29 October 2003

SGP logoHashim is a Semelai, one of the original ethnicities of the Malay Peninsula, who now number a mere 12,000. About 2,000 Semelai live around Tasek Bera, and for centuries they have relied on the wetlands and forest for their livelihoods. But in 1994, Tasek Bera was declared a Ramsar site - a wetland of international importance - and the government has since banned activities such as commercial hunting and fishing and forest clearing, which leaves the Semelai with fewer options for earning money.

Wetlands International Malaysia is consequently promoting ecotourism as an economic alternative for the Semelai of Tasek Bera, nearly half of whom live below the national poverty line. With funds from the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP), which is implemented by the UNDP, Wetlands International has helped the Semelai develop a basic tourism infrastructure, trained them in guiding and other useful skills, and assisted them in forming a community organization to manage tourism: The Semelai Association for Boating and Tourism (SABOT).

Hashim, the vice-chairman of SABOT, has been involved in the ecotourism project since its inception. "I have high hopes that tourism could become a major source of income," he said.

Currently, the main economic activity in the five Semelai villages of Tasek Bera is tapping rubber trees, which were introduced to the area in the 1960s. The Semelai also practice some subsistence agriculture, and harvest rattan, tree resins and other forest products. Some men work on the oil palm plantations that surround Tasek Bera - which has become an island of wilderness in an oil-palm sea - while others have moved to urban areas for employment. Though few tourists currently visit Tasek Bera, which means guiding is only an occasional activity, Hashim noted that the numbers are increasing.

Sundari Ramakrishna, Director of Wetlands International Malaysia, said her organization intends to increase its marketing efforts, in hopes of attracting more visitors. She explained that they have produced a website, posters and other materials about Tasek Bera, and have helped the Semelai improve the signage on the route to their community.

There are plenty of reasons for people to visit Tasek Bera, which is Malaysia's largest natural wetland and only Ramsar site. Covering more than 3,000 hectares, the protected area comprises narrow rivers, open swamps dominated by giant pandanus plants, and dense tropical forests. The local flora includes rare orchids, massive ficus trees, carnivorous pitcher plants and the aquatic purple water trumpet, a species found only in Tasek Bera. The area's fauna is even more diverse, ranging from the reticulated python - the world's longest snake - to the tiny mouse deer, and including endangered species such as the sun bear, Asian elephant and Malayan false gharial crocodile.

For decades, the Semelei hunted the python and gharial for their skins, and as recently as the early 1990s, they caught and sold small arrowhana fish for the aquarium trade. Since Tasek Bera's designation as a Ramsar site, the tropical fish trade has been prohibited, though the Semelai are still allowed to fish and hunt for their own consumption. Mat Nor, the local headman, said he agrees with most of the restrictions, noting that the arrowhana was practically hunted to extinction in the area.

Atim Padod, Chariman of SABOT, said there was more wildlife in Tasek Bera when he was young. He described walking along the waterfront and watching crocodiles dive into the water. "Now you're lucky if you see one," he noted.

Padod said he thinks his neighbors are exploiting the forest and wetlands less since the ecotourism project began, in 2000. People in Tasek Bera are coming to realize that they may be able to make more money showing the area's flora and fauna to tourists than they ever did from hunting and other extractive activities.

In addition to offering boat trips on the wetlands, SABOT has several jungle camps where visitors can spend nights. They also offer guided hikes through the rain forest that range from a two-hour medicinal plant trail to full-day treks. But for most visitors, Semelai culture is as much of an attraction as Tasek Bera's flora and fauna. SABOT's guides consequently complement their wetland tours with demonstrations of traditional farming and hunting techniques, folk music, and information about medicinal plants. There has also been a resurgence in the production of Semelai handicrafts, which are sold out of SABOT's headquarters.

"Tourism has had good effects," noted Atim. "Hopefully it will bring more monetary gains in the future."

Sundari Ramakrishna explained that the ecotourism project, which has built upon previous work financed by the Danish government, has concentrated on helping the Semelai create infrastructure, such as the rustic shelters of the jungle camps, and improving their ability to accommodate visitors and manage the business end of tourism. Wetlands International has provided technical assistance to SABOT's members ranging from instruction in natural history to courses in English, bookkeeping and basic organizational skills. Wetlands International has helped SABOT become legally registered and has encouraged its elected leaders to attend meetings of the government committee responsible for the wetlands. She said her hope is that the Semelai will eventually co-manage Tasek Bera with the government.

"SABOT is growing," Sundari said, adding that the association now has about 70 members. She explained that each member has to pay annual dues, as well as 10 percent of everything they earn guiding, transporting, or accommodating tourists. This provides the association with an operating budget, and will ensure its sustainability long after the project is over.

In addition to improving the organizational capacity of the Semelai, the project has benefited from contributions by various state and private institutions. The Department of Indigenous Affairs has loaned SABOT a building for its headquarters. New Zealand's High Commissioner donated money to improve handicraft production, and Ford Motor Company has funded a project to document traditional Semelai knowledge, which will result in a booklet that SABOT can sell to tourists. Wetlands International has also coordinated the participation of various volunteers, both Malaysian and foreign, who have added their skills to the project.

One of those volunteers is Ene Anuar, a lawyer from Kuala Lumpur who first arrived in Tasek Bera as a tourist, but has since returned regularly to teach the Semelai English and help them in other areas. She said that she was quickly impressed by how friendly the Semelai are, and explained that even though she has been on the wetlands many times, she still looks forward to any trip that involves a boat ride.

"I could never forget this place," she smiled. "I hope that they are able to take care of it, to manage it properly."

Article by: David Dudenhoefer