) and APE Encounter.
We finished our tea, and scrambled off the boat up to a small terrace of land. Perhaps 40 meters wide, and 200 meters deep. We could see the palm plantations in the distance. Raman used a wedge to dig the holes and we each removed our plastic and planted some trees to help save a rainforest.
Upon getting back in the boat Kylie said: “It felt really good to plant trees Daddy. When I grow up I want to do what Maria does.”
I asked Maria how she knows that her work is making progress. To answer, she showed us a patch she planted ten years ago. “We have put cameras up and have seen elephants, and cats, and monkeys go through an area that they previous would not go through. The animals are returning!” Also, in talking with her, it became apparent that many villagers are starting the same approach. When Sharleen did her research on where to stay, there were a variety of villages that offered similar experiences. “Portions of the money you pay for the home stay goes to a nursery in the village. This also helps employ my people.”
“Our big challenge now is they may put a bridge across the river right down there. If they do it will severely impact elephant movement. I’m working with some other NGOs about it. We are so worried.”
She had dozens of projects in the works and still had energy to run a homestay and make time to talk to each of us.
We told Maria about her affect on Kylie and how inspiring we found her. “Thank you, but I don’t think I’m that special. I’m just a housewife.”
Heroes take many forms, and in Sukau, they look like Maria.
Sabah Wildlife Department
The Sabah Wildlife department has put numerous measures into place that assist the wildlife of this region. It used to be that the tree growth in the narrow parts of the river allowed Orangutans to cross the river. However due to logging and plantations ,fewer of those cross points exists. Consequently, they have built numerous bridges for the Orangutan to cross (as it can’t swim like the proboscis monkey).
We saw numerous bridges on both the Menanggui and Resang tributaries. Shah, Maria’s brother and our river guide, pointed out that other animals benefit from the bridges.
Aside from deputizing the people of Sukau to deter and confiscate wildlife trade contraband, they have stationed a ranger by some local caves to prevent swallow nest poaching. Also they have instituted a swallow nest management plan for the nearby Gomantong caves. (Click Here)
Several enterprising individuals have setup cement caves on their property and blast swallow call recordings all the time to encourage swallows to build their nest in the man made caves so it is easy to harvest. It is also a way of minimizing the impact on
Maria also told us that many local farmers are moving to grow durian and other fruits as the palm oil supply has pushed down prices, and other crops are more profitable.
There were more and more community efforts to align their modernity with sustainable practices. It also impressed me that such a high concentration of people took their tourism dollars and reinvested it in such a way that benefited the community and natural surroundings.
The influx of tourist money also helps. At any given time on the river we would see eight to ten boats full of tourists on river safaris. We saw at least ten eco-lodges along the river as well. This provides alternative income to people that focuses on preservation.