Until quite recently, the good people working in the environmental conservation movement tended to treat the conservation of natural resources as an entirely different matter from the well-being of the communities who lived off those resources.

Conservationists would successfully lobby governments to declare an area as “protected,” following which the communities indigenous to that area were prohibited from harvesting anything, plant or animal, from within its boundaries.

Unsurprisingly, the indigenous inhabitants were little inclined to obey the new regime. As far as they were concerned, the problem was not one of their making.

Hold on, though: it’s one thing to take what you need and no more, but what about the poaching of critically endangered species by the communities that live within these reserves?

Poaching only exists because there is a market for the rare and valuable in the wealthy and developed segments of society. Moreover, it is but one factor, and a relatively minor one, that contributes to the endangerment of species. A much more significant factor is unchecked economic development: the highways, the carbon emissions, the mines that feed our iPhone batteries, and so on. In other words, all things that we in the modern world have created.

In fact, Southeast Asia’s forest-dwelling tribes have a long history of harvesting forest produce to trade with the outside world (see, for example, the case of the Bataks and the camphor trade in Indonesia). Contrary to the popular conception of indigenous people as pre-economic, it’s likely they could teach us a thing or two about sustainable economic development.

Still, it’s easier to muster outrage over the image of a darker hued Other standing unrepentant by the carcass of a noble animal, rather than accept any collective responsibility in the situation. They are not the problem; we are.Our tendency to overlook the role of humans within an ecosystem arises from our confusion as to whether we are a part of nature or apart from it.

Policy-making institutions, including the ones that regulate nature reserves, are typically located in urban centres, and for the policy wonks ensconced within their concrete walls, nature is something “out there,” over which we rule and to which we owe a fiduciary responsibility.

By contrast, indigenous communities that actually live within the borders of a protected reserve are more likely to see humans as one among the many species within an ecosystem, who must thus be accounted for when considering the overall health of that ecosystem.

Understanding this interconnectedness is key to sustainability. In fact, recent studies show that lands managed by indigenous communities have equivalent or higher biodiversity than lands managed through more conventional means.

It turns out that despite a lack of outward indicators of “development,” indigenous people do tend to act in their rational self-interest. But keep in mind that one man’s utility function is different from another’s: and so, every individual’s decision calculus is unique, based on a unique set of circumstances and perspectives.

No surprise then, that indigenous practices once scoffed at as taboos often turn out to have sound conservation reasoning underlying them.

For example, sacred groves, which house shrines to forest spirits and from which it is forbidden to harvest anything, actually serve as a repository of forest biodiversity, which comes in handy when restoring other degraded areas of the forest.

Menstrual taboos, which force women indoors during their period, ensure that women, the primary harvesters of firewood from the forest, give that same forest a chance to recover from their extractive activity.

This is not to argue that all indigenous practices make sense at all times: only that they must have made sense at the time of their adoption, and it is worthwhile to investigate that original rationale when considering their continuing value to us in the modern world.

And now to give the rest of us some credit. Facing our new reality of more frequent and extreme climate events, we too are coming to realize that we don’t really exist apart from nature after all.

We are now at an inflection point. Do we continue to embrace an economic growth mindset without a real understanding of its larger impact within the ecosystem that is our earth? Or do we declare some sort of moratorium until we figure out our role within that ecosystem?Consider the possibility that indigenous communities have grappled with this conundrum earlier than the rest of us. Let us cease thinking of them as people who have been passively left behind. Rather, they have made an active choice to limit their engagement with technology (be it ploughs or cellphones) to the extent that it serves their objectives and not the other way round.

Let us cease thinking of them as the people who never move. (We know this to be untrue. All indigenous groups have migrated at some point in their history. And even today, following serious disagreements, family members frequently splinter off and set up a separate household at a small distance from their original household.) Rather, their sense of community with family and environment plays a stronger role in their decision calculus.

Let us consider that those who have made choices different to our own may have good ideas too.

Let us not be like the Vikings described by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, who came to a tragic end in Greenland simply because they refused to entertain the idea that the indigenous Inuit had figured out how to flourish in such a harsh environment.

And that brings us to the Royal Belum Initiative.

The Royal Belum State Park is the northernmost point of the Central Forest Spine (CFS) that runs down the Malaysian peninsula. The CFS functions as an alternative super highway for a range of migratory species. Today, the Park is on Malaysia’s border with Thailand. Historically, however, the region has been passed back and forth between warring Thai-Buddhist and Malay-Muslim kingdoms.

During British colonial rule, much of the forested land here was turned over to the lucrative rubber plantation economy. Harsh conditions for migrant workers on the rubber plantations meant the workers were predisposed to be sympathetic to the communist movement that was then spreading through Southeast Asia.

Alarmed at the prospect of communism spreading to the rest of the peninsula, the government of Malaysia deliberately flooded large areas of this northernmost region, trapping within its confines communists, tigers and other migratory species.

Today, it’s impossible to get around the park without a motor boat. The gnarled fingers of drowned rubber trees beckon to the heavens from their watery graves. Once, the heavens responded by hurling down the fiery carcass of a small plane. The wreckage of that plane crash has never been cleared away.

Bearing witness to the turbulent events that have shaped this landscape are the Jahai Orang Asli, an indigenous community. The silent, beating heart of the forest, they are increasingly powerless against the penetrative modern state.

At any rate, in the era of social media, what difference do physical pathways or the lack thereof make anymore? Communism is dead, the soil is exhausted, so why not restore the region to its pristine pre-plantation ecology?

The ecological restoration of the region has multiple benefits: first, it will connect the region to the Central Forest Spine once more, thus increasing the habitat for the endangered Malayan tiger; second, it will increase biodiversity and improve the potential to provide ecosystem services; and third, by implementing payment for ecosystem schemes, the state can integrate indigenous communities into the modern economy with relative ease.

I could also tell you this story another way.

Man lives in paradise, man falls from paradise, man spends the rest of his time trying to find someone who can deliver him back to paradise, be it messiahs, Greta Thunberg or magical indigenous folk.

Not all would-be deliverers are delighted about the role we ask them to play. The Jahai Orang Asli, for example, have a fraught relationship with the modern state, one marred by a series of misunderstandings and misguided, if well-meaning, interventions.

The first challenge with the Royal Belum Initiative was to provide the Jahai with appropriate incentives for their participation.


A consortium comprising representatives from the Royal Belum State Park managing entity, the Perak State Parks Corporation, one of the funding agencies, The Habitat Foundation, and the non-governmental organization running the restoration project, the Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC), along with The Tropicalist, drive north to the Royal Belum Park to meet with the headmen of the Jahai villages.

The purpose of the meeting is to convince the headmen that getting involved in ecological restoration will be a worthwhile investment of their time and effort.

This requires that any initiative put before them must not only be of benefit to the environment but also provide lasting benefit to the Jahai community itself.

The plan presented to the headmen involves training participating Jahai households in the horticultural skills that will equip them to set up nurseries that successfully cultivate tree species (primarily dipetrocarps) unique to the Royal Belum Park, effectively creating a Noah’s Ark for this region. As an added bonus, these horticultural skills will also be marketable outside the context of this initiative.

The Perak State Parks Corporation will then purchase the saplings from the nurseries, at a rate of around 5 MYR (roughly 1 USD) per sapling. If all goes according to plan, TRCRC estimates that each participating household can sell one thousand saplings a year.

In the initial period, initiative will be lucky to secure the participation of at least one village or kampung. Over the longer term, however, it is targeting the participation of forty households.

The issue is that it will be a long time before participants see the fruit, literally and metaphorically, of their endeavours. There is no immediate financial windfall to be had. To get from sapling to tree is a long and arduous process, with no guarantee of success.

Therefore, it is important to get the right combination of species for cultivation: some fastgrowing, others less so, but perhaps of greater economic value. (Did Noah think of such things, I wonder?)

The other issue is one of costs and funding. Free markets still grapple with the concept of payment for ecosystem services.

Roughly speaking, it costs RM10,000/per hectare to restore low, medium and high density forests to a pristine state over a period of ten years. Planting requires greater upfront funding in the first few years, and only involve monitoring and reporting costs in the final years of the project.

A single hectare thus replanted can sequesters 40 tonnes of carbon over the same period, which is the equivalent of taking thirty-one cars off the road for one year. Of course, carbon sequestration continues well beyond the ten-year period.

The Tropicalist hopes to help raise funding for this project through the sale of Three Friends of Borne stationery. Each set will sponsor the purchase of eight dipterocarp saplings, and assuming at least one of these eight reaches maturity, results in the sequestration of 55 kg of carbon over thirty years, which is the equivalent of driving an average passenger car for 800km.

LATE JULY 2019  Success! Well, a small victory at least. Three villages have agreed to participate in the pilot nursery project.

AUGUST 2nd, 2019  In the midst of celebrations to commemorate World Tiger Day, the team announces the launch of the Royal Belum Initiative. After all, restoration of the Royal Belum State Park is restoration of precious tiger habitat.

To Be Continued…

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