Documenting Sarawak traditional knowledge

By Patricia Hului
[email protected]


Margarita Naming, Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC)’s senior research officer who led the Traditional Knowledge Documentation programme.

With modern textbooks and conventional Western knowledge almost completely replacing the oral traditions of our ancestors, Sarawak is at risk of totally losing our traditional knowledge handed down through generations orally or through observation of practice.

This knowledge includes how indigenous communities have used our environment’s natural biodiversity for food, medicine, health, personal care and a host of other applications.

“A lot of this knowledge is transmitted orally, not written,” said Margarita Naming, Sarawak Biodiversity Centre’s (SBC) senior research officer leading the Traditional Knowledge Documentation programme.

Fortunately, this knowledge is still retained by the older generations.

Unfortunately, the younger generation in certain communities are not interested in learning this traditional knowledge.

For others, says Margarita, the effort of documenting traditional knowledge is not a major concern and they often overlook its importance.

“The usual thought for some of these communities is – ‘There is still a lot (of information left), they are in my backyard.’

But the research officer emphasised that if we did not document it, we will lose it.

“If we lose the older generation who retain all these knowledge, it is like a library that has burnt down.”


Plants collected from Pa’ Lungan Bario are planted in a small garden at SBC.

What’s the programme about?

In 2001, SBC started the programme with a consultative workshop, organised jointly by the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (now known as Biodiversity International) and the Majlis Adat Istiadat Sarawak.

The programme is designed to provide the local indigenous communities with capacity building and empower them to document their traditional knowledge on the management and utilisation of biological resources.

Under the programme, SBC has covered plants from wide range of topography including swampy and highland areas looking for plants which are used for medicine, food, handicrafts, poison and many more.

Informing the community is the first step in the traditional knowledge documentation programme.

“In doing this, we held our first meeting with the community leaders and usually this was carried out through the resident offices,” Margarita shared.

“The next step is going to the village itself, explaining to them the purpose of our programme.”

She explained this was a form of seeking prior informed consent (PIC).

“Even at the international level, seeking prior informed consent is important before starting any research work with the indigenous community. The community then will come back to us with a letter giving us the permission.”

Once all the permission is in place, the real documenting work begins.

Margarita shared this included going to the forest looking for these plants.

Interestingly, she said that in some of the communities, the people would describe the time it took to the location of the plants as ‘one cigarette away.’

“Usually they use it if they still have a cigarette slipped behind their ear and they have not started smoking it yet – meaning to say we still have long way to go.”

Documentation was then done in written forms, field notebooks, digital cameras to record both the plants and their informants, and making herbariums (a collection of dried plant specimens) with the communities.

“These are important because different communities have different names for the same plant.”

Moreover, they also recorded the communities explaining the uses of these plants in their own languages.

By doing so, the team also managed to document other details of traditional knowledge, such as their belief in collecting plants.

Some believed, for instance, that a certain plant could only be collected by a woman and others held on to the custom that some plants could only be collected at a particular time of day.

“It is also important to record it in their own languages; it preserves the knowledge and also the language.”


This plant which falls under the Ficus genus and in the family Moraceae is traditionally used to treat boils.

She then pointed out the most important step in their programme – the sharing session.

“This is usually done in the evening when the knowledge-holder shows the plants and explains their use,” she said. “To do show and tell is important especially for the younger generations.”

Emphasising that their work was not is not a touch-and-go project, Margarita pointed out that the team also did follow-up sessions with the communities through annual meetings and capacity workshops.

Under the programme, the participating communities were also encouraged to cultivate useful plants for their own use and landscape for conservation, awareness and appreciation purposes.

SBC also empowers the communities by implementing sustainable harvesting.

Margarita explained: “When we identify plants which are useful, we do not want it to be depleted from the forest.”

SBC also collects the documented plants for R&D in its laboratory, which would then be processed as plant extracts for the centre’s natural product library and screened for bioactive compounds.

The centre is also working on several plants which have shown potential for further development.


How indigenous communities can benefit

One good example is LitSara essential oil, a pilot project which utilises the acquisition of PIC from participating communities.

“With this Litsara project, our focus is benefit-sharing with the communities. This is one of the forms how the communities can benefit from the programme.”

The communities involved are the Kelabit of Pa Ukat and Pa Lungan in Bario, the Lun Bawang of Long Telingan and Long Kerebangan in Lawas, and the Bidayuh of Kampung Kiding.

LitSara essential oil is distilled from the Litsea cubeba tree, which grows in the hilly forests of Sarawak.

Traditionally, the tree has been utilised for generations by the Bidayuh, Kelabit and Lun Bawang communities for healing and culinary purposes.

Laboratory tests have shown it has both anti-microbial and repellent properties, besides having a pleasantly revitalising scent.

These criteria made it a suitable ingredient for personal care products such as natural handmade soaps, scented multipurpose spray and even in wet wipes to repel insects.

Sarawak Litsea is registered as a Geographical Indicator (GI), while the essential oil LitSara is trademarked.

Besides this tree, the centre has shortlisted at least three more plants to develop – Bunga Taang (Adenosma nelsonioides) or the Diesel plant, Sarang Bejit (Torenia sp) or Camphor, and Sekiu (Madhuca motleyana) from the Melanau community in Kampung Jemoreng, Matu.

“With the communities providing the raw materials for the essential oils, royalty coming from the products will return back to the communities.”

On that note, Margarita is working on an Access and Benefit Sharing framework for Sarawak funded by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“We are still looking into the details on how this framework should work and how the generated benefits will return back to the communities.”


‘Gelsemium elegans’,which is also nicknamed ‘heartbreak grass’, is a poisonous plant.

Currently, they are still having dialogues with the communities and the final framework should be finalised by the end of this year or next year.

As of June 2016, the SBC team has reached out to 16 communities while documenting 5,500 plants and identified 1,281 of the species.

With that, the centre’s natural products library has identified 23,541 plants extracts, ten chemically characterised compounds, 17 scent tracks, 23,073 microbe extracts, 602 algae strains, three types of enzymes and 331 types of essential oils.

“We have been working with 65 villages and there are more than 3,000 villages in Sarawak altogether. So, we still have long way to go,” Margarita admitted.

Margarita was speaking at a talk at China House on Sept 29.

For more information on Traditional Knowledge Documentation Programme, visit

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