Lessons from the jungle - Nation -building
The intrinsic value of forests was recently brought to the fore of public dialogue, with images of a burning Amazonian forest shocking netizens. This situation was sadly met with gross apathy, with it hardly making international news up till two weeks into the continuous burning. Our response to this incredible loss (or lack of it) spurred a re-evaluation of both our understanding of the forest and appreciation of it. Closer to home, we too are experiencing huge tracks of forest being lost to fires, most recently in Kuala Baram, Sarawak.
As a wildlife biologist working in the primary forest of Tawau Hills Park, I’ve been privileged to call the forest my home. For the past year, I have worked as the research manager to a project studying some of the most elusive carnivores in the jungles of Borneo, led by pioneering researchers with the help of passionate local Sabahan men and women who have grown alongside the forest all their lives. This experience has already been one of the most consequential adventures in my life.
It consistently forces me out of my comforts and compels me to adapt to the challenging environments I live in. However, the greatest gift this experience has invariably offered me is the fresh understanding I have on our nation and its identity. Yes, walking through our jungles on a daily basis has taught me more about the strength of our nation than any textbook ever has. As we draw closer to the celebration of the formation of our nation on the 16th of September, we reflect on the arduous journey that got us here. Allow me some time then, to share some of these lessons, in the hope that it may inspire a fresh perspective, as it has for me.
We are more than the strength of our economy
As a conservation biologist, one of our key contributions to society is increasing our knowledge of the biological world. We do so, by paying close attention to patterns and processes that weave all life into an enormous web. For any scientist that has decided to do so in Borneo, our task is a gargantuan one. Unweaving this web of life is made extremely difficult by the enormous wealth of biodiversity inhabiting our forests. Conservationist makes it our singular aim to protect as much of this diversity as possible, even ones that we are yet to discover. While there is still very much to unravel, we are learning quickly that our forest on Borneo is a global sink of biological diversity. This puts Malaysia at a unique position create great impact. Every Malaysian is poised to be a leader in global conservation, starting with the forest in our own back yard. Each Malaysian is born with a right and responsibility to protecting our natural resources that have clothed, sheltered and fed the forefathers of this land for thousands of years. Our capitalist economy confers value to commodities that provide value to our lives. While it is easy to measure our national strength by the size of our economy, is it important to acknowledge that the economy fails to account for commodities that offer values humans are yet to recognise. Our forests have wealth unbeknownst to us, and it would be negligent to squander it for a quick buck.
Our greatest treasure lies in our diversity
One of the greatest thrills my career as a conservation scientist has given me is the opportunity to live in close proximity with communities of local Sabahans. Needless to say, this would never have happened had I remained in KL where I grew up. I am of Indian descent, and this was made very apparent to me when I first moved in, by the stares of amusement I received from many of the local people. Let’s face it, we are so different, in more ways than one. On the surface, it seems like we have little in common. To some, this may appear to be a stumbling block to forming a common identity. Yet, my living in the forest has taught me that this is exactly what makes us so unique. This nation is a social experiment for all ages. We willingly took on the challenge of building together a home that we can all feel safe and comfortable in. Living amongst local Sabahan families has shown me how easy it is to look beyond our differences and find the same core value-systems that underpins the way we engage as a community. Malaysians are so adept to embracing change and difference. Not surprisingly, being able to co-exist amidst so much difference is something our forest has been doing prolifically well for millennia.
Collaborations only strengthen us
I regard this fight to protect our natural history and conserve it, our modern-day battleground. Instead of enemies in foreign lands, we look to the enemies in our growing consumerism and commercialisation that is quickly destroying our natural world. In lieu of guns bombs and swords, we arm ourselves with microscopes, radio-collars and social media. We have given up our heavily-guarded forts and battle stations for scientific field stations that house teams of people who venture deep into the unknowns daily. Finally, just like during the bloody battles that made forming this nation possible, we seek the help and support of our friends from across the sea who share our common vision for a better world. Malaysian conservation has benefited tremendously by a plethora of dedicated conservationist who has left their home nations to study and protect our natural history. We owe our understanding of some of our most precious wildlife (Bornean Orangutan, Sumatran rhino, Sunda clouded leopard, Malayan tiger etc) to the plethora of scientists who first pioneered such studies and have now chosen to call Malaysia their home. Just in Sabah alone, conservation research has taken huge strides forward learning on the expertise of our friends of diverse nationalities. With their help, Malaysia is put in an even better position with a growing number of young Malaysian conservationist, such as myself, who have access to the best and brightest in the field. Foreign collaborations empower us to strive for excellence in our every endeavour and catapult us to becoming a leading authority on globally important issues.
As a young nation, conversations about our national identity is still relevant and needs greater attention. The most important thing I have learnt this last year is that Malaysia is truly full of surprises. There is always more to explore, to learn, to experience and enjoy. Malaysia is truly a gift that keeps on giving should we only take the time to unwrap its many layers. To my fellow Malaysians, if you have not already, I implore you to take the time to explore and discover our natural heritage. There you will find a mystical beauty just waiting to be experienced.
*Chrishen Gomez is a recent winner of the Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment 2019 and a full-time wildlife biologist, working as a Research Manager for the Bornean Carnivore Programme, by the Wildlife Research and Conservation Unit at Oxford University.