Working with rural indigenous communities in Borneo. Do businesses create more harm than good?

I am very appreciative that individuals and businesses, especially social enterprises in Malaysia are opting to work with rural indigenous communities in Sarawak and Sabah, mostly with the goal of providing opportunities at supplementing their household income. For those who work with artisans and crafters, some cite that their intent is in the name of preservation of tradition, art and craft.

It’s great that these individuals and organisations appreciate the skill, arts and crafts of our communities. They see the opportunities on how to incorporate traditional designs into more contemporary looking products, and perhaps to have a certain level of craftsmanship. They also have the network, resources and marketing know-how.

So, generally, it is good all around.

Right?

Perhaps.

I mean, don’t get me wrong.

I don’t doubt the level of commitment by these individuals and organisations in delivering something good. A lot of people have opinions and ideas on how to help and solve issues pertaining to indigenous communities. This happens the world over. But very few people take the time and can truly understand the political, socio-economic challenges that exist. It’s also different when one doesn’t live the culture.

Also, I believe that when one calls itself a social enterprise, with a clear community mission, it goes without saying that it is a responsible business.

Therein lies the responsibility of working with these communities and sharing their challenges with the world, not just to tug on heartstrings to sell products, but also to educate and share how else people can lend a hand.

Also the responsibility in growing and empowering the communities through inclusive decision making, not keep them at the production line.

And very importantly, the responsibility of being transparent and accountable.

At the end of the day, these businesses need to realize that they are working with living, breathing cultures. It has a potential ripple effect to the cultural identity of these communities. Therefore, it needs to be done with lots of care.

And I would love to hear from anyone who is keen to share the impact on the work they have done so far with the communities, because that way, if our intent is truly to benefit the communities, we should all be sharing our learnings in order to head towards achieving those goals. We need to understand things like:

  • How many community members are positively impacted from the business? What is the impact to their household income? Has the community increased in skill level?
  • What percentage of retail price per product goes back to the Artisan/Craft maker? Why?
  • What negative impacts happened as a by-product of working on contemporary crafts? Do they no longer produce traditional crafts at all? What is the possible long-term impact?(For Tuyang, we will be publishing our first report in June 2018 as we are currently less than
    a year old)

Here are my other thoughts:

  • What happens when the business’, who works with the communities, and the business’ names grows and becomes bigger than the product or the community, or the artisan or crafter?
  • Does the remuneration or benefit for the community get adjusted?
  • Is there an attempt to adjust the communication to showcase the faces of the community who help grow the business?
  • If not, does that now constitute misappropriation?

On another note, as the current generation Kenyah (indigenous people from Sarawak & Kalimantan), I strongly feel that the responsibility lies with us.

We must try to take on the role of the new age cultural guardian, especially for those of us who are privileged enough to have experienced life in “the outside world”. Be actively participating, push the people who work with our cultures to be accountable. Voice out when you witness cultural appropriation and misappropriation.

Take the time to find out the challenges that are happening in our families’ longhouses and villages. Find out how we can help, to contribute ideas. Or just go back and just visit every once in awhile.

That is why we started the The Tuyang Initiative. As the current generation Dayak who understands the communities’ sensibilities, combined with our varying background and skillsets, we hope to not only generate sustainable income for the community by jointly developing quality cultural-heritage products and services. We also hope to equip the community through up-skilling, and together, become key actors in the inevitable evolution of our culture.

We should be an active participant in driving the narrative of what it means to be an indigenous person in this time and age.

If we don’t, there may be nothing left of us and our cultural identity.

Who or what will we be then?