KUCHING: The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Malaysia’s head of conservation for Sarawak, Dr Henry Chan, could have it better.
He could have been a lawyer, just like his brothers, and enjoyed the lucrative trimmings that come with a legal career.
Instead he chose to be an anthropologist — a career that requires him to spend much of his time in the deep jungles, roughing it out with one of the world’s primitive tribes, the Punans, just to learn more about them and their lifestyle.
Nonetheless, his sacrifices paid off when his work on the Punans and other indigenous tribes of Sarawak catapulted him from being an obscure man of the jungle to a renowned anthropologist.
Chan is well sought-after for his expertise by international organisations.
In 1998, he was invited to serve as an advisor to the German Government to introduce good forest management to better benefit the Penans, another tribe in Sarawak.
In 2001, Chan received an international award to do a research in the mountains of Thailand and the Mahakam River in Indonesia-Borneo on forestry conflicts between local communities and government.
From 2009 to 2012, he led an international team of researchers to conduct a project on community-based human-ecological balance in Asia that took them to Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.
His journey to social studies in Sarawak started way back in 1984.
Moved after learning the plight of the
people living in the headwaters of the Rajang river, he decided to be an anthropologist.
He wanted to understand the people from all angles and help provide solutions.
That propelled him to do a research on
the Kayan people for his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from University of Malaya and later, another research on the hunter-gatherer Punans, earning him his PhD from
the University of Helsinki in Finland.
While he was studying the Punans, Chan stayed with the tribe in the jungle for two years, took to their way of life from hunting to sago processing, and even spoke their language.
The village chief even took him as his own son.
While his real father objected to his
choice of career on the basis that it entailed hardship, his adoptive father thought Chan had gone mad for opting a life of comfort in the town for a back-to-basic life deep in the jungle.
This method of combining both anthropological theories and first-hand observation, which is termed as fieldwork, gave him a deeper understanding of the people and culture.
“Everything now becomes so clear.
“All the boring stuff I had to read and
review, the theories that seem impossible to understand, and technical jargons and definitions that I had to memorise, now come to life.”
It was during Chan’s 25-year period of social studies when he witnessed how changes of the forest environment have impacted the lives of the indigenous people.
When he was an advisor to the German Government to introduce good forest management, he thought his experience back then could help solve the logging problem but he was caught in between.
He had to deal with two extremes — those who are for, and those who against, logging.
“For the logging company, sustainable forest management (SFM) was just too difficult to implement. For the agency in charge of implementing SFM, the issues were too complex to handle while other agencies did not have the jurisdiction to deal with problems outside their authority,” Chan lamented.
One thing good came out of all these complexities — Chan gained a new knowledge on conflict resolution management.
“I began to understand that there are many layers of conflicts. While some conflicts could be resolved, many others have no solutions.”
As an employee of WWF, he sees the organisation’s conservation and sustainable development approaches as basis to address and resolve conflicts.
He said that through WWF’s High Conservation Value Forest Assessment (HCVF) toolkit, the identification of the problem and management of the resources could be implemented with the affected people.
Logging companies were agreeable to the toolkit but expressed the need for assistance from the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) and WWF.
It was during his attachment with SFC
that he witnessed the benefits reaped by the implementation of the toolkit. Chan was
then the team leader who led the community consultation with several Penan clans.
“The HCVF toolkit provides the right questions to ask. With the right questions, we get the right answers,” said Chan.
“Even though some questions were difficult to ask because of language limitation, the Penan found the intention to learn from them as sincere.”
Trust, Chan said, was built right from the beginning.
Hence, conflicts were avoided because
correct steps were taken from the beginning.
“Engagement and consultation with
people both within and outside WWF are important to ensure successful delivery of WWF’s mission,” Chan added.