A heart to keep, monetize Belian | Online Daily Express

BACK to exciting travel reports as a traveling reporter. The usual thing is that everyone travels to places. How about journeys into hearts and minds to see what unsung people in Sabah’s Murut heartland are thinking and doing?

What struck me was a core of true conservationists who do real conservation work among people you least expect it to do – Murut Tahol in the middle of nowhere who want to monetize their holdings of Belian treasures, rather than chopping them down for short-term cash and stuff fell!

This happened on December 3, 2021 in far-flung valley-bound Kampung Salinatan, Pensiangan, surrounded by pristine forests and high hills on the banks of the crystal clear Saliu River.

After a dazzling afternoon boat battle on the pure Saliu River against several raging rapids steered by incredibly skillful Murut boys, the sights of undisturbed riparian reserves all the way, steep jungle, a stand of 500 year old famous hardwood Belian trees awed , the riverbanks looming on the banks culminating in a surprising masterpiece of carpentry of 200 Belian wooden steps leading to a rustic but relaxing jungle campsite, I sat down in the Rest House at night and explored the spirit and heart of Ansom Putiang, President of the Murut Tahol Association.

Ansom – the thinker and mentor

Ansom, a primary school principal for 34 years, is the thought leader and mentor behind the fight to perpetually protect the Belian-strewn 500ha of forested state lands and demand a robust economic future and good education for the forgotten Murut peoples of the outback.

So this was a journey into the hearts and minds of a rare breed of unsung conservationists, business advocates and educators deep within Sabah.

So I asked Ansom, and Tham Yau Kong translated, “Why are you fighting so hard to preserve this 500-hectare forest?”

Ansom, a spirited and clear storyteller.

Inset below: Start of a sparkling upstream boat ride – Tham (left), Ansom (on the boat) and Jimmy Robert (centre).

Avant-garde of the treasure and the future

“This is our future, not a forest we cannot survive. This is a primary forest, this is our watershed that supplies the gravity water to Kg Salinatan, we need this forest, we must preserve it, we cannot allow humans to destroy it,” Ansom said.

“That means combat logging,” he noted.

“Anytime we’re caught off guard, irresponsible loggers could sneak in and start hacking, because Kg Salinatan is the only area in Pensiangan that still has a coveted stock of Belians.

“This is our darling. We never thought about it like that before, nobody opened up to us like that. Belian merchants came, people sold it for cash. But we stopped our past mistakes, we realized that if we continue like this, Belian will die out, and Salinatan will have nothing of value left.

“On the other hand, I know that we can’t just fight for conservation and never develop anything, because then people will legitimately ask us what benefits we bring to people’s livelihoods.”


The problem – no thrift

“The problem is that Salinatan has no economy, which has led to a serious exodus of young people, reducing the population from 600 to around 200, mostly elderly. So this loss of youth means there really is no future,” Ansom noted.

“Why not keep the Belian as one of the main attractions of ecotourism, monetize it for lasting economic returns by getting tourists to come as part of a package and pay to see them?

“So think about the future, think about the environment, but because of my age, I passed the idea on to the young.”

Young nephew and teacher Aloysius Robert and Ramlie, a Padas River rafting expert, took matters into their own hands and organized an introductory trip for the Sabah Natives Guides Association in late 2019.

Ansom shaded by the mighty trunk of a 400 year old Borneo’s famous Belian hardwood tree on the banks of the Saliu River, Salinatan.

Germinated Belian seeds. Note that Belian seeds come in large sizes!

“Tourism from Belian a workable package” – Tham

Long story short, the result was a 7km trail built along 70 labeled Belian trees, culminating in a respectable jungle campground, all built with their own donations and volunteers during the Covid-19 pandemic , when tourism was reduced to zero.

But is a Belian tourism package viable?

“Yes, on a beautiful day as a two-day-one-night hiking package, like the Sandakan-Ranau death march route we found, many tourists hiked it,” said Tham Yau Kong, who is doing something to help .

Usno relocation Pensiangan relocate created Salinatan: Ansom


Aside from his great wits for the future of Salinatan, Ansom proved to be a clear storyteller about the history of Salinatan.

“In 1967, the Usno government planned to move the residents of Pensiangan to Nabawan. When the facilities were ready, people started moving on June 12, 1970 with nine families led by OKK Sigoh bin Singkunan,” he said.

“Later, 900 families gradually moved in the following years, but later in 1974 some of them moved back to Pensiangan from Nabawan because they could not adapt to an environment without rivers and forests. In my case, the Ansom families also moved from Pensiangan to Nabawan, but returned to Pensiangan in 1993,” Ansom said.

But the Usno government’s resettlement drive also triggered the establishment of Kg Salinatan.

“While OKK Sigoh bin Singkunan prompted the first nine families to move to Nabawan in 1970, he also directed Ketua Kampung (village chief) Angguun bin Masalleh to open Kg Salinatan in the same year,” Ansom claimed.

So Kg Salinatan is only 50 years old, nothing ancient but certainly a gold mine of ancient forest and great character of Murut cultural heritage.

A main house in Kg Salinatan.

A view of Kg Salinatan from the Rest House.


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