Questioning community conservation
Q: In almost 20 years of working in that area of Borneo, what are the key lessons you have learnt about what it takes to develop successful conservation programmes?
I have definitely become much more humble in those 20 years! It’s really difficult to say. Up until last year, for example, I could have given a lecture on community conservation and how successful it is. But last year we had a huge issue with a highway and a bridge that was going to be built through the sanctuary (Sukau bridge project), which would have fragmented the whole region completely. The communities were completely in support of that bridge, because they believed that it would bring prosperity and factories and it really showed that most of them didn’t necessarily care that much about conservation. If you asked them, they really enjoy seeing the wildlife, but they would rather have a big factory where their children can work, and the environmental issues that would result from that didn’t necessarily come into their thinking.
But of course this is a universal problem. The communities in this area aren’t allowed to lead the traditional life they used to have, relying on natural resources. Whatever forest remains is protected so they’re not allowed to take trees to build houses or to hunt, so they’ve been deprived of their traditional life and there’s no other source of income at the moment.
Q: Does that sometimes make you, as a conservationist, question the purpose of what you are doing and how successful you can be?
Of course! For all this time we’ve worked a lot with communities – we’ve developed model tourism iniatives, we have an amazing homestay programme in one village and another village nearby has a really successful homestay programme as well. We’ve worked with fishermen and these projects were really successful and to a certain extent, perhaps, we thought we had done our part for the ‘alternative economy’. We have created models, they just need to be replicated, so if you’d interviewed me two years ago, I would have bragged about it and told you very honestly that it was working, but in fact the majority of people in the communities do not benefit directly from conservation.
Q: Was it just the issue of the bridge that brought that out, or did you have an idea of that before?
The community still has a very strong attachment to their natural heritage, they love animals and it would really hurt them to lose them, but if they are given the choice, like the bridge, and believe that something will bring them prosperity… I think that was the moment it really hit home. But I think there needs to be more awareness about the benefits they already have from conservation, the water, the limitation of floods – this area is a flood plain – and all the ecological services they might lose if the remaining forest goes. And I am hopeful that now the Sabah government, who had a very difficult political choice, will bring in new initiatives to develop more tourism and so on.
Q: Was the community very disappointed generally about the decision not to go ahead with the bridge?
There are a few very vocal people, politicians in the area, they make a lot of noise, so it’s difficult to know how much those ideas are representative. But it’s a fact, there aren’t enough benefits to the community – of course, people don’t always take the initiative themselves, but you cannot have thousands of B & Bs and homestays! In these areas you need people getting organised to make boat services or bus charters if they want to promote tourism and there’s a lot of organisation and leadership needed which is just not there. It’s not only the role of conservation NGOs to do these things, but it is really important to do what we can. For me it really opened my eyes…