Small Filipino com­mu­nity makes big im­pact on Sabah’s land­scape

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Malaysia Day -

THE year was 1989 and I was driv­ing back to my home­town of San­dakan, trans­port­ing sev­eral dozens of co­coa, mango, durian and rambu­tan seedlings in my Suzuki jeep.

Ac­com­pa­ny­ing me was my fa­ther who was mak­ing sure that those seedlings that he had ac­quired in Kota Kinabalu reached his ke­bun (or­chard) safely.

We were driv­ing past what seemed to be a sea of oil palm plan­ta­tions af­ter Telupid town, when we came to a patch of pris­tine for­est just be­side the road.

A sign pro­claimed it to be a vir­gin jun­gle re­serve and we passed that for­est patch in what seemed to be un­der a minute.

I turned to my fa­ther, who was then the gen­eral man­ager for forestry at the Sabah For­est In­dus­tries (SFI) af­ter re­tir­ing from the Sabah For­est Depart­ment where he had been work­ing since ar­riv­ing from his na­tive Philip­pines in 1950.

That patch of for­est we passed by got me cu­ri­ous, be­ing a jour­nal­ist, so I asked him about the pur­pose of such a small for­est re­serve.

I re­mem­ber throw­ing in phrases such as car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity and its sus­tain­abil­ity for wildlife, just to im­press him.

Be­ing a man of few words, all he said was that it was just one of many small patches of for­est that had been pre­served for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to know the type of the jun­gle in the area that had been cleared to make way for agri­cul­ture.

Years later, speak­ing to Sabah For­est chief con­ser­va­tor Datuk Sam Man­nan, I learnt that my pa­pang (a term of en­dear­ment for “fa­ther” in Ta­ga­log) was among those re­spon­si­ble for pre­serv­ing some 30 of th­ese for­est patches of about 258ha scat­tered around Sabah.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing that such a small area was not enough to sus­tain wildlife, Man­nan said th­ese mini for­est re­serves were, how­ever, liv­ing mon­u­ments of the low­land forests that once dom­i­nated the land­scape be­tween Kin­abatan­gan and Segama rivers in Sabah’s east coast.

“Th­ese for­est patches are cru­cial from the his­tor­i­cal and ed­u­ca­tional per­spec­tives.

“We have a real picture of what th­ese ar­eas once were be­fore the large-scale land clear­ing,” said Man­nan.

I was awed be­cause it was just one of the many con­tri­bu­tions of the scores of Filipinos who were re­cruited by the Bri­tish colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tion to serve in what was then North Bor­neo nearly a cen­tury ago.

They came to work as foresters, doc­tors, ar­chi­tects, teach­ers, sur­vey­ors, log­gers and nu­mer­ous other jobs.

I re­mem­ber names such as Munoz, Fabia, Cor­puz, Do­ti­mas, Pas­cua, Nobleza and Sario be­ing oft-men­tioned in the For­est Depart­ment head­quar­ters in San­dakan.

Th­ese foresters were in­stru­men­tal in estab­lish­ing fa­cil­i­ties in Kinabalu Park and Por­ing hot springs, and -- decades later -- putting in place for­est man­age­ment prac­tices that were still in use un­til to­day.

They also im­parted their skills and knowl­edge to Saba­hans that in­cluded state lead­ers like Pan­tai Ma­nis as­sem­bly­man Datuk Ab­dul Rahim Is­mail.

Af­ter com­plet­ing his sec­ondary school stud­ies, Ab­dul Rahim joined the For­est Depart­ment in 1969 as a for­est ranger and he re­mem­bered how the Filipino of­fi­cers like my fa­ther would teach him the ropes of the job.

“They treated me not as a ju­nior but rather like a son, and I learnt so much from them,” said Ab­dul Rahim, who left the depart­ment as a se­nior as­sis­tant di­rec­tor in 1990 to ven­ture into pol­i­tics.

Many of the Filipinos who came to Sabah since the 1930s, even­tu­ally set­tled and be­came Malaysians by the process of law when the state gained its in­de­pen­dence and teamed with Sarawak, Sin­ga­pore and Malaya to form the Fed­er­a­tion of Malaysia in 1963.

They con­trib­uted to Sabah’s progress and di­ver­sity, mak­ing the state more colour­ful.

In­deed they in­tro­duced the barong ta­ga­log, a shirt for men, which be­came trendy among the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

And so­cial gath­er­ings such as Christ­mas open houses and birth­days or an­niver­saries were op­por­tu­ni­ties for the Filipinos to in­tro­duce their friends to their cui­sine in­clud­ing chicken stew and leche flan or egg cus­tard.

Though they are a mi­nor­ity, the Filipino com­mu­nity in Sabah has made an im­pact on the state.

Two pri­mary school pupils hold­ing the bu­tod or sago worm at the Mon­sopiad Cul­tural Vil­lage in Pe­nam­pang.

Filipino foresters in Sabah were among those re­spon­si­ble for pre­serv­ing patches of for­est for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. — Filepic

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