Supporting the Indiginous Penan people of Malaysian Borneo

Adventure Alternative has spent recent years working to support the indigenous Penan people who live in the rainforests of the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo.

A number of villages are represented as a whole, by a central community co-operative, the total number of people represented is estimated at approximately 1000 and will grow as the program slowly expands. The initiative involves providing a sustained source of income for the Penan that compliments their traditional way of life and actively incentivises protection of the natural environment and of their cultural heritage. This income is provided firstly through sensitive and controlled access by small groups of carefully selected paying expedition groups and secondly through funded direct payment of local people for activities associated with active reforestation measures.

Through careful planning, selection and briefing of the expedition groups, the initiative also seeks to instil and reinforce, within the Penan people, that their efforts to maintain their land and culture are of international relevance and importance. This includes aspects in support of the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Purpose of the project

The objective of the initiative is to support the Penan tribe in achieving a long term situation where their traditional way of life is allowed to continue in a sustainable and viable way for ongoing generations. At present, their native lands continue to be under considerable pressure by commercial and agricultural activities in the jungle, on their traditional ancestral lands.

Tree planting with a vistor

Tree planting with a vistor

These commercial and environmental pressures have considerable negative effects on their ability to sustain their lifestyle and effectively threatens their future existence as a self-sufficient native population.

These effects include loss of sufficient forest-area to allow sustainable hunting ground for provision of food and for sustainable provision of traditional building materials. The reduction in forest from vast areas of ancient primary forest to secondary forest and plantation zoning has also led to difficulties in locating specific flora for traditional medicinal purposes, as well as affecting basic needs such as clean drinking water. These pressures in turn lead to the potential loss of native skills and knowledge, as these methods become less and less possible or practical to practice.  This represents a considerable loss to both the native Penan culture and also to the wider international knowledge of the forests.

The subtle change from internal self-sufficiency to cash-economy also means that communities are forced to seek paid employment. In a region where the biggest local employers are often those applying pressure to the maintenance of the native forest, this has many additional effects. For example, where local people take employment with a logging company, this can be interpreted as implying tacit consent to logging in their home area. In a region where land-ownership law and administration is very indistinct, this can have devastating results and lead to a continued cycle of destruction.

From the brief details above it can be seen how the value of a carefully administered route to monetary income for the native people can be of huge value. One of the main objectives of the initiative is to provide an alternative source of income over low paid migratory jobs in the city, or closer to the villages in logging camps. The villages now have their own community elected body called the Koperasi Pelancongan Penan Selungo (KOPPES) cooperative. It was the villages themselves that originally asked for help as they realised the potential of community adventure tourism but had no knowledge of how to facilitate this.

The second way that monetary income is provided is by helping to fund a tree nursery and re-forestation project. This project pays local people for collecting seeds, nurturing the saplings in a nursery and then re-planting the saplings in de-forested areas. This has the multiple effect of providing monetary income, providing alternative to employment with commercial companies, nurturing natural knowledge and connection with the forest and of course actively re-planting areas of forest that had previously been damaged or destroyed.

Tree Nursery Full

Tree Nursery

The monetary income for the project is provided through a number of channels: The trip costs of the expedition are paid by participants, some of which goes to local guides, businesses and hosts of home-stays. The expedition members are set a fundraising target which is administered through our partner NGO. Additionally, we now operate our own carbon offset initiative with donations again administered through our partner NGO. Clients are given the option to offset the carbon dioxide associated with their flights via a carbon calculator hosted on the NGO website.

The second main part of the initiative’s objective, perhaps less concrete and tangible, but actually just as important. This is one of a more social and educational bias, one toward universal human rights. The Penan have a naturally very respectful and some ways shy culture. This makes for a wonderful society for its members and for visitors but unfortunately it can lead to a situation where their rights are not fully safe-guarded in the face of strong economic powers such as the palm-oil industry.

In recent times, there have been a few figures within the Penan community who have seen the relevance and need for the Penan to have a voice on the larger national and international stage. Through these individuals and their supporters the Penan are beginning to form this voice. The initiative therefore seeks to nurture and promote this movement in a subtle way that does not change the gentle and respectful nature of Penan culture.

This is achieved by carefully selecting and briefing the groups who take part in the expeditions to interact with the villages. The expedition members would usually split into small groups or pairs and be accommodated in local home-stays. In this way there is natural interaction and social exchange. The expeditioners are briefed in appropriate methods and then actively encouraged to;

  • Reinforce Penan’s confidence that they are relevant to the outside world.
  • Reinforce/Emphasise the Penan’s equal rights in law and society, independent of any lack of literacy.
  • Reinforce to the Penan that their native skills and knowledge are important to retain and nurture.
  • Reinforce that the rainforest is of interest, relevance and importance to the world as a whole.

This can all be achieved by fairly simple methods. In one sense it is conveyed simply through active participation and interest in native Penan culture, beliefs and language. It can also be helped through directed conversation, and then recording the thoughts, feelings and history from local people with regard to logging and deforestation. This point of view can currently be under-represented due to illiteracy and lack of communications. Another method is via a directed ethno-botany project where expeditioners learn the native names and possible uses of the local flora from the villagers. This can then be actively photographed and recorded.

Young Penan boy with tree sapling

One huge advantage of the methods above is that additionally, it does not displace any potential jobs or activities that the local people may draw income from. It also allows the distinct skills and resources of clients to be best used as well as their hosts’. Many of the Penan villagers are illiterate and clearly wouldn’t have access to cameras or methods of storing large amounts of information easily. So the initiative works to a collaborative action where-by all those involved contribute the aspects that are best suited to their skills.

Parties involved in the initiative

Clients are involved in the initiative, initially by fund-raising for any specific group-identified targets. They also then contribute financially by the fact that they are providing income to the local guides and families who they stay with as well as by supporting our own in-country company offices and staff. The clients then actively contribute via volunteering activities and the social interaction exercises outlined above.

Expedition leaders work not only to provide the trip logistics but to pass on their own knowledge and experience of interaction with the Penan. This will include guidance and assistance with the social interaction side of the initiative.

Many other volunteers also provide additional time and resources for the administration and monitoring of the initiative. This includes, in some instances, pursuing possible direct donors and ever-elusive development grants to help support the initiative.

Local Penan village committees and the Koperasi cooperative provide invaluable information, guidance and feedback as to the effectiveness of the various aspects of the initiative.

Individual Penan villagers obviously not only benefit from the initiative but actively engage with it. Many of the villagers collect the seeds and plant the saplings. A number of the villagers also work within the tree nursery looking after the saplings and maintaining the protective netting and nursery area.

Achievements of the initiative to-date

  •  25,000 trees in total from the Shorea genus of trees.
  • Providing members of the community with a small income meaning that fewer are leaving the villages to seek work in the city. Culturally this is significant as it means that more of the younger generations are remaining in the village and an increased population in the villages gives them more leverage when justifying their land rights.
  • Once these planted trees become an appropriate size, they can be used as building materials so that villagers do not need to cut down the larger and more ancient trees.
  • It is hoped that the forests will recover quickly and communities will no longer have to travel so far to hunt, gather or search for medicinal plants.
  • A number of small expeditions have now visited the area and have provided positive feedback on their experiences both as an expedition and in cultural interaction, global awareness and the positive outlook of the local people.
  • In winning the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) Sustainable Tourism, Roger Diski Community Project Award, we will receive a bursary that will be used to further the aims of the project.

The bursary will be used to begin work on a ‘pondok’ building, at one of the Penan villages, in which visiting clients, volunteers and visitors would stay. This would be a community administered venture where the locals would build, staff and maintain the pondok as a source of revenue by charging visitors for their accommodation. This is an income-generating venture that the community has previously identified but has not had the capital investment available so far to start it up.

Penan elder making a blow pipe for hunting

Penan elder making a blow pipe for hunting

Once built the ongoing costs of maintenance would be very low, but the initial outlay of money is currently prohibitive to the largely subsistence nature of the local economy. It is hoped that construction of the accommodation pondok would greatly advance progress in the local community’s aspirations toward a sustainable and self-led route to long-term financial stability and independence.

You can read more about the work of Moving Mountains at http://www.movingmountainstrust.com/

And about Adventure Alternative trips to visit the Penan people here

First Ever Photo of a Wild Singing Dog?

Is this the first ever photograph of a New Guinea Singing Dog in the wild?

Photo from the trail, cropped to show dog

We had word of some very exciting wildlife news at Adventure Alternative HQ recently. It was of a potential sighting (and photo capture) of one of the rarest (if not the rarest) breeds of dog in the world – the New Guinea Singing Dog (NGSD).

The sighting was made by Adventure Alternative Borneo director Tom Hewitt whilst on trek in the remote Star Mountains of Western New Guinea Island. These elusive dogs have most probably never been photographed in the wild before, so this is potentially huge in the NGSD world.

Tom, who has been living and working in SE Asia for the last ten years, is now based in Sabah and Sarawak from where he runs Adventure Alternative Borneo – the company that came into existence after a chance meeting 3 years ago with Adventure Alternative founder Gavin Bate. Along with a rainforest camp called Lupa Masa next to World Heritage Mt Kinabalu Park in Sabah, Adventure Alternative is also providing assistance to new community tourism and reforestation project based around 6 Penan villages in the remote interior of Sarawak. With financial support provided by Moving Mountains Trust, Adventure Alternative’s partner charity, the villages aim to plant 15,000-20,000 new hardwood saplings per year on previously logged and burnt forest.

Every year or so, Tom leads expeditions to New Guinea, an island shared between the independent Papua New Guinea and Indonesian controlled West Papua.  New Guinea is a truly remarkable destination as these facts and figures testify:

  • It is the 2nd largest island on earth, covering 785,753 sq km.
  • Although this landmass covers less than 0.5% of the world’s surface, it is estimated to contain up to 8% of the world’s known land and sea species, with countless still unknown and waiting to be discovered.
  • In terms of size of continuous rainforest it is exceeded only by the Amazon and the Congo.
  • And whilst only 1% of the world’s population call New Guinea home, the number of native languages spoken, account for over one sixth of all languages on earth – that is over 1,100 distinct dialects!

The Main Photo in Question

The photo taken from the trail of the dog on the hillside above

The same photo again (hence the slightly low resolution)
Now cropped closely to the dog its self

The details of the Sighting

We invited Tom to offer his own account of the trip and the sighting…

A client approached me at the end of 2011 requesting a bespoke trip that was ‘beyond any usual tourist or trek route, ideally mountainous and not hot and humid’. For a long time I had been looking at Mandala Mountain on the West Papua map. It is the 2nd highest free standing peak in Oceania with very little information available about it. It seemed to fit the requirements.

At an unconfirmed 4,760 m (no one is really sure) Mandala Mountain is the highest peak in the Star Mountain range – one of the most remote and unexplored areas of the world and until 40 years ago Mandala mountain even had it’s own permanent glacier. Here the native flora and fauna species, including the secretive singing dogs have remained in virtual isolation and undisturbed for thousands of years.

The twelve day tour included myself and the client, plus a trusted cook and guide that I had used before and seven local porters and guides from the starting village, itself an expensive 1 hour chartered plane ride from the capital of West Papua, Jayapura.

At the time of the sighting we were in a dramatic, wide valley with 4,000m peaks and limestone walls with waterfalls on either side. We spent a total of 4 days camping in this valley and there was regular contact with a number of exciting animals: couscous, possums and even tree kangaroos were seen most days, as well as many unidentified ground nesting birds living in the swamp grass. One species of bird of paradise was heard in the lower forest, but not seen. There were a few highland flowers and grasses and occasional groves of an ancient cycad species – primordial in every respect.

The guide and cook were 10 minutes ahead of us on day 1 of the return the trek, they had stopped I presumed, for us to catch up. When we reached them the guide proclaimed ‘dog’. This took me quite by surprise and it took three explanations by him for me to understand. But sure enough above us on the rocky outcrop in the bush there was a dog – the guide seemed as bemused by it being there as we were. After initially being quite close to the guide, by the time we arrived it had taken position on the hillside above us; this is the position found in the photos. We watched it for around 15 minutes as it continued to watch us. It seemed as curious as we were but not particularly scared or nervous. What stood out was how healthy it looked upon closer examination with binoculars.

I had no in-depth knowledge of NGSD’s at the time of the expedition and the photos in question were merely one of a huge number taken. To my utmost regret I did not make any video footage, nor did I try to get any closer. But in the context of any trip to Papua at the time this was no stranger than other events that happen daily – such as waking up one morning to see one of the porters using a tree kangaroo as a neck scarf to keep him warm.

There have been no previous confirmed reports of Singers in that general area. This can be easily explained by the fact that it is not an area the locals would ever go to, or at least not very often. There is much better hunting in the lower forests and hills. It is also very rarely visited by any other visitors.

When we returned from the trek, I searched for more information on the Singing Dogs of Papua and realized that I had possibly the only ever photo of one in the wild. The photos have since been disseminated amongst various experts including the American based New Guinea Dog Conservation Society.

Here are some more photos that were captured on the trip:

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In 2013, Adventure Alternative will be offering the chance to climb the 3rd highest mountain in Papua, Mt Trikora, on the 100th anniversary of the first ever summit expedition. At 4,750 m Trikora is also in an area that the New Guinea Singing Dogs have been seen by the locals. The scheduled climb will either begin or end with the annual Baliem Valley tribal highlands festival – this is when all the various highlands tribes come together for a big party in Wamena. For all of the trip information, click here.

History of the New Guinea Singing Dog

The intense topography of Papua as a whole coupled with low scale political troubles in the Western side of Papua has meant that little research has been done into the existence of NGSG in the area. The dogs themselves are believed a close relative of ancient dogs that were domesticated from Asian Wolves between 10-15,000 years ago and are related to the dingo of Australia.

The first live ‘Singers’ were caught in the Eastern province of the island in the 1950s and taken to Australia – nearly all of the Singers outside Papua are now descended from these 4 dogs. More recent expeditions have failed to locate any singers, including a month long expedition to the Eastern province highlands in the mid-90s. In this case, the Singers were heard but never seen. The NGSD is considered an evolutionarily significant unit. New Guinea Singing Dogs are named for their distinctive and melodious howl, which is characterized by a sharp increase in pitch at the start and very high frequencies at the end.

The future and the ethical dilemma faced.

The latest consensus from the experts regarding the photos is that “all of the photos have been examined forensically and there is no indication that they have been tampered with or are fakes. No layering is present. We also have had these photos examined by a PHD in Tropical Biology who is currently involved in rainforest research and conservation in New Guinea and his conclusion of the photos are that the plant life is consistent with the Star Mountain Range of the New Guinea Highlands”.

There are some people that may well question why there is a need to capture a wild animal and take it from its natural habitat. We asked Tom Wendt, founder of New Guinea Singing Dog International to explain further:
There are a couple of reasons why actually capturing a Singer is important. You first need to know that the NGSD is genetically nearly identical to the AU Dingo and the first descendant of the wolf. Although it’s yet to be proven, I believe that before the end of the Ice Age (when PNG and AU were land locked) the AU and PNG Dingo/NGSD were the same being.

The first good reason follows the same theme as the Australian version. Hybridization of both versions threatens their survival in their pure form. There was a day when the NGSD lived everywhere on PNG in a pure form. It was us humans who started the decline of numbers by bringing in domestic dog breeds. The hybridized NGSD or Village Dogs are man-made. This is the main reason that the NGSD could only be found these days in the place where you found one.

Both halves of the island’s governments are in such disarray, there is virtually no interest in setting up and funding some type of sanctuary for the NGSD that would serve to keep it in it’s pure form.

The other threat to the NGSD’s survival is that the natives are known to kill and eat a ‘Singer’ before preserving it. This is especially true in the highlands as the unhybridized versions are supreme hunters. In AU most provinces encourage the hunting and elimination of Dingoes as they are a threat to livestock. The same holds true in PNG.

The goal is to have a healthy population of NGSD’s here available to go back into the wild or to a sanctuary or preserve designed to keep the Singers alive in their pure form. Until the day comes that sanctuaries can be setup in PNG to keep the Highland Wild Dog from going extinct, we are the best option for their survival. With the population here being from a very limited gene pool the fear is that inbreeding will render the captive NGSD’s defective.

The Basenji (Africa’s wild dog) went through some severe health issues years ago and actually got to the point where inbreeding defects had threatened their very survival here. It was a group of folks passionate about the breed (not the experts) who raised the funds for the expeditions that captured new bloodlines and saved the Basenji from going extinct”.

Options for following up this significant and rare sighting are still being considered. Including return expeditions subject to funding and permissions.

More Information:
YouTube video about New Guinea Singing Dogs
For updates on the story, follow us on our Facebook page.
Further photos from the expedition on the Adventure Alternative Borneo Facebook page.
In 2013, Adventure Alternative will be offering the chance to climb the 3rd highest mountain in Papua – Mt Trikora on the 100th anniversary of the first ever summit expedition. For all of the trip information, click here.

Scientific American have written a great article on the sighting, with more extensive information on the NGSD to visit, click here.

What can charities expect from the ‘youth of today’?

A recent publication by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) concludes that Britain faces a long-term crisis in terms of charitable donations. CAF’s analysis of different generations within the UK and their philanthropic tendencies has revealed that younger generations are failing to match the generosity of people born between 1925 and 1966 (the Silent Generation – ’25-’45 and the baby boomers – ’45-’66). This evident ‘generosity gap’ has been growing wider and wider over the past three decades with the over-60s now six times more generous than the under-30s.

Image

So why do both the Silent Generation and the baby boomers have a greater sense of philanthropy over generations X, Y and Z? Maybe a commitment to help those less fortunate was bred out of the experience of war – an era of hardship and pulling together; community spirit was then far more prevalent than can be observed in most places in the UK today. This habit of helping, caring and supporting may help explain why these older generations are racing ahead in the donation stakes.

The economic downturn surely has a part to play; not only are there more and more people becoming reliant on charitable services, but less and less people are donating, especially the under-30s.Since 1980, the participation rate among the under-30s has fallen from 23 per cent to 15 per cent. However, according to the report, the majority of the decline in donations occurred between 1980 and 1990, rather than more recent times that have been fraught with economic gloom.

There have of course been many other large changes in sociological and economic conditions during the last century. It is quite feasible that these have had a marked effect on the general attitudes to charitable donation and volunteering. One example may be a broader exposure to global media and a proliferation of charities and charitable trusts. The way in which charities now fundraise has also undergone a huge transformation during the last 50 years. This may be argued to have created some degree of saturation and possible confusion over which causes to support.

On reading this article, I retained a slither of hope; maybe this decline in donations from younger generations would be somewhat counteracted by an upward trend in volunteering, donating time rather than money. According to the Institute for Volunteering Research, this isn’t the case. The average number of hours spent volunteering per volunteer declined by 30% between 1997 and 2007 (Helping Out, 2007). Evidence also suggests that there is a trend towards more episodic volunteering, rather than sustained activities.

ImageThere’s certainly an increase in voluntourism – short bursts of intense volunteer work. But what’s better – a month long volunteering trip whereby all of your time and effort is ploughed into the cause, or two hours a month of volunteering activity over the space of a number of years? In both instances the overall number of hours may eventually become comparable but they will of course have different degrees and durations of effect and commitment.

There is no doubt that the number of ways that individuals can contribute to good causes has increased over the last century. In particular there are now many more opportunities for people to actively engage in the activities of overseas charity work. This can only be a good thing for global awareness and outward looking society. But whether this means that involvement in UK-based volunteering activities should suffer is still up for debate.

Let’s finish on a positive note:

The report highlights that there is usually a steep increase in giving with age, so there’s still hope for the apparently tight-pocketed younger generations. Those born in the 1970s and 1980s seem to be catching up with their predecessors; donations were typically below those of older generations when this cohort were in their 20s, but giving is increasing with age.

The report offers the facts; the next step is to try to understand why such differences exist and how they can be manipulated.