Deep in the highlands of Northern Malaysian Borneo there are villages peacefully living on the same grounds their ancestors had been for at least 600 years. This region in the Crocker Range is called Ulu Papar, which literally translates to “up- (‘Papar’) river.” There are nine villages in Ulu Papar and about 2,000 Dusun natives call this majestic place home. Surrounded by the rainforests, the Dusun are living in total harmony with the land.
My first couple weeks in Borneo I had the opportunity to visit two of these jungle villages, Longkogugan & Buayan. To get to Longkogugan one must 4x muddy, steep mountain paths and ford waist deep, raging river crossings. The journey took a day’s worth of travel with breath-taking views and a level of ‘bad-ass’ that I never knew.
With this remoteness and inaccessibility to a town center comes other challenges met by the villagers. This includes selling & trading crops such as their cultivated rice and tobacco. The JKK of Longkogugan says the one thing he would like government assistance with is building a road. The village is otherwise self-sufficient- gathering edible plants such as tapioca, fern, & wild ginger, in addition to hunting wild boar, deer, and other bushmeat.
Electricity is the biggest recent game-changer in the villages. Micro-hydro systems are being built along established sites on the river with the help of NGO Tonibung and shared work amongst the villages. Micro-hydro uses the natural flow of water beginning at the intake where the water is diverted. The water is then piped down into a forebay where the water settles and particulates are removed. The water then passes through a closed pipe called the penstock which is connected to the turbine and provides the energy for the generator to produce electricity. While I was in the village I helped mix cement to build thrust blocks to help hold the pipe in place in cases of heavy rushes of water. This may sound like an easy task, however, standing on a very slippery, muddy edge of a steep bank and carrying heavy buckets of cement over rocks, roots, and logs takes very careful footing and strength! It is mind blowing to consider what sort of tenacity it took to carry the massive amounts of heavy piping up these sheer slopes. The task of hauling the pipes alone took approximately six months. Putting in micro-hydro systems in these remote, mountain villages is a huge undertaking. With the help of Tonibung, the villages are trained in operating and repairing the system and therefore completely self-sufficient with a proper amount of electricity for each village. Women and men spoke of a not to distant past where just a couple years ago they were still needing to light torches. A teacher discussed her observation that young students were even exceling in their school work because they had the capability to study after the sun set.
Both villages buzzed through the night. Homemade rice & tapioca wine flowed into our cups even into the wee hours of the morning. Music, dancing, and an acute joy for life permeated the mountain air. Tapas came out in the evening to help with the effects of alcohol. A gold microphone was passed around a circle to join in karaoke. Even the elders were dancing their traditional dances and singing along. I can’t remember the last time life felt so striking. Reality seemed almost weightless and surreal as the daily connections to nature flowed effortlessly. But life is not always met without challenges. Unfortunately, this isn’t true for anywhere. For we will always be faced with obstacles no matter how remote we are.
Kaiduan Dam is the name of the mega dam that Malaysia has in the works. The project will be built in Ulu Papar in one of the most beautiful, preserved areas of Sabah. The construction of Kaiduan Dam would mean that all nine of the villages would go under water and the 2,000 residents would lose their homes. Not only would a mega dam directly affect the people living on the land, it would also drastically alter the surrounding ecosystems. It is vital that all the native lands and remaining rainforest areas are protected. We were asked by one of the women in the village to help make this information go viral. So I ask you to please share what you've learned with your friends. By having the rest of the world tell the Malaysian government we do not approve we can help strengthen the voice of the people that will be affected and protect the most magical place I have ever seen.