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Conserving the Kelabit heritage

 | July 24, 2011

Trekforce, a UK based organisation, is actively working on protecting and conserving the cultural sites of the Kelabit Highland communities.

KUCHING: Getting to Sarawak’s remotest region – the Kelabit Highlands – is no easy task. There are no boats and roads leading up to this vast plateau and if you miss the plane than it’s a two hour hike across the jungle until you reach a logging road and then hopefully catch a ride on a logging truck heading up.

The Kelabit Highlands is over 1,000 metres above sea level and lies between the Tama Abu Range and Apo Duat Range on the Sarawak-Kalimantan border.

Here too is where the mighty Baram, Limbang and Lawas rivers begin.

The region’s many valleys are peppered with cottage-like settlements often surroundeded by padi fields.

In fact Bario, which a major settlement in the Kelabit Highlands, is famed for its rice which is touted to be of ‘excellent quality’.

This remote region, which is home to the Orang Ulu communities, is also the project station of a UK-based environmental conservation and community development volunteer organisation.

Calling themselves Trekforce, the group is actively working in Bario, Pa’ Umor and Pa’Main areas in the interior Kelabit Highland region.

The group comprises young self-funded volunteers between 18 and 30 years who are mostly from the UK, Europe, Canada and the US.

They work on six-week long projects which are both mentally and physically challenging, deep in Sarawak’s rainforest.

Trekforce’s key aims are to help protect and conserve the tropical rainforest ecosystems in Sarawak and to help the local people with community development projects in remote rural areas.

Burial sites

According to the expedition leader and country co-ordinator David Osborne, 30, Trekforce has, so far, carried out six successful expeditions in Sarawak since 2009.

He said the group has been working closely with the Rurum Kelabit Sarawak Association (RKS) and the community of Pa’ Umor on an ambitious cultural site and rainforest protection project and a wide range of community development projects including teaching English at SK Bario and Pa’ Dalih.

Osborne said that in 2009 Trekforce began efforts to protect ancient Kelabit cultural sites such as stone megaliths, burial grounds and dragon burial jars in the jungles of the Kelabit Highlands.

The Trekforce teams, he said, trekked deep into the jungles surrounding Bario, located the sites with local guides and GPS, identified them before cutting 400-square-metre boundaries around each site, and marked them with barricade tapes.

“The boundaries highlight these areas as protected to prevent logging operations entering and destroying both the invaluable cultural sites and the surrounding rainforests.

“So far, 105 cultural sites have now been protected in this way.

“After all of the cultural sites in Bario, Pa’ Umor and Pa’ Main areas were marked and boundaries cut, the next phase of this long-term project began.

“This involved the development of a network of trails, bridges and shelters created to provide an infrastructure framework for sustainable eco-tourism in the area and the research of the cultural sites,” Osborne explained.

Jungle trails

He said besides creating a network of jungle trails connecting existing trails with many of the cultural sites, Trekforce also constructed numerous solid wooden and bamboo bridges across difficult river passes.

“With these eco-tourism infrastructure now in place, more tourists, trekkers, nature-lovers, scientists and the local people will be encouraged to visit the area and develop an appreciation for the human history, values and beauty of the rainforest environment and wildlife.

“And this, in turn, would benefit the communities of Pa’ Umor and Bario through increased eco-tourism to provide employment for local jungle guides and more business for the many homestays in the area,” he said.

Explaining further Osborne added that “the protection of the rainforest environment and the diverse vegetation, insects, birds and animal wildlife within them is one of the important environmental challenges of our generation.”

“Borneo has some of the most pristine and biologically diverse rainforests on Earth, but their existence is severely threatened by the obvious and immediate expansion of logging and palm oil operations.

“Many indigenous groups in Sarawak have similar cultural sites, not to mention outstanding areas of beautiful rainforest – and I hope the kind of multi-level project achieved in the Bario area could form a part of a new strategy for indigenous groups all over Borneo to protect and preserve their native lands, cultural heritage, rainforest areas and, indeed, generate income and employment through this kind of low impact sustainable development,” he told local daily, the Borneo Post recently.

Further information on Trekforce can be found on their website www.trekforce.org.uk

[Photos from the Internet]


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