Sibu-Kapit Road II: No road, no ladang

Kenyalang Portraits

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here.

By Lian Cheng and Ling Hui

IT WAS quite a surprise to hear longhouse headman Donald Ding uttering: “No road, no ladang (plantation)”.

If the Kapit business community is welcoming the new Kapit-Sibu Road with wide, open arms, longhouse residents like Donald Ding, Jimbun Ajai and David Sanggau whom DayakDaily met at a coffeeshop have similarly embraced the new development with full faith and jubilation.

They believe that the opening of the road will lead to many more good things to come. They could not conceal their excitement when speaking of the recently partially completed Sibu-Kapit Road where they sincerely look forward to the day their own longhouse settlements in the very interior will be linked to Sibu.

Freshly tarred roads leading to Kapit from Song.

Locals refuse to be sitting ducks

Longhouse headman Donald strongly believed that the road will bring about economic development to all the settlements across the whole Kapit division. And it is only with better road connectivity that plantations could be developed.

He said presently, there is no commercial farming going on, in and around Kapit. There are only some small scale farmers, who use their longboats to transport their agricultural and jungle produce to Kapit for sale, in return for a meagre income.

“With road accessibility, we can send our agricultural produce to the market. For the time being, there is no big plantation along the Sibu-Kapit road because there was (previously) no road. No road, no ladang (plantation),” said Donald.

A lorry transporting goods on the Sibu-Kapit Road.

Due to the non-existence of notable industrial or large scale agricultural activities, there is a lack of economic activities in areas surrounding Kapit. The youth there either move to large urban areas to seek employment or those who choose to remain in their villages will find themselves performing odd jobs or having no job at all.

Touching on this issue, Donald took the opportunity to call on the government to provide employment for those aged between 20 to 30, and to come up with more economic opportunities for all, to avoid this group from becoming “sitting ducks” when the rest of Sarawak moves forward.

“Even the Chinese here agree with me. There must be jobs and economic opportunities or we will all become (sitting) ducks.”

No more an island

His friend Jimbun Ajai who is also a tuai rumah pointed out that Kapit is no longer an island but a town like any other place and has access to healthcare 24/7.

Prior to this, locals who are seriously ill and need urgent medical attention only available in better-equipped hospitals such as Sibu Hospital but miss the last express boat at 3.15pm, will be forced to wait for the next boat which is only available the following day. Of course, there is always the alternative of a helicopter. However, one must also take into consideration that helicopter flights are subject to the vagaries of weather and restricted during night time.

Jimbun claimed that there had previously been cases where late medical attention had resulted in loss of life.

“It is better to have roads. For us who are from an even more remote area, traveling in longboats would be dangerous due to rapids along the river. With road connectivity, it is safer for us to travel.

“With road transport, it is also safer for our children to go to school,” said Jimbun who hails from Nanga Baki, Pelagus.

David Sanggau from Rumah Hana, Baleh, on the other hand, hoped that after the Sibu-Kapit road, the next step is to link Kapit with Nanga Mujong and Putai so that children going to school do not have to travel by longboats anymore.

Presently, Mujong is already accessible by road following the completion of the Nanga Mujong Bridge. The road from Kapit to Putai is still under construction.

“We also hope with the coming of roads, there will be provisions of water and electricity,” said David.

Roads create business opportunities

Like David, community leaders such as Penghulu Mot Undie Bajai, Penghulu Daniel Dian, Penghulu Langut Dampa and Penghulu Jampi Rawing look beyond just connectivity between Kapit and Sibu. To them, this basic road link is just the beginning. It means other areas such as Baleh, Nanga Merit, Nanga Mujong and Bukit Mabong will soon be linked to the outside world. They are no longer in isolation, and now well-linked to other parts of the greater Sarawak.

On the Sibu-Kapit Road, both Daniel and Mot Undie pointed out that the greatest benefit brought about by road connectivity is convenience. With the road currently open to the public, those who have their own transport could just jump onto a vehicle and go shopping for their necessities in Sibu without having to keep a close watch on the time, which they had to do previously when travelling by express boat. Shopping for provisions in Sibu is also cheaper.

“Road connectivity helps to cut down the cost of transportation for us who are staying farther upriver,” said Mot Undie.

Daniel added, road connectivity provides business opportunities where rural residents can bring their jungle and agricultural produce, especially fruits, to bazaars including in Sibu for sale.

“During fruit season, the road will provide good opportunities as Kapit people can now send their crops directly to Sibu to be sold there. They will be able to get better prices for their fruits,” he noted.

For example, Kapit produces high-quality dabai (local black olives). Previously, due to the absence of road connectivity, during the fruit’s peak season, dabai farmers who are mostly Dayak were limited to selling their harvests to middlemen who would later transport the fruit using express boats to Sibu. From there, the dabai will be further distributed to other areas such as Kuching and Miri where it is in high demand.

Dabai. — file pic.

In Kapit, local farmers may sell high-quality dabai in bulk at about RM10 to RM12 per kilogramme. By the time the same fruit reaches Sibu, it may be sold between RM16 to RM 20 per kilogramme. When it finally lands in Kuching, it is priced at RM25 to RM28 per kilogramme.

With road connectivity, dabai farmers who have their own transport will be able to send their harvests quickly to Sibu, thus ensuring fresher fruit and at the same time, cut down their reliance on middlemen and pocketing a bigger share of the profits.

One road leads to more roads

Apart from better business opportunities, Daniel also envisaged the opening of the Sibu-Kapit Road to act as a catalyst for the development of Bukit Mabong. The Sarawak government has just elevated Bukit Mabong into a district. To Daniel, it would be useless to build a bazaar in Bukit Mabong if there is no road linking it to the rest of Sarawak.

For Penghulu Langut Dampa who is from Sungai Teliai in the Bukit Mabong district, Kapit and its hinterland have been left behind in terms of development compared to other parts of Sarawak. But now, the residents of Bukit Mabong are enjoying much more convenience with the existence of the Kapit-Bukit Mabong Road.

“Before there was a road, we needed to use boats to travel to Kapit and it will take two days. Now with the availability of the road linking Kapit to Tunoh (in Bukit Mabong) it takes only three hours’ drive to reach Kapit,” said Langut.

He believed that all these were made possible when their elected representative—Baleh assemblyman Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing— was appointed the Infrastructure and Port Development Minister and brought about significant improvements especially in road connectivity within the upper reaches of the Rajang area.

“Within four or five years since he became the minister, he has built many roads in this area. Now, there is a road connecting to Baleh Dam after three big bridges needed were built to link the road,” said Langut.

Penghulu Jampi Rawing whose longhouse is right beside the Baleh Dam pointed out that it takes five hours to travel from his longhouse to Kapit by driving but only four hours by express boat.

However, he is still thankful to the government as although the road linking Kapit to Baleh is long and winding, it provides a viable alternative: “We can use cars, we can also use express boats.”

Living right beside the Baleh Dam, Jampi said his longhouse has no lack for the time being as it has electricity and water supply as well as access to healthcare via clinics.

“I have no request. We see how after a while. If there is anything we need, we will ask for it,” said Jampi, when asked if there is anything lacking in his village.

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here.

— DayakDaily