Friday, February 18, 2011

On the evolving industry of ecotourism in Sarawak

Over the past few months in Sarawak, I've engaged in numerous conversations with ex-pats and tourists about Sarawak's many attractions, from the Mulu cave systems hidden deep in the earth, to the Kelabit highlands with its kampungs nested atop rugged Bornean mountain ranges. Finally, what I've discovered from these talks has melded with my direct observations, and begun to shape my view that Sarawak's kampung identity and ecotourism industry are changing (and converging) with the unceasing momentum of a monsoon shower.  There is a trend in Sarawak toward developing more ecotourism opportunities, with options like camping in national parks, or kampung homestays. These homestays are surging in popularity due to the idyllic appeal of spending time with the people "of the jungle" in their jungle (and the recognition that they might possess the deepest understanding of the rainforest's mysteries and wonder).
          Increasingly, some kampungs are trying to incorporate ecotourism into the fabric of their village's daily activities. On one hand it's great that communities can find ways of using what they already have to generate some revenue, meanwhile helping foreigners to become more aware of their lifeways and incredibly biodiverse environment. On the other hand, kampungs risk losing some of their identity trying to cater to the prototype tourist. Maybe they used to go hunting for wild boar in order to feed their families, but now there could be a concern that doing so will not provide enough food to supply their visitors. So maybe they start buying canned or otherwise preserved foods, and might give up on hunting and the long process involved in roasting the boar. Eventually this just becomes the norm and cooking a hearty meal from freshly caught boar becomes a thing of the past.Yes, I'm generalizing a bit, and yet these types of changes are becoming all too common, though sometimes not from their involvement in homestays, but instead from the mere pressures of an encroaching modernized world.
         These ethnic groups take great pride in their connection to the jungle, and the resulting knowledge they have of the jungle's many secrets and hidden gems. In my experience learning of the vast ethnobotanical knowledge these people possess, it has also come to my attention that the people are increasingly trying to create herbal gardens, consisting of their most commonly used plants, within their kampung. Actually I joined our TK group on a trip to the Penan kampung, Long Iman, in order to help the village set up their garden, which I want to note was their choice and we were doing our part to facilitate their efforts (It's important to make this distinction, since some might draw the wrong conclusions that government agencies are trying to pressure the communities to turn to herbal gardens, and this isn't true, as far as I know). Though part of the intention of this effort was to avoid dangerous and tedious treks in search of some of these plants, another aim of the kampung's was to attract more tourists visiting Mulu National Park to come to Long Iman for guided homestays. Though I definitely see the merits of such a garden in the scheme of things, I also got to thinking about the implications of this garden for the identity of the ethnic group and the kampung itself.
       Perhaps by cultivating these plants close to home, the people slowly lose a bit of their connection to the jungle by not having to maneuver through the rainforest in search of an essential herb. Moreover, they might feel like they have to modernize their kampung for tourists to be comfortable enough to visit.  This means even further loss of the original kampung's identity. And in the end of the day, this 'jungle bed and breakfast' model can actually put off some tourists, who want an 'authentic' kampung experience. I've heard this complaint of some tourists, that some kampung homestays are made for tourists and just feel very manufactured. What the non-touristy tourists want now is something spontaneous, to just randomly run into a kampung and have the community invite them for an intimate stay with them.
       But then again, the kampungs aren't there to fulfill some poetic tourist vision of the perfect jungle homestay. They are trying to make a revenue, so they can try to live, to survive, adapt, and even thrive in a changing landscape with the modern world knocking at their doorstep. Since now they have to find a way to pay taxes, and now their kids are growing up with the knowledge that other kids in more urban settings have ipods to listen to. And what parent doesn't want to give their children the best chance of living long and healthy lives (not via ipods, but other technology like water filters or even electricity). Moreover, if these people don't cultivate their most precious herbs, they might just lose them for good when the next logging road is made, or the next Ritz Carlton is built upstream.
         So I would say it is unfair how some tourists speak harshly of these homestays, as if these people have an obligation to retain their old way of life just to display to visitors like them. Their kampung is not an insect forever preserved in amber for the delights of tourists, but rather a living, breathing, growing animal, subject to the dynamic adaptations necessary to make it in a harsh variable environment. This means that sometimes cultural preservation takes a backseat to development. I also would hope kampungs find ways to show off their true selves and boast every aspect of their ethnic identities, even if it currently includes a morning episode of Spongebob Squarepant. Even if there is now a satellite dish around, it doesn't mean the character of the people has to change that much. That's what I want to be true, but then again, I grew up with DirectTV.

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