Eco trip to Tanjung Sutera
Tanjung Sutera is not exactly a place that pops into people’s mind when you talk of a trip to Malaysia. It lies at an almost forgotten end of a vast palm oil plantation, on the eastern coast of Johor, Malaysia. Perhaps that is why it still retains its rustic charm with many wonders to discover. The resort lies about 40 meters above sea level, and offers a spectacular, uninterrupted 180 degrees view of the South China Sea to behold.
I was part of a group of 18 people comprising of volunteers and staff of the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG), who on landing there last Saturday, simply dropped our bags and rushed out to the ramps like little wide-eyed, open-mouthed children - in awe of the azure beauty of the vast waters.
AGE IS IN THE MIND
We were very fortunate to have Mahaya Menon as our team leader. I’ve known her for 6 years as a particularly knowledgeable and inspirational SBG rainforest and herbs guide. At 70 years of age, she’s an absolute joy to be with, her enormous energy and passion are really infectious and there is much to learn from her wisdom, her childlike inquisitiveness and appreciation of all the things around her. She’s a real model of how to enjoy all the goodness in life, aging gracefully and energetically.
VALUE OF INTERDISCIPLINARY PERSPECTIVES
Mahaya led the way around the adjoining kampong (village in Malay). We had in our group Marc, Nura and Shali from SBG Living Collections, Bian from the Botanic Garden Conservation International, Dina the horticulturist at the new Jacob Ballas Children’s garden in Singapore (who’s also done a splendid job at the tropical rainforests Biome at the Eden Gardens in Cornwall, UK) along with Angie, the co-author of “The Guide to the Fabulous Figs of Singapore” sharing their insights. Get a handful of biologists and horticulturists together and you can rightfully expect an animated and interesting discussion about taxonomy, plant species and genus as well as ethnobotanical uses!
The rest of us – Jenny, Vicky, Rebecca from SBG Living collections, Mak (who helped co-ordinate the trip), Ben, Sumo and Nick, from SBG Visitor Centre, Colleen, Cheng, June (SBG volunteers) and my daughter, Lavanya and I tagged along taking in the foliage and the relaxed pace of kampong life.
Though it is not always easy for me to recognise different plant and tree species, the way biologists do, learning a few things about them has vastly broadened my understanding of different ecosystems and the impact of human activity on them.
I’ve always felt we have become so specialised in our university education and jobs, that many a time, we fail to get a more a holistic view of things. While specialisation is important in any profession, we sometimes tend to lose sight of the impact of our pursuits on the environment and society.
At B-school, for example, we were taught endlessly about “HOW” to add value to a product or service, but never really to question “WHAT” we were doing in the first place. Take for example, food. Ironic as it sounds, “adding value” to food means to make it extremely processed and refined, by adding a whole host of artificial preservatives, colouring and flavouring into something beyond recognition from its true character, and then packaging, advertising and marketing it. All for the sake of maximising profits for a small section of society, without getting to question in an integrated way, the costs to the environment and society as a whole.
Coming back to the kampong walk, Mahaya amazed us with all the things she picked up along the way. Here she is picking tapioca leaves from the wayside. In her hands are fig leaves (Ficus auriculata or the Elephant ear fig) which she promised to make into an exotic herbal tea.
DVD ON SUSTAINABLE FARMING IN CUBA
Mahaya showed us a DVD in the multi-purpose hall. What if a country is shut off from oil, as well as all related products like oil intensive fertilisers and chemicals. What if there was no more fuel to run tractors that are required for large industrial agriculture?
I’m no a fan of communism, but the video ( I managed to find a part of it on You Tube) is an enlightening look on how Cuba managed to cope in an oil deprived world after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a system of community farming which is good for the earth and unexpectedly for Cubans’ health too.
All the critics who think the world will die of hunger if we don’t have massive industrial plantations, and the related oil based fertilisers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds should think again, for there are better alternatives to mega monoculture farming.
WHO BEARS THE COST?
Mahaya led the group to do the beach clean up around the resort. For a beach that is hardly frequented, the litter was mindboggling! All this litter brought in by the sea!!
We discussed about this huge plastic soup of litter floating in the Pacific Ocean, the world’s largest rubbish dump. I read that it has 100 million tons of flotsam, held in place by swirling underwater currents, and is almost twice the size of the United States.
We removed strips of plastic tightly woven around the stems of sea lettuces. Strewn all over the beach, were remnants of fishermen’s nets, plastic bottles, bottle caps, stryofoam pieces and packaging, plastic straws, cosmetic tubes, soles of shoes. Mostly things we use every day! Marc found a little plastic merlion statue, which the group conjectured sailed all the way from Singapore!
Who bears the real cost of plastic packaging and products which are not disposed off properly? Anyone who’s been involved in any kind of community clean up activity can’t help asking this question. Undoubtedly the Earth and its warming atmosphere, bears the cost of burning fossil fuels. Communities, perhaps thousands of miles away whose beaches and waterways are clogged and cluttered for no fault of theirs, bear the cost. And all of us too, in some way or the other have to bear the cost of overuse and neglect.
Though we managed to do a small area of the beach, the difference we made was really visible. The litter will come back again, surely, but hopefully another group like ours, will clean help clean up. And hopefully, companies which manufacture them or use them to sell their products as well as consumers will change their habits.
LOCALLY MADE, WITH LOVE
Meals were simple, prepared with vegetables and leaves freshly plucked from the kampong environs. It helped that Mahaya was vegetarian like me, as she took special care to leave instructions for Jane, our resort cook.
Some of the things that Jane so lovingly made for us where the very firsts in my life! Remember the tapioca leaves Mahaya plucked for us? They were transformed into a spicy stir fry covered with coconut shavings. I had paku or a curry made of ferns, absolutely the most delectable greens I’ve had. Mahaya told me that there are about 200 edible varieties of ferns, out of which 16 are regionally available. Jiring, a kind of bean pod from a tree was steamed, with sea salt and palm sugar(gula Malacca) with coconut on it. I also had pressed rice in the form of cones called lontong, with lamak (similar to the South Indian dish called avial) made with young jack fruit and coconut milk. And of course, Mahaya got the dried fig leaves made into a warm and invigorating tea for us.
All this local food brought my mind back to the DVD on Cuba’s local communities. What a difference local produce makes, so rich in variety, freshly plucked, travelling minimally to the cooking stove.
I was also reminded of a book by Terri Glavin called “The Sixth Extinction.” How many of our common local varieties are becoming marginalised, by the monotony made available in supermarkets-the same varieties of the same vegetables as in the same boring carton fit and perfectly shaped carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage that criss cross the world creating huge food miles, and huge carbon footprints.
LARGE SCALE PLANTATIONS
As we headed for our rainforest walk, we passed by massive swathes of large scale palm oil plantations. These are not native to the region. The species of palm oil in these huge monocultures are Elaeis guineensis, brought from the rainforests of Guinea in Western Africa as the demand for rubber declined in the 1960s. This species has the largest yield of oil, about 6 tonnes per hectare. The oil from the kernel is used for making edible oil, which you will find ubiquitously in cake mixes, milk powders, bread, and processed foods . The oil extracted from the fibrous fruit is for non-edible purposes such as greasing industrial machinery, cosmetics, soaps etc. The oil palm is labelled RBD (refined, bleached and deodorised) and packed into 50kg and 100kg barrels for export.
Expanding palm oil plantations often lead to removal of primary rainforests. It is important to think of the impact of such massive green deserts, in terms of fertiliser and pesticide use as well as removal of biodiversity. It also removes acreage which would otherwise sustain local communities and encourage food self-sufficiency.
We ended up in the wrong Panti rainforest trail, nevertheless as we were running short of time, we decided to follow the trail that we found in the Panti bird sanctuary.
I was thrilled to come across the majestic Koompasia malaccensis or the Kempas tree. What a fine buttresse this one had. Rainforest trees don’t really grow that tall by temperate country standards. Amongst all species, this species can grow up to 85 metres, making them the tallest in S.E.Asia. You could find upto a hundred bee hives perched on the top. However, as Angie pointed out, bee hives have dramatically reduced in Malaysia. Much of that is due to illegal logging, as well as the regional haze caused by burning down rainforests.
I also came across some Shorea species of trees, as I do like to see and touch the trees whose cause I like to champion http://www.ecowalkthetalk.com/blog/2009/02/25/part-ii-is-your-coffee-table-worth-it/
The trip was interrupted by squeals by some team members (most prominently my daughter) as she discovered leeches on her shoe trying to attach to her skin. I think the leeches managed to hook onto 4 team members, 3 of whom managed to scrape them away. Nick, however very generously offered his leg to the blood thirsty leech, which you can see is firmly glued to the skin. I guess it would have jumped off once its belly was full, but Nick got it removed an hour later. I can understand why he’d had enough of it!!
As June, the biology teacher in the group told me, leeches are good at sensing ground vibration, and once they latch on to the skin, inject an ant-coagulant. So when you get one on your skin, the bleeding doesn’t stop even when your remove it. Otherwise the best way to remove one would be using vinegar or salt or some essential oil. All in all, a leech is quite harmless and is used in some therapies to improve blood circulation. Be that as it may, I was quite relieved I managed to shake off the two on my shoe.
Tanjong Sutera Resort is an eco-builders paradise, with the extensive use of rattan and bamboo is concerned, in the furniture, roofs and fittings. Some of the more exclusive chalets were also designed with eco-friendly fittings.
The volcanic rocks that dominated the coastline are solidified lava belonging to the Triassic age (pre-Jurassic age of the dinosaurs, from about 250-200 million years ago). We were blown over by the extra-terrestrial landscape and the amazing artwork of Nature. As Mahaya said, there is so much interdisciplinary learning, of geology, marine life and ecosystems, biology and art.
The stones and shells were amazingly beautiful and abundant, as were the plethora of tiny rock pool creatures, such as sea snails, sea cucumbers, hermit crabs, barnacles, zebra fish, molluscs and oysters.
I filled my lungs with all the raw energy of the wind and the sea. It made me want to read Rachel Carson’s book, “The Sea around Us” all over again, for none that I know can describe the beauty of the sea and the creatures of the rock pools as lyrically as her.
I was glad my 8 year old was so mesmerised by the beauty all around her. She sent this simple and spontaneous message to the stones, the shells, the rocks, the waves and the wind.
When the hissing waters of the sea came frothing over these words to take them away, I imagine they would have uttered, like me, “Terima Kaseh” which in Malay means “Thank you” or more profoundly, “ I have received your love.”
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PS: Recommended to go as a group, especially if you’re walking along the beach, as the rocks are slippery, and the beach is not frequented. If you would like to join Mahaya when she goes there next, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org . Kindly organise a group size of 10-20 (school children or individuals/families). She’s doing this purely on a voluntary basis as she loves the place and wants to keep the resort going, so that it’s not swallowed by the adjoining palm oil plantations. Do remember to appreciate her assistance. Facilities are basic, but the airconditioning and hot water are more than enough. For more details of the resort, look at
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