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No phones, no net: Fieldwork in a Borneo village

Twenty-two Copenhagen and Roskilde students are researching villages in Sarawak, Malaysia. One of them is a University Post reporter, who sends us this report and photo story from the jungle fringe on the island of Borneo

You are given a sheet of paper. On it are some GPS coordinates and a short description of a rural village located close to the Malaysian-Indonesian border. You will be staying here for 10 days.

It sounds a bit like an episode from the reality-TV series Survivor. But it is not. It is actually the beginning of the SLUSE joint field-studies course in Interdisciplinary Land Use and Natural Resource Management at the University of Copenhagen.

For two weeks in March and April over 70 students are experiencing at first hand the livelihood strategies used in remote communities of South Africa, Malaysia and Thailand. The course is part of a joint international effort to connect students from Danish universities (Roskilde and Copenhagen) with universities in developing countries.

Getting there is half the fun

So, more than 24 hours later, three flights from Copenhagen, we arrive in Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian region of Sarawak (on the island of Borneo). Stepping off the plane I immediately feel my skin soaking up the vitamin D that I missed during the Danish winter.

In Kuching, we meet Malaysian students who will be joining us for our field study in the village, and an interpreter who will help us communicate with our hosts, the Bidayuh people of Kampung Kujang Sain.

The next day we head off towards the Indonesian border, and divide ourselves out into our four different village research groups. The unpaved, rocky road to our village is an indication of its isolation, with no internet or mobile phone signal. Suddenly the village, surrounded by vibrant vegetation, stands directly in front of us. So this is the place we travelled half way around the world to research.

See apes, insects, us the Copenhagen researchers, and the locals in my photo story here

Intense research

In order to understand the land use strategies of the community we directed our research towards analyzing their natural, social, financial, physical and human assets. By far the natural assets of the community were their greatest strength. The waterfall, forests, agricultural land, rivers, mountains and livestock shape the lives of all community members.

So we sample the soils of the forest, a rubber and pepper plantation, and rice field. Others trudge through the river collecting upstream and downstream water samples to evaluate the impact of untreated human and animal excrement entering the water. Interviews were made to understand the history, natural resources, demographics and decision-making processes of the village.

We live, Big-Brother style, under the same roof with six other people that we have spent nearly 24-hours a day with. It is difficult at times, but amazingly it seemed to work out.

Read a previous University Post article on the Sluse project here

See photos from previous SLUSE field courses here

Hard to leave

After 10 days of sleep deprivation, copious amounts of highly sugared tea and coffee and a hell of a lot of data to decipher back in Denmark we celebrate with the community. Karaoke, traditional (and not so traditional) dancing, local cuisine and brew are in abundance.

The next morning we wave a difficult goodbye and leave the community to revert back to its normal state.

Back in Kuching (the largest city in Sarawak) I wonder how the others in South Africa and Thailand are fairing and how their experience differed from ours…

Interested in Sluse? Check out Sluse’s website here.

See apes, insects and Copenhagen researchers in this photo story

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