Riverine Wilderness

A while ago, I visited Tanjung Piai, a listed Ramsar site, ie a wetland of international importance. To be honest, it was depressing. Poorly maintained, you could see from the boardwalks, garbage tangled in the mangrove roots. There was a stench that distracted from the beauty of the surrounding flora and as soon as you reached the coast edge, the horizon had a line of tankers en route to nearby Singapore and beyond. The fluctuations in tidal waves they create erode the shrinking coast, their illegal dumping of toxic sludge poison it further. It was hard to connect with this wilderness without being horrified at the obvious threat that it was facing.

Recently I visited another wetland closer to the city at Kampung Sungai Temon where there is a community of indigenous people called Orang Seletar. Instead of a boardwalk, we went in small boats that they skilfully navigated in and out of the forest. The experience here was quite different. The environment seemed healthy. There was no stench, the water clean, crabs scuttled all over the trunks of trees and the rich diversity of this particular wilderness came alive.

Besides the tangled roots that are iconic of these forest there were also stands of trees that just looked like a forest in a flood or submerged at high tide. Occasionally there would be sightings of rattan palms, a mangrove in bloom or a fruit that the Orang Seletar would tell us was edible or used for medicine. They showed us where they caught shrimp and fish, their trained eyes picked out birds and monkeys that they thought would interest us. This was really different. The longer we were there the more the environment became familiar and we understood the deep bond this community of indigenous people have with it.

When we headed back for lunch at the village, I talked with our guide, the son of the village penghulu or leader. He described how their catch was shrinking, how some species of flora were disappearing or harder to find. Their traditional livelihood of subsistence now requires supplementatiom with work in nearby urban factories or as guides for visitors like us. They own one of the two restaurants in the village that draws the city folk to enjoy fresh caught seafood in a rustic setting. All this was fine they said but they were visibly upset that they were under threat of being relocated.

The area is not gazetted and targeted for development. The community is fighting their eviction orders which you can see stresses them. They just want to be left alone to carry on the way of life they have always enjoyed just as the environment that sustains them wants the same.  It is sad to think that this beautiful riverine wilderness, is something that I have only recently become acquainted with and will shortly mourn its loss.


All Posts: