Communities Moving Forward During A Pandemic

2020 has been and still is a challenging year where communities are destabilised in ways we could never imagine. With major cities being at the forefront bracing the impact caused by COVID-19, soon, the ripple effect can be felt in the interior parts of Malaysia, pushing some of the most vulnerable communities to the edge.

When the Movement Control Order (MCO) was lifted in August, it may have given some the privilege to breathe a sigh of relief or to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But not for those that are less fortunate. Some have lost their source of livelihood, and food became difficult to come by and seems out of reach.

Together with the support of the Ministry of Finance, Yayasan Hasanah launched the Hasanah Special Grant 2020 (HSG 2020) to support vulnerable communities to get them back on their feet, with the help of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). Focusing on programmes benefitting communities, the rapid grant mobilisation attempts to improve the quality of life of poor families and, build their resilience during these pressing times.

In Perak, we met two communities that want to look past what MCO has caused, and move forward as a community. One is an Orang Asli (OA) of the Temiar tribe located within the Upper Kinta Basin (UKB), and another is a peri-urban community near Tanjung Rambutan.

Making less than RM 500 a month, coupled with fading job prospects due to the pandemic, here is a sneak peek of how these communities are determined to turn their lives around.

By the community, for the community

Leading us deeper into the forest is Tok Batin Amin, the chief of the Temiar community at Kampung Makmur. One of five Orang Asli villages in UKB. The trail looks fresh as remnants of broken branches and plants are moved to the side to make way for the 10km eco-trail. “Within 10 days we managed to clear about 200m of the trail.”, said Tok Batin Amin.

Along the way, we walk past a creek, a pocket of forest surrounded by nothing but bamboos, and a river. Cold freshwater streaming, enticing each one of us to cool off our skin from the sweat caused by the blistering heat.

The trail is an eco-trail which is part of a larger recreational space project to establish a sustainable economic livelihood programme for the OA community.

“Currently, many of the OAs work in the nearby town to make some money. They’d come back during fruit seasons to collect them for sale and when they’re done, they’ll go back to their job in town”, said Tok Batin Amin.

It’s not a sustainable way to earn a living especially when the pay is low and fruit season comes and goes.

UKB is a popular hiking destination among locals yet the economic benefits are often reaped by outsiders offering guide services. With the support from HSG 2020, Global Environment Centre (GEC), an environmental non-governmental organisation, is building the community’s capacity to manage recreational space, including training them to become guides for hikers.

Established in 1998, GEC has been involved in policy development, environmental education training, and community development on inland forests, peat management, and river conservation programmes in Malaysia and the ASEAN region. They have been working in UKB, as part of a larger Hasanah Grant, since 2018 to build capacity and partnership among local stakeholders to conserve and protect the ecosystem services and secure the forest and water resources of Ulu Kinta.

During the process, GEC also engaged and build a strong relationship with the OA communities there. They are aware of the challenges they face and one of them is sustainable income generation from the OA’s surroundings. GEC worked closely with the OA and local authorities to design an itinerary and develop guidelines for hikers to create livelihood opportunities for the communities.

Before conquering the peak of Mount Korbu, hikers will start their journey at one of the OA villages, Kg. Makmur, where they can get supplies or even spend the night in a traditional OA styled hut by the river.

Soon when the outdoor recreational space is ready, GEC foresees 240 individuals from the four OA villages nearby will benefit including the youth who are currently helping to build the eco-trail.

“I like working with GEC because it benefits the community. I also appreciate that they get the whole community involved in the project. It’s nice to see the youth working together to make this project happen.”, commented Tok Batin Amin. He seemed pleased.

Bonded by Passion

We bid goodbye to Tok Batin Amin as we make our way to visit another community project that is also working with GEC.

Composed of retirees and veterans, the community of Kampung Kelebang Selatan is a neighborhood surrounded by edible gardens. From herb to vegetables, myriads of edible plants can be found here.

“Here, we contribute whatever skills we have to maintain our garden”. says Cikgu Salehuddin, as he pointed to each of his friends explaining what they are good at and how they contribute to the garden.

“Not everyone here knows how to garden, so some will help with decorating the meeting hall that we’re sitting in here”, as he pointed at the murals on the wall.

Cikgu Saleh is the Chairman of Kampung Kelebang Selatan and 56 other neighbourhoods that are known as Kawasan Rukun Tetangga (KRT) within Ipoh. Specifically, in Kampung Kelebang Selatan, he is the bridge between GEC and the community.

GEC’s project with Kampung Kelebang Selatan is to establish a small scale community-based food manufacturing business centre as a source of alternative livelihood and tighten the food supply chain security there.

Next door of the meeting hall, they have started an assembly production area where each section is dedicated to performing specific tasks such as cleaning, assembling, and packaging. Their first product that is about to be launched is homegrown cassava chips.

There is still a lot more work to be done but the community is taking it one step at a time. While waiting for the slicer machine to arrive, they have started manually hand slicing the cassava roots and spending their time experimenting on the potential flavours of the cassava chips such as tom yum, black-pepper, and original.

GEC aspires that Kampung Kelebang Selatan will be a role model for nearby neighbourhoods to also work towards urban farming as a source of food supply, alternative livelihood, and food security. During MCO, many were struggling with generating income and acquiring food therefore having an edible garden would certainly ease the burden.

With the bountiful harvest gifted to us by Cikgu Salehuddin, we left Kampung Kelebang Selatan impressed by the community’s collective effort to make their garden possible. And of course, their collection of herbs and vegetables.

COVID-19 may make or break a community. We have seen people singing on balconies to show solidarity during this difficult time. And we have also witnessed how the virus caused a lockdown within the community itself through Enhanced Movement Controlled Order (EMCO), pushing them further isolated in each other’s homes.

In a world where our lives are becoming increasingly private, it is refreshing to see the camaraderie that exists within these communities. In the case of these two communities, COVID-19 has brought them together (with social distancing of course), to work towards getting back on their feet and equipped themselves with whatever the future brings.

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