BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Ignoring the scorching midday heat, 74-year-old Buau Anak Saban searches the jungles of Temburong for a hidden treasure — wild coffee beans.
The village elder of Kg Sumbiling Lama has long adapted to walking barefoot in the rainforest, unfazed by the elements. His quest for the coffee beans — which he says has been growing naturally in some parts of the jungle — is to brew locally grown coffee to entice more people to visit his village.
Buau is referred by many as Apai, the term representing both status and endearment in the Iban language, meaning father.
Sumbiling Eco Village
Coffee is just one of the many crops grown at the Sumbiling Eco Village, a riverside village in Temburong primarily known for its ecotourism. It aims to instil in visitors the values of environmental sustainability as well as indigenous pride.
Since it was established in 2008, it has welcomed more than 20,000 visitors, sharing with them the history and culture of the local Iban community.
Emboldened by a more environmental conscious society, it is also bringing back the farming practices of Apai and his people, anchoring itself in the local indigenous culture, the backbone of which relied on agriculture.
Leslie Chiang, who founded Sumbiling Eco Village, says that prior to setting up the facility, the villagers have either left their agriculture roots, or were not farming consistently.
Now with rows of corn lining downhill leading to the eco village, and an even bigger maze of corn on the riverside, interspersed with other crops and herbs such as pumpkins, peanuts and lemongrass, Sumbiling Eco Village wants to give its visitors a farm-to-table experience, the Iban way.
Recounting the Iban way of life in the 1960s and 70s, Apai shares that they would farm for self-sustenance.
Life, according to the village elder, was different back then, when the quickest access to Bangar town was via boat.
“Before there were any roads, when everything around here was just lush rainforests, there were no jobs, especially after the revolt in 1962. To survive, we grew padi and sold them in [Bangar] town,” said Apai.
What is agritourism and why is demand growing?
Places like Eco Ponies Garden and Tasbee Meloponiculture Farm in the Tutong district are experiencing a spike in visitors, many willing to get their hands dirty as they engage in farming activities from planting to harvesting honey.
In Brunei, agritourism is a concept that is often associated with heritage-based or nature-based tourism, especially in light of Brunei’s history with agriculture being the main mode of subsistence for rural communities.
Elsewhere, it s commonly understood as farm-based tourism where visitors come to agriculture-based operations, whether on a farm or any natural site, for the purpose of recreation and taking part in farm-based activities.
Agritourism is a subset of the industry that is growing quietly behind the scene, as the hustle and bustle of modern life lures urbanites away from town and into the green expanse of rural villages.
“I think people today are curious, there is a green movement that is happening in the world, and I see a lot of young people taking interest in topics such as global warming and sustainability,” Leslie says.
He adds: “Whether you agree or not, these things affect mindsets, they give these individuals reason to visit places like this, either out of support or out of curiosity.”
Regardless of the reason, Apai is happy for the opportunity to bring back practices he grew up with, most of which were handed down through daily excursions in the wild; from father to son, and mother to daughter.
What is important for Leslie, however, is that the constant interest is providing employment opportunities for the villagers of Kg Sumbiling Lama, even amidst an exodus as more and more of the community move to the city in search of greener pastures.
With less than 50 people still living in the village, Sumbiling Eco Village only employs 10 people including Apai.
Yet, during peak seasons, it will literally take the whole village to manage big groups of visitors, with every member of the community taking on specific roles; from transporting water transportation, to becoming nature guides.
“This is why Sumbiling Eco Village was first established, it was to create awareness of the green beauty that exists in Brunei and also to highlight the indigenous cultures that thrive within it.
“People like Apai have an invaluable wealth of knowledge and wisdom that I feel needs to be shared. Knowledge on traditional herbs and forms of agriculture are being lost with each new generation. Which is why places like Sumbiling Eco Village is important.”
Busy as a bee at the Tasbee Meloponiculture Farm
For Hj Mistasby Hj Mamit, he did not expect his cause of saving stingless bees would become anything more than an awareness campaign and a hobby. However, in the last three years, his farm has seen an influx of visitors.
He established the Tasbee Meloponiculture Farm in 2009 at his house in Sg Kelugos, Tutong.
“My mission was to create awareness to the public, to save the stingless bees and educate on species diversity and the types of honey they produce, but now its become a full-fledged business.
“I truly believe that there is a greater awareness on agriculture in the country, people are more curious now about where there food comes from, how they are harvested and generally, the effort it takes to produce the food that we eat”.
As of November 2018, his farm has already received 1,540 visitors, a 500 percent increase from 2015, where he welcomed just 302 visitors.
With droves of people descending upon the bee farm, sometimes more than a hundred at a time, Hj Mistasby admits that there are moments when he gets overwhelmed.
Before last year, Hj Mistasby was more hands-on with his visitors, briefing them on the history of stingless bee cultivation and even demonstrating ways to harvest honey sustainably.
The farm has over 100 hives dispersed between flowering fruit trees, housing 18 out of the 22 species of stingless bees known to Brunei.
Now, with a new approach and a mini gallery that opened just last year, the bee farmer is getting buzzing reviews from visitors, who love the experience of harvesting their own honey.
“Now, after all the briefings and demonstrations, our visitors are encouraged to harvest their own honey, its self-service.
“The reception has been great, people are enjoying their own experience more when they get to bring back a jar of honey that they harvested themselves”.
Hj Mistasby goes through around 280 jars in a month, amounting to seven liters of stingless bee honey.
More communities jumping on the agritourism bandwagon
With the rising trend of farm-based tourism, other rural communities are also keen to have a slice of the pie, many of them low-income communities.
Kg Bebuloh in particular wants to develop itself as an agritourism destination, with more than 80 hectares of paddy plantation under its management.
However, the village is no stranger to tourists, often receiving visitors on cultural and Islamic-themed tours, as the community is made up of ethnic Dusuns who have largely converted to Islam.
“We have received visitors from all around ASEAN who want to understand and learn about our culture — how we live our lives as a community of Muslim converts. But these visitors don’t come often,” says Md Said Tundak, Kg Bebuloh’s village head.
He wants the community to capitalise on its long history of paddy cultivation to help sustain the village economy, but also to preserve its heritage.
The village head explains that the people in Bebuloh aspire to include activities such as planting or harvesting paddy into their repertoire as they see potential for profit in agritourism.
But the village faces financial hurdles to realise this ambition.
Asides from a small homestay located in the midst of its paddy plantation, it has little else in terms of tourism infrastructure.
“We would really love to share the ways of our people, particularly paddy cultivating, as it is something that our community has been doing for decades, if not centuries.
“At the end of the day, to develop our community as a destination we need capital and it will take time. We are not sure if our desires will materialise, but we won’t stop trying.”