We had agreed not to drive in the continuous torrential monsoon rain. We had not seen anything like that for a long time. So we drank our free flow coffee at the Li Hua Cafe and continued to talk even though we had already loaded our car.
We first saw an ambulance coming towards us. There must have been an accident. Then we saw two vehicles which were slightly damaged driving slowly towards us...and then a long line of vehicles..it was like a funeral procession. Actually we had just missed a horrific accident in which a lorry filled with palm oil had spilled its contents all over the road causing many multiple crashes. Several cars skidded from the road and the ambulance came to help ferry some injured passengers to Bintulu. We thus had a lucky escape because we decided to wait till the rain stop at about 11 a.m. If we had pushed on with our journey early in the morning we could have been part of the accidents or we could have been stuck for hours.
In all things give thanks! We said our prayers silently. We drove slowly from Bintulu and it was good that we stopped where we could and have a closer look at how Iban women earn a living in particular.
The rattan has been a forest produce of the Sarawak indigenous people since time immemorial. The Chinese junk which sailed to the shores of Sarawak had exchanged jars for jungle products like rattan and birds' nests since the Ming Dynasty. And many books e.g. "The Pagan Tribes of Borneo" by C. Hose and Rev. MacDougall described the importance of rattan to the peoples of Sarawak.
However today to many rattan is usually used for caning students. However to the indigenous people of Sarawak especially rattan is life and livelihood. So much of the life of the people depend on the collecting and selling and domestic usage of rattan and today more crafts are being designed from rattan too in order to increase income.
In fact the rattan is used by the indigenous people for more than 100 functions from mat making to earrings and many others.
A very thriving cottage industry has surfaced recently with the advent of oil palm growing in the Bintulu-Miri region.
There is a great demand for crude but lasting rattan baskets for collecting oil palm seeds. These baskets are made from rotan tunggal a local species of rattan. The rattan grows individually so that is why the name " tunggal" which means single.
the older men in the family would collect the rattan which is difficult actually in the jungle and this young mother of three school going children would sit down to make the baskets . She had a short rest for lunch.
This is the rattan which has been cleaned in the jungle before the men carry them back to the roadside temporary hut.
It is a very tough and painful job to hunt for rattan. First the rattan collectors have to know where the rattan (here it is the rotan tunggal) can be found by following the terrain or the various species of plants which grow well with rattan family.
when a group of rattan is found the collectors have to slash through thick undergrowth with their parangs and then probably get pricked by sharp thorns and sharp leaves. A lot of pulling is also needed so it is usually a man's job to do this. The leaves are slashed off and the thorns removed. The rattan is then bundled together and carried out of the jungle. this may take a few days.
Upon reaching the longhouse or settlement the rattan is first dried and further "cleaned" and smoothed by a smaller knife or blade. This can be done by an elderly person who helps in the preparation of basket making. Then the rattan is halved by a sharp home made knife. This is again a very skilful job.
When the rattan is fairly dried it is ready for basket making. Here the weaver is sitting on the wooden floor to make the base of the basket. Basketry seems to be such a natural skill of Iban women. They have tough but nimble fingers. Very much roughened by working with rattan this lady weaver has callouses all over her hands. She is cheerful that she can make a good living. But she has really impressed me with her expert knowledge of different species of rattan and how to use them.
The rattan baskets are also sold at the road side near and from Rumah Nyalong along the Bintulu/Miri Road. An applause to these longhouse dwellers for being entreprenuerial.
This article would never have been written if my friends and I were involved in the palm oil spill accident. So I give thanks to the Almighty.
2. Further notes:
Rattans, climbing palms in the subfamily Calamoideae of the family Palmae, have been utilized for generations in binding, basketry and other domestic purposes, and the most important commercial non-timber forest product ranking next to timber and bamboo wood in southeast Asia due to high economic value. Over the world, there are about 600 different rattan species arranged in 13 genera, and most of them are located in southeast Asia countries (Uhl & Dransfield 1987; Dransfield 1992), among which, about 20 excellent species have been commercially used around the world (Dransfield 1979). It was reported that rattan furniture industry around the world created the trade revenue of more than 1 billion US$ and employed about 1 million workers annually (ESCAP 1991). According to an estimate made by INBAR, the global local usage of rattan is worth US$ 4 billion and external trade in rattan is US$ 2.5 billion (INBAR 2001).