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About the Author

Giedre Steikunaite
Student (London, United Kingdom)

Currently an editorial intern at the New Internationalist magazine ("The people, the ideas, the action in the fight for global justice"), I'm studying journalism and contemporary history in London, UK. Freelancing for various publications, back in Lithuania I was a reporter for a current affairs weekly Panorama. Development, climate change, and social issues are my main topics of interest.


Malaysian Vignettes

Published 25th August 2010 - 12 comments - 5871 views -

Peat Poverty

It’s hot and incredibly humid, and very green. Armed with water, anti-mosquito spray and cameras, we’re walking in the Raja Musa Forest Reserve. Here, the Global Environment Centre (GEC) is busy rehabilitating devastated peat forests. Volunteers, organised via facebook and twitter, plant the fast-growing Mahang seedlings twice a month.

The problem? “Over the past ten years, more than 500ha of the reserve has been illegally cleared and burnt for farming activities,” says GEC.

Burning forests to make way for growing food is the cheapest way. No wonder it’s attractive to those who don’t possess much cash. “In developing countries, there is always the poverty element,” says Mr Chee, our guide.

The problem is, when burnt, peat forests release massive amounts of CO2 which the peat has been patiently collecting. This is certainly the climate change’s wish come true…

Our planted trees in the peatlands

Pursuit of happiness

I catch up with one of the activists. He is excited to talk about all stuff tree planting-related.

“Why are you doing this?” I ask him.

He thinks I’m ignorant – haven’t I been listening all this time?

“Peat lands are very important to the environment. We need to replant this degraded area…”

“No, but why are you doing this?”

He smiles. “It makes me happy. I’m happy to see these trees grow. I’m happy I can help.”

Beat that! 

Raja Musa rehabilitators (Mr Chee - in the middle)


Sungai Way is a Class IV river, meaning its water is really, really bad (Class V would be a total poison). Its main source of pollution is waste, whether from residential, commercial or industrial areas. Our guide says people don’t really consider the river as part of the natural world, they see it as, well, a dump.

W.A.T.E.R. project set up to change this harmful mindset.

“It’s a unique project,” says our guide. “It’s real rehabilitation, while other projects are mostly concerned only with beautification.”

Raising awareness has paid off, and there are plans to re-introduce local fish into the river which is currently occupied by immigrant fish, which are pollution-resistant.

But this is happening further down the stream. Back in the woods, where Sungai Way starts, we are encouraged to listen to the sound of pristine, still unpolluted water. It does sound different, indeed.

A river in Selangor state

Taman Alam Kuala Selangor

It costs 4RM (Malaysian ringgit) for an adult to enter the Kuala Selangor Nature Park, a mangrove forest situated around 60km North from KL. That is around $1. The Park, established in 1987, chose an endangered silvered leaf monkey for its logo. “This is Mr Beckham,” says Nagarajan Rengasany, the Park manager. “Punk hair, you know.”

With the monkey or without it, there was a great chance back in the 1980s for the area to become a golf course. The then-government deserves applause for choosing to defend the mangrove forest and not someone’s hobby. But today, its wallet is locked. The Park has to do on its own. For this reason, Nagarajan hopes the next minister is “a nature person”. Enough of unanswered calls for help.

A protected area, but waters around the Park are nevertheless polluted. “Irresponsible people still live in this country,” says Nagarajan. Show me a place where they don’t live...


Settled nomads

When electricity came to the Hma’ Meri village in Kampung Sungai Bumbun on Pulau Carey in 2007, the first thing they bought was a TV. And then second-hand mobile phones.

The signal is good (Ian says better than back home in the UK), and the phones are very handy. The only problem is that Hma’ Meri usually don’t have credit to call or text.

Hma’ Meri have always been nomads. Until quite recently, that is. Pushed out from their boats to live on land which wasn’t theirs (and still isn’t, legally), they ended up trapped and longing for the “back in the day…”.

“When we were nomads, you told us to stay in one place. Now that we stay, you move us.”

That is failed development, big time.

Former nomads are now carving wood, weaving, and trying to secure an aboriginal status for the lands they’re living on. Later, Reita will show us some houses. “They’re getting smaller and smaller,” she will say. Besieged by oil palm plantations and denied land rights, Hma’ Meri say they are not anti-government. All they want is things to be done differently.

Tompoq Topoh women's workshop

Fair fairness

New business model is up and running in the Hma’ Meri Tompoq Topoh women’s workshop’s weaving business. It is fairer to the community than the previous one, which is still practiced elsewhere. Before, the middleman (of the producer-middleman-purchaser chain) received up to 70% of all the sales money for handicrafts made by Tomoq Topoh women.

And the people met up with that? “When you are poor, you have no choice,” says the above mentioned Reita Faida Rahim. She is the coordinator of Gerai OA, a non-profit mobile stall which sells handicrafts made by Orang Asli (indigenous communities in Peninsular Malaysia).

Being poor, you really have no choice. Unless there are people to help you, like Gerai OA, which makes sure that 100% of all sales money goes back to the community.

The fair deal is deeply embodied in the Hma’ Meri community itself. “They divide jobs by capabilities, not by gender,” says Reita. Whoever is better at something is encouraged to do it. Men here are better at cooking, for example, and taking care of the kids.

Men and women in Hma’ Meri community are equal – a concept so simple and yet so hard to implement in many other places.


Photos: me.

For more: Hands-on in Malaysia: a photoblog on New Internationalist.


Category: Environment | Tags:


  • Tiziana Cauli on 25th August 2010:

    Hey Giedre,
    this is a great post! The best snapshot possible of our trips to the projects! Well done. And pictures are great too!

  • Larisa Rankovic on 26th August 2010:

    I agree. So well written, and touches diverse aspects of life in the area

  • Kevin Rennie on 26th August 2010:


    Top job! I’m editing some video right now to supplement your vignettes.

  • Ian Sullivan on 26th August 2010:

    echo what they all said - comprehensive account of what we did…

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 26th August 2010:

    Hey Giedre,

    Thanks for this! Brought me back there. So graphic. I really like the photos, too.

  • Maria Kuecken on 26th August 2010:

    Really well-written, Giedre! I absolutely love it.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 27th August 2010:

    Thank you guys!! smile

    @Regina and @Reita - a special thank you for your great effort in guiding us in MY!

  • Clare Herbert on 29th August 2010:

    Best round up I’ve read so far on our week away! Go you Giedre.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 29th August 2010:

    Cheers Clare! It’s weird, I still find myself coming back to our week in MY over and over again.. smile Don’t you?

  • Hussam Hussein on 29th August 2010:

    Great Giedre!!! It is amazing how you can transmit to us all that! Thanks, it’s indeed a great post!

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