Thursday, 4 February 2010

Trails of danger and tribulation

Trails of danger and tribulation


Keruah Usit Feb 3, 10

Sarawak's village roads are among the worst in the country, on the same dismal level with Sabah's deprived rural areas.

Rural Sarawakians hitch rides on four-wheel-drive transports owned by timber or oil palm companies to get to distant schools or clinics.

Dirt tracks in the interior, or 'ulu', have been carved into the forest by wealthy logging companies like Samling, KTS, Shinyang, Interhill and Rimbunan Hijau so they can move their green gold out to ports like Miri, Sibu and Bintulu.

Civil society has been urging the state government to take over these roads from the logging companies, seal, upgrade and maintain them, and to improve the access of rural communities to health care and education.
But the government's priorities for development remain firmly in the towns, and in the lucrative Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (Score).

Government spokesmen, however, continue to claim the timber companies provide 'development' to rural Dayak communities, in the form of roads.

A long wait, and worse

Traveling in the vast interior of Sarawak demands a long wait by the roadside for passing trucks or jeeps. Passengers endure bumpy journeys and sore backs. Those exposed to the sun and rain in the rear luggage compartments suffer sunburn or chills, as well as insect bites.

Sometimes an even worse fate awaits hitch-hikers. News broke last September of loggers raping schoolgirls while the girls were hitching rides to and from school on timber trucks in Baram. According to the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, some of the schoolgirls were as young as ten.

A tumultuous uproar ensued. Government ministers vied to make earnest promises of safe transportation for rural children between schools and their home villages. But little has changed on the ground since then.

Penan, Kenyah, Kayan and Kelabit children remain forced to stand together, clinging to each other for hours, on the back of trucks. This tableau is 1Malaysia in vivid technicolour: children huddled together, clinging to one another for dear life.

A traveler in the ulu will frequently see fifteen to twenty children in their school uniforms, perched precariously in the luggage loading compartment at the rear of a Hilux, bumping its way along the dangerous roads.

One survivor's tale

My friend Steven told me how he narrowly escaped death during one trip to the ulu.

“I was riding in the back of a Nissan four-wheel drive pick-up truck. It was around six in the evening, after rain. Eight of us were on board, with some bags piled on the back. Three of us were balanced on the edge of the back compartment.

“It was still light when we came to a stretch of reddish clay. The narrow single track curved gently up a steep slope. The gradient was something like the 'hill-climb' you had to do during your driving test.

“We roared up, and we were almost at the peak, when the wheels started spinning without making any more ground. The truck slid to a halt, then began to slip backwards down the hill, gathering speed as it went.

“We swerved to the left, skidding downhill, then right, then finally to the left. The timber track was running along the crest of a mountain, and there were sharp drops on either side. The crest, high though it was, had already been logged. The few shrubs and stunted trees beside the road's verge couldn't possibly have stopped the speeding truck.

“The young man next to me, had one foot on the side of the truck, ready to throw himself off. But he looked at the other two of us and saw that our expression was 'blur', as he described later. Afterwards, he told us he couldn't bring himself to leap off and watch us plummet down the mountainside – though he knew he couldn't have saved us anyway.

“I remember shouting 'Stop! Stop!', or something equally stupid, as we careered towards the side of the road, towards the edge and the abyss. But by some quirk of fate, there was a ridge of earth, knee high, where we were about to leave the road. The earth must have been piled up along the verge, when the logging company's diggers had cleared some soil out of the way.

“The rear tyres bumped up against the mound of earth and the driver managed to brake. We staggered off the truck, shaking. No one was crying or screaming. All of us stood in the middle of the road and lifted our hands up in prayer, grateful to be alive,” said Steven, his face ashen.

“We trudged up the slope. The truck made it up safely the second time around, with less weight on board."

Repairing village roads 'low priority'

“The young man, who'd stayed on board the truck in the face of what looked like certain death, told us quietly that he'd been in seven previous logging track accidents. All his brushes with death had taken place when he'd been driving trailers for the logging company.

“The little village track we were on was off the main logging trunk road. It was used by a small Penan community of 40 doors, to walk up or hitch rides to the main road, for access to schools and points beyond. All the valuable trees along the road had been extracted years ago, so the logging company saw little profit in maintaining the road surface,” Steven said.

“Local people told us the company saw it as a low priority to repair the small access road. The villagers had to ask the logging camp manager over and over again, for months, before the company sent its diggers to repair even a short stretch of the track.

“We were lucky to make it back to Miri alive,” Steven concluded, “but the local villagers and their schoolchildren aren't going anywhere…they're still there. They have to face those terrible dangers, day after day.”