Tambatuon Saga: A Village fights for its life

By Dr Edwin Bosi

Rombituon in the local Dusun dialect means stars. When the early settlers came down into this valley they saw thousands of twinkling stars as darkness set. Then they realize there were so many people settling down the plain as many as the stars that appeared before them. The people were enchanted with its beauty, decided to call it home and called it Tambatuon. The origin of Tambatuon went way back few hundred years ago, the people originating from Nunuk Ragang and Bundu Tuhan in the Ranau highlands. They believe Tambatuon has seen 17 generations of which only eight can be traced for now. The Dusuns predominates although other races such as the Chinese, Murut Lundayeh, Iban and Dusun-Timorese have made this village more plural.

The water in the river was pleasantly cooling, clean, crystal clear and refreshing. Fish was abundance. The river is lined with beautiful pebbles and boulders, the sound of rapids so pleasant never failing to draw the freshness and cooling breeze accompanied by nature’s forest aroma. As the eyes follow the meandering river one can see a commanding hill called Saduk Saduk (Nungkok) and well beyond it is the majestic Mount Kinabalu, the second highest mountain in South East Asia. For a moment one then realizes that the water before them has started up on the peak of Mt Kinabalu.

There were enough plain or flatland to plant padi, the staple food of the Dusuns and for that matter, the Asians stock. They supplemented their carbohydrate further with tapioca and maize, their protein derived from fish, chicken, cattle, buffalo and pigs. Game animals such as wild pigs and deer and other wildlife were once in abundance. They created the bunds out of rocks which add character to their farmland. They plant fragrance rice. Vegetables are easily grown. They have taken many trees from the nearby hills to build their homes and in return planted rubber trees. With dwindling timber, many homes are now constructed with cement blocks while woods for cooking are still observed here and there.

From 27km Kota Belud-Ranau highway, a side dirt road of about 5km brings you to Tambatuon village. The road is running on the top of the ridge gradually dipping down into the valley below. The Kadamaian river flows between two ridges. At about 3km from the road junction, the ridges appeared to converge becoming narrower and then diverge widening again. This is at the narrowest point where the two ridges meet where the proposed Kadamaian dam was to be constructed. The dam will submerge Tambatuon and surrounding forest including the rubber trees. The reason for damming is to provide water for the government paddy projects in Kota Belud.

The proposed dam caught the Tambatuon people by surprise. After years of developing this village into new paradise, the idea of a dam was just unfair and unjust. The villagers have titles to the land. They have spent lots of money, energy and time to find and make a decent living in Tambatuon. According to Singkui Tinggi, 14 generations have lived in Tambatuon. This is a historical site, our home and defending this village is worth everything.

Singkui himself is the first casualty when as village head he has stood firm against the dam and was subsequently removed from his post. He is not alone in this battle and seeing their open protests, letters of memorandum to political leaders in the government and notices at the entrance to their village is testimony of their been steadfast to stop the dam at all cost. Not surprising then the opposition and non-governmental organizations have been roped in to support their cause.

It is amusing to note that Tambituon was once heavily forested because early Pagan settlers were afraid to venture into the jungle as they believe many “penunggu” or spirits were also dwelling there. That may be one of the reasons why the villagers decided to move down to the plain. They farm the flatland and sell their products in Kota Belud markets using bamboo rafts and brave some of the dangerous rapids and floods. They also had to walk back the 32km distant carrying with them the much needed supply.

At one time measles almost wiped out the whole population of Tambatuon. For the villagers it was Satan that inflicted the death. According to Singkui, it was a frightening moment because the people who buried the death in the morning would die and be buried the next day. The mounting deaths made burying impractical. They decided to just dump and pile the bodies in a hut.

It is very delightful to listen to the history of Tambatuon. The village started on the slope and it is there the “batu sumpah” is planted by the white men and the locals. It is a sort of a covenant. In the 40s a British consultant by the name of “Tuan Impang” and village Chief KK Tunggal planted a boulder or “Batu Sumpah” in Tambatuon as a reminder not to encroach and disturb the village by anyone. Two village representatives from the surrounding villages were witnesses to the stone-laying ceremony where a goat was slaughtered the blood filled a hole on which the stone was laid. It is said that anyone who trespass this solemn oath will end up like the sacrificial goat and that believes continues to live on till today. The villagers are more than willing to guide anyone to see the original Tambatuon village site. It takes about an hour of trekking up the slope.

The villagers were not spared by the Japanese occupation. According to Singkui, the occupation saw the ugly side of humankind. Being peace loving and simple people, the cruelty of the Japanese is never forgotten. Singkui would tell how the people were led around literally by the nose, just like the way they get their beast of burden the buffaloes to work on the field. The Japanese came to the village in search of the white men.

Tambatuon started seeing more economic activity when the people embraced Christianity in 1959 and overcame the fear of the unknown and spirits that live in the forest. The USNO government assisted them with rubber seedlings and opening the lands for padi. USNO also constructed road to allow them to have easy access to the towns. USNO also built a school in 1966 and today, Tambatuon has proudly produced 22 degree and 51 diploma graduates. As of 2010, the villagers have successfully developed 300 acres of padi land, and 1600 acres for rubber, fruits and other cash crops. They have successfully implemented the “tagal” system whereby fish from the river will be harvested collectively at specified time.

The dam if it materializes will flood the whole village taking away with it the rubber trees, fruit trees, the padi land, livestock, homes and a Church. The dam will extinguish their history, their memory, their future and their life. They have worked hard to get out of the poverty entrapment. They have worked hard to give sound education to their children who are expected to retire in their village of origin. They have always worked and supported the government of the day until now when the government is bent to turn their homeland into a massive made-made lake. It is a rude awakening and has brought so much pain, anguish and sleepless nights.

The government Kadamaian representative here has publicly said that the people of Tambatuon are selfish and only thinking of themselves. He feels that they should sacrifice their homeland for a better good that is to provide sustainable water for the padi project way down the river which will benefit thousands of people and the country. For the Tambatuons such statement is uncalled for especially from a politician who they have supported all along. The issue has become murky by the day and the solution founded only when one party gives up.

The notices have been put up and displayed for all to see. Tambatuons do not want and will not allow research and survey works to be conducted in their homeland. They have clearly display their willingness to protect their homestead with their life. As it stands it is a political decision and only the Court of the land will finally lay this matter to rest once and for all. Once again the Native Customary Rights (NCR) will be featured prominently.

Today Tambatuon is a vibrant home to more than 846 inhabitants comprising 193 families living in 103 houses and farming an area of 5300 acres. The village has a church, homestead, mini hall, hanging bridges, primary school, kindergarten, tarred roads, water gravity and power supply. The village is also home for sunbirds, dragonfly and flowering plants.

The economic strength of Tambatuon is rubber. The people in Tambatuon have set their target where each family will have at least 5000 trees to tend to. They hope to plant fragrance padi twice a year as it finds easy market and good price at Pekan Nabalu especially among foreign visitors from Hong Kong. They like to see road networks connecting their farmlands and have many homesteads for more visitors. By and by, they want to produce a skilled and knowledgeable generations who can contribute positively to the country.

The elderly folks have no more option but to stay and fight and die for a home that they put so much of their blood and sweat. Singkui and others have seen the negative aspects of dam in Moyog. They saw how the affected villagers there have been shortchanged by the government in terms of housing facility and also no land for agriculture. The younger generation has an option to leave but surprisingly many including the graduates are staying to work on their rubber trees and farmlands. This is the spirit that we have been talking and wanting to see from our younger generations.

It looks like the government of today has failed to improve on what USNO had started for the people of Tambatuon. While the Court will settle this issue sooner or later, the only hope left for the people of Tambutuon at the moment is to rely upon the mysterious power of the “Batu Sumpah”.

(Published in The Borneo Post) on Sunday 1st May 2011

  1. #1 by k1980 on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 12:47 pm

    Election slogan for PR in Sabah– “Undi bn, nampak Rombituon”.

    Seeing stars is what sabahans have been getting for voting bn to power.

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 2:16 pm

    O Tambatuon, u r d fixed deposit of BN
    Go ahead lah n vote 4 BN, then b rewarded by having your village submerged n wiped out
    Where r your 22 degree n 51 diploma graduates? Unite your ppl against BN lor
    Get your Batu Sumpah 2 whack corrupt BN out of your beloved Sabah

  3. #3 by boh-liao on Monday, 30 May 2011 - 5:54 pm

    Tambatuon residents must check out what happened in Kuantan today
    UmnoBputras showed their true color: they r d jury, judge n prosecutor; they decide what is right or wrong; what 1 can or cannot wear
    They truly treated MCA kaki like p@ ri@h 1 n kicked them like they were K9s

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