Sungai Kapur; Educational Clean Up Day Kg Meruap

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink

It was my first engagement towards community project for year 2019. I was excited to share our experience and wrote to a few local newspaper editors. Hoping that they would write and publish our story. Not to publicize the corporate social responsibility initiative but more so to intensify awareness on individual contribution and care towards waste management and recycling issues.

Sadly that was where it ended as no one was interested let alone reply to my email. Hence, I decided to write this experience myself :)

And so, I shall share this story from a nonprofessional writer’s perspective.

Warning: the story/blog that you are about to read lacks creative writing and most likely filled with lots grammatical errors. It may be dull as it involves dry topics such as waste management, keeping and maintaining the environment clean, educating ourselves towards the idea of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and most importantly Rethink.

As dull as the topic may seem to some, I would like to touch on the human and emotional perspective of this event. On how much care and concern for the environment that stood amongst 13 volunteers from across the globe, villagers of 15 households at Kampung Meruap, Lahad Datu Forestry team and Marine Police of Lahad Datu, two Lahad Datu based travel eco-friendly agencies – Tabin Lodge and Bike and Tours – all joined force to clean Kampung Meruap on the 21 Nov 2019

This is where it all begins…..

“Teo you need to arrange for a meeting with the forestry before the November big waves come and draw the trash at Kg Meruap to the sea!” said the adamant Swiss Simon of Bike and Tours rather forcefully.

“Yes, but Simon we need to discuss it properly and lay out a plan….” replied the ever-calm forester Dr Teo of Tabin Lodge.

“Skip the lengthy planning stage. We need to take action now and by next week we should be cleaning Kg Meruap. November is about to end. We simply don’t have the time! Before you know it, it will be in the next two years that MAYBE we start cleaning. It needs to be done now!”

Knowing that “no” was not the answer that Simon would like to hear, Dr Teo worked his charms and managed to arrange for a meeting that involved the Forestry team, along with Haji (Chief of Kampung Meruap in Sungai Kapur), the villagers, foresters from Switzerland and naturalists from UK on the 16 Nov 2019.

“Malu bah bila orang luar datang kemas kampung kami” (It is rather embarrassing to have outsiders come and clean our village) said Haji in the local Sabahan dialect.

“Haji, this is not about being malu (embarrassed) or pointing fingers on who is at fault. The clean up project is to ensure that the big November wave does not bring all these trash to the sea in Sungai Kapur. Because when the trash goes to our river and sea, it pollutes the water and endangers the marine life. Fishes for example eats the plastic waste and these contaminated fishes are the ones we serve at our family’s table” answered Simon.

Naturalist Katherine from UK who joined our eco-tourism tour to Sungai Kapur in early November 2019 was also quick to add that the hospitality of Kampung Meruap villagers were top notch. They felt very welcome the moment they arrived at the village. “Try to keep you cleanliness level at par to your hospitality” said Katherine gently.

Having heard all the encouraging remarks and the damage that the piles of trash could do to the environment and to themselves, the people of Kampung Meruap accepted the idea of the clean-up with an open mind and heart. And so the date was set for the clean-up day to take place on the 21 Nov 2019.

In the span of 4 days, we managed to get some volunteers to join the clean-up project. Though it was rather disheartening that some backed out last minute (let’s face it, it is free service. No one gets paid for it to do the dirty job. No money, no honey) but that did not dampen our spirits.

3 holiday makers from Germany and 1 from Thailand decided to contribute their bit towards the clean-up project. I need to highlight this as their act really moved me. My dear friend Kendra will describe them as individuals with the Heart of Platinum – more valuable than gold. People go for holidays to relax. How many people do you know would take 2 days off their travel to clean up a village for free? These 4 individuals got their hands dirty, at times working much harder than us the locals, carried heavy loads of trash on their back, challenged by the heat and humidity. No doubt they were really knocked out at the end of the day but felt satisfied and happy for doing their part for the environment.

There was in total 13 of us including 3 children. We felt that it would be as educational for them as it is for us to learn the concept of not littering, curbing single plastic use and quite simply keeping the environment clean.

We travelled a day earlier and it took us 3 hours to drive from Lahad Datu to the primary forests of Sungai Kapur. Here, we put up a night at the Forestry resthouse as our program the next day started as early as 6am. Even though most of us had a late night, everyone including the little ones were surprisingly up early without any issues. By the time we reached the jetty, the huge wooden fisherman boat and Captain Amin awaits our arrival.

The journey to Kampung Meruap is a stunning sight of its own - a morning safari from the river to the sea, passing through thick primary mangrove and nipah vegetation. No one else were insight except 1 or 2 small fishermen boats.

Why the interest on Kampung Meruap you may ask when there is the Lahad Datu market area which is filled with plastic trash in the sea?

Well, for over the past few years Bike and Tours and Tabin Lodge have conducted eco-tourism tours in Sungai Kapur. We respect it’s remoteness and undisturbed natural area and as such the tours we conduct to Sungai Kapur are always in a small group at a time.

Besides the wildlife adventures by trekking and river cruising, visiting the fisherman village of Kampung Meruap is a part of the cultural side of the tour. In return the villagers open up their door towards soft tourism and economical means by the suppling the boats for the tours. This village is one of the last villages of North Borneo still inhabited by different tribes. No one describes this village better than travel writer Marco Ferrarese who visited this village in May 2019. Ferrarese wrote a moving article on Kampung Meruap in Perspective Travel via the following link:

As we were reaching close to Kampung Meruap we could see the villagers waving their hands, the children shouting “Hello” excitedly, huge smiles on their innocent faces. We could feel their warmth from miles away. Our arrival at 7am were greeted with much hospitality. Some villagers have already started cleaning. Our base was at Haji’s cozy wooden home on stilts. The interior was simply decorated with family portraits, spacious living room with plenty of space for young kids to run around. They have kept their interior of their home clean – same applied to the other homes in this village. It was just the pile of trash outside and underneath their homes that was of eyesore.

Haji started off with a short speech, thanking all the volunteers for taking their time to care for the wellbeing of this village. He also mentioned that the cleaning idea was accepted well by the villagers. In fact some of them have already started clearing up their place a few days after the meeting. He expressed his gratitude and also at the same time gently told the villagers if outsiders could take the time and energy and clean their village for free, then it is time for them to continue this effort when all the volunteers leave.

And so the cleaning process began. The sky was bright blue with no clouds in sight. The early morning heat was not scotching and the sea breeze was pleasant. Songsi our volunteer from Thailand was frank with her opinion “Ohh my God, so much trash! I think we need one day to clean one area of the house.

Anyways, this is not a judgement game. It is about awareness, instilling civic mindedness through education and letting go of littering habits. As simple as it may sound, this will be a slow process. Our duty is to kick start the project and follow up. But ultimately it will be up to the villagers to continue to maintain the cleanliness of their homes and its surroundings so that it can be enjoyed by their future generations.

Adzreen, Pepe, Simon, Judith and Daniel went straight to the edge of the sea. Hands armed with garden gloves started picking trash that was floating and some trapped deep within the sand. I tried this at first but with the weight of the sand and seawater, I struggled to the trash out of the sea. But the five of them persevered and began to fill their gunny sacks with batteries, rubber shoes, aluminum cans, food plastic and foam wrappers, pet bottles of different sizes, tarzan looking fishing nets – you name it! They have it!

Songsi, Nani and myself positioned ourselves under a stilt wooden house. The village children together with my daughters - 4 years old Olivia and 2.5 years old Emelyn also helped with picking up the trash. As they helped, we the adults tried to educate the young ones on the good practice of keeping our environment clean and to throw rubbish at an allocated area/bin, to reduce the use of single use plastic- in their case to start drinking from the cup/bottle and to avoid drinking from those cute small sized tetra packs filled with chocolate milk, juices and that single used straw that is wrapped with yet another layer of plastic.

I imagined that we will finish one area for an hour and then move to the next location. Boy was I wrong with my estimates. As we picked up the countless numbers of Indomie, Maggie and other brands of instant noodles packages, there were also those small packs of sauces and even worst were candy wrappers. It was a never ending story! As we cleared the surface, one villager came with his shovel and dig the earth deeper. My eyes just went the biggest it has ever been, my heart as it was reaching a point of satisfaction that the cleaning process was almost over was short-lived. Right in front of us more small tiny plastics wrappers annoyingly unearthed. Small sea crabs crawled in between the trash in different directions. Unable to control my emotions I screamed “F*#k!!!” whilst others burst into laughter at my sudden reaction. Those damn tiny instant noodles and candy wrappers are the things I quickly learn to dislike as I picked them with my giant sized garden gloves.

As the early part of the morning wore on, the sun started to mightily show its power. In the midst of the humidity, heat and constant wave of fermented fish smell wafted – fatigue among us striked. As I checked out the time, it was only 10:30am but it definitely felt like we were there longer. I was hoping it was already 1pm! I was not the only one. Most of us were getting tired and hungry. At some point we secretly felt angry for all this while most of us have been taking about having a clean environment but not necessarily taking action or taking charge.

Lets face it, how many of us carry greenbags for our grocery shopping? And if we do, are we the ones who picks rubbish by the beach on our holidays? Some do, some don’t. But it is through this exercise that makes us volunteers evaluate our day to day practice and small acts that we can take to support the cleanliness of mother earth. I am going to stay away from instant noodles and individually wrapped candies for a while now.

Simon was walking his way out of the sea to the beach with a huge gunny sack on his back when Dr Teo said “Simon, lets take a break, its’s already 11am” Spontaneously, Simon answered “No, lets work till 2pm and we can take a break and then go back!” When I heard this I almost collapse. It was too much, but I was also afraid that once we take a break, that the motivation to get back to work will wore off”. So I kept my silence.

About half an hour later realizing that the Duracell power of each bunny has come to a stall, Simon finally gave in and made the decision to stop for a break and continue after lunch. It was indeed a good decision. Ohhh boy did Haji’s wife and the villagers prepared us the best seafood feast. Ohh if you are vegetarian, this is the place to try world class seaweed dressed simply with calamansi vinaigrette. If you are a seafood lover, you would appreciate the home cooked fish, clams and shrimp dishes.

The food fuelled our tummy and soul. Though most of us felt sleepy after lunch, we realized that we have a mission to accomplish. Though we can’t do it all, we needed to clean as much as we can. At this point I wished that an automotive cleaning machinery could automagically appear and clean up at a faster speed. But that remains a wish. The sun as if to understand that we needed to work in open space was kind. It hid behind the white cottony clouds. We were shaded and we clean up with all our might.

The village looked better when we left as opposed to when we arrived. A successful joint effort. Awareness bulb blinked in our minds. We will follow up with Kampung Meruap on their effort to keep their village clean. Our hope is that, they will take this initiative on their own and not have someone playing police to check on them all the time. We have included an educational talk on the importance of cleanliness and actions to reduce one time use plastic materials. Lets see what the future holds for this last village in North Tabin.

Some small steps we have personally taken from this cleanup practice:

  • A backpack filled with reusable food and drinking containers, green shopping bags and metal & bamboo straws. This backpack is always in our car. So the next time we have leftovers from the restaurant or when we wish to pack our meals to take back home, we can place the food in our reusable containers.
  • My handbag is now always filled with metal/bamboo straws. I just need to remind the waiter and waitress not to give me plastic straws when I order my drinks.
  • We dined in at KFC in Lahad Datu on a few occasions and asked the KFC team to place our food in our own reusable containers. They have been very supportive and accommodating on this request. Even though they serve the drinks in paper like cups, the interior of the paper plates has elements of plastic layer to it. The rice is served in one time use plastic, the saucers are also of one time use plastic.
  • We try to avoid individually wrapped instant noodles, candies, biscuits, drinks. All these even though they are small are annoyingly tedious to pick up during the beach cleaning practice – and it was the most trashed items that we scooped out!
  • Shopping bags to our local market and grocery stores. A point to note, it is rather annoying when we shop at Survey and Econsave in Lahad Datu with our greenbag. The cashiers through their management orders would need to place a paid sticker on each item we purchased before placing it in our green bags. Like everything. So if you purchase 80 items, the poor cashiers needs to stick stickers to every item. We will write to the management and hopefully they can trust their customers with items in the greenbag and the receipt at hand.
  • Not a practice but something our children gathered from the clean up day – they notice the trash like never before. The eldest picks up the trash and tells us that it’s the naughty people who throws the trash away. Our youngest who is a bit rough around the edges says “The next time I see someone throws rubbish I will pukul (beat) them. Ok a bit to drastic but she has been told that a kind word of advise is better than beating up people for throwing trash.