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Back from Sarawak

April 13, 2013

Borneo is a name surrounded by mystery and romance. Yesterday I returned after a brief visit to Kuching city where I participated in brainstorms to establish the Sarawak Botanical Gardens (tentative name). Interestingly, in spite of a generous invitation by the Malaysian government with everything paid for, I was the only westerner among a group of 50 people representing botany, tourism, legislation, art, culture and governance. There were only two other foreigners (from Singapore and Indonesia). The tentative main objective of the botanical gardens as a result of the brainstorms will be ‘To promote biodiversity and culture of Sarawak’.

‘Biodiversity’ was selected rather than ‘flora’ to give future directors freedom to explore birds, reptiles, butterflies, mushrooms etc. ‘Culture’ is an important factor since it differs from other parts of Borneo. We could have written ‘ethnobotany’, i.e. the use of plants by people, but that word is yet hardly known outside the sphere of plant lovers, as experienced by Dokmai Garden here in Chiang Mai. ‘Sarawak’ is emphasised because that state is hardly known outside Borneo and Malaysia, and ‘Borneo’ is hitherto synonymous to the Malaysian state of Sabah where the bulk number of foreign Borneo tourists go.

In spite of being a biodiversity heaven with at least 13000 native plant species, there is no botanical garden (a collection of documented plant species) focused on native species on Borneo island. Sabah Agricultural Park in Tenom is the closest you get. However, this workshop revealed a coming revolution in the establishment of botanical gardens in Malaysia and Indonesia. As reported by the the assistant director of the Penang Botanic Gardens in Malaysia, it is developing into a modern botanical garden with signs. Within five years there will be at least six botanical gardens in Malaysia. According to the director Dr Joko Ridho Witono of the Bogor Botanic Garden in Java (see link to the right of this blog), 20 more botanical gardens are planned or under construction in Indonesia. The aim is not colours like in panorama or leisure gardens, but conservation and education, a new concept of thinking among modern ASEAN governments. Hearing the Mayor of Kuching North City Hall talking about botanical gardens as ‘a landmark of civilization’ was music in my ears.

Personally I believe that the aim of a botanical garden is not to satisfy a mainstream taste of pink petunias in the shape of a heart, other gardens already do that very well, but to be at the frontier of landscape design, conservation and education. It is a tough and difficult struggle to explain why a small wild orchid is more important than a huge man-made Cattleya hybrid, so I am grateful there now seems to be massive governmental support for these ‘new’ ideas in Malaysia and Indonesia. Still, in my talk I emphasised the importance of displaying a colourful corner at the front to satisfy the Sunday strollers, and then lure them into garden sections more aimed at imparting knowledge. The ultimate goal is to make people appreciate and realize the importance of preserving the wild life on Earth.

Sarawak Botanic Gardens.10 April.201372.The place identified as a location for the Sarawak Botanical Gardens is a prime piece of land in the heart of Kuching city. It is already developed in terms of parkings, roads, bay front walks and some park lands hosting the governor’s palace, the State Legislative Building (the conspicuous building in this picture) and Fort Margherita (under renovation in front of the State legislative Building), built in 1879 by Charles Brooke, the second Rajah of Sarawak. The landscape is amazingly green, because this is true equatorial rain forest land, meaning ever wet. It rained at some time every day I was there. Although rain forests awake such admiration, I noticed many Sarawakians erroneously refer to them as’ jungles’, a different forest type characterized by seasonally wet and dry periods, forests we have here in Chiang Mai (where people confusingly call them ‘rain forests’). This picture was taken from the 18th floor of the Riverside Majestic Hotel where the brainstorms were held.

Sarawak.Koompassia.72Recent inventories and our brief on-site visit revealed many local plants of interest such as this ‘menggaris’ or ‘tapang’ (Koompassia sp., Fabaceae). It is one of the tallest (60-90 m) and hardest rain forest tree species in Borneo. Another valuable timber tree also planted here is ‘belian’ or ‘ulin’, i.e. Bornean ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri, Lauraceae). It has a beautiful and durable red wood. The board walk offered sights of mangrove trees such as nipa palms (Nypa fruticans, Arecaceae), sago palms (Metroxylon sago, Arecaceae) and Sonneratia sp. which has proven to be important in protecting waterfronts from tsunamis.

Just driving around in Kuching town showed a need for a botanical garden to boost more interesting private and public gardens. Most gardens look like here in Chiang Mai, i.e. mostly composed of fruit trees and South American ornamental plants. Recent plantations such as that of the majestic silver palm Bismarckia nobilis from Madagascar, may have problems in surviving in this everwet climate. Locals also said that mango fruit trees (Mangifera indica) do not perform well, not surprisingly since mango prefers a seasonally dry monsoon climate like the one we have here in Chiang Mai. A bit unfortunately, the South American Allamanda cathartica (Apocynaceae) has become the official Kuching flower symbol. Indeed I saw many hedges of yellow allamanda from Brazil. I think a Nepenthes (Nepenthaceae) would have been a more representative choice considering its diversity and indicator of native rainforests. The world’s largest flower, Rafflesia arnoldii (Rafflesiaceae), grows wild in Sarawak and blooms throughout the year, but is already cleverly considered a national flower of Indonesia. However, there are several less known species of this peculiar plant genus.

Borneo still hosts around 2000 wild orang utangs, proboscis monkeys and slow loris. Animals and their forests are highly endangered and ongoing deforestation and oil palm plantations are serious threats. If tourism becomes a profitable income to the Sarawak state it is likely the deforestation will cease. Junus Suhid of the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board showed an unusual insight into eco-tourism and an eagerness to discuss and develop the botanical garden project, making very intelligent remarks. Such young and energetic people walking hand-in-hand with botanists may turn the negative trend. You can help the Sarawak forests simply by going to Kuching and request seeing the rain forests.

If you only consider the time for traveling, Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak is only situated a few hours away from Chiang Mai. Flying with Air Asia straight to Kuala Lumpur (2.5 hours) and then to Kuching (1.5 hours) you reach these legendary rain forest areas in a day without feeling tired.

Artist Petrus Alfred who designed the bay front walk and joined the brainstorms said that ‘Dayaks’ (locals such as himself) love nature and have a cheerful attitude, something I felt very strongly too. I have visited the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur many times, but I find its surroundings boring and depressing since the native flora is largely replaced with exotic oil palms and rubber trees, and I never had an exciting food experience in KL in spite of efforts and recommendations. However, the native flora of Kuching is obvious already from the air, and the hot Malaysian breakfast dishes served at the Riverside Majestic Hotel were so delicious I looked forward to eating breakfast already at bedtime. ‘Laksa Sarawak’ is a local dish somewhat reminding one of the local Chiang Mai signature dish ‘kao soi’. While the gigantic Kuala Lumpur airport hubs make you feel like an insignificant maggot, the small but modern Kuching airport offered flawless support from smiling staff, and hotel staff downtown Kuching were talkative and very friendly. I’ll be back!

Text & Photo: Eric Danell, citizen of Earth



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