Powerful in Pink

Text and photo by Carolyn Hong

At age 46, Hamidah Idris landed her first job. She became a cook for the swish Terrapuri Resort near her small fishing village in Terengganu two years ago. She is still working there today.

For this, she is grateful to Pewanis, a women’s group in her village. It didn’t find her the job but it taught her the confidence to apply for it.

“Before, I was scared to speak to people, I only talked to trees! But now, I feel more confident after attending some courses with Pewanis and meeting so many new people,” she said.

In fact, she said it was thanks to Pewanis that she boarded a plane for the first time a few years ago on a trip to Kuala Lumpur to attend a course.

“If not, perhaps I may never enter a plane,” she said.

Hamidah is from Kampung Mangkuk which is about an hour from the state capital of Kuala Terengganu.

The picturesque village, with a population of 500, sits in an enviable position along the sandy shores of northern Terengganu. Most of the men are fishermen, and the women housewives.

Pewanis was set up in 2007, as part of a project by WWF-Malaysia and Nestle for the sustainable management of the Setiu Wetlands. Kampung Mangkuk is located within these wetlands which is an important nesting place for the endangered painted terrapin and green turtle.

The on-going project has the twin aims of wetlands conservation and socio-economic development of the local community, both being vital for a healthy eco-system. In short, the focus is not just on the environment but also on the communities who live within them.

The women of Kampung Mangkuk were roped in as key partners.

Its chairman Rusnita Ngah, 43, said they initially faced a lot of skepticism because the village women didn’t understand the venture. But they pressed ahead with just five women. Three years later, they were registered as a society, and now have many more members.

They even have a HQ called the Pink House – a small wooden village house painted hot pink “because it’s a nice colour”.

“And it’s about strength too,” Rusnita added, almost as an afterthought. The women here don’t have any hang-ups about pink.

Their earliest activity was adapted from a skill that the women already had – making the sticky-sweet banana chips that are hugely addictive. They were taught how to package them attractively for sale at bazaars to generate extra income.

The women attended entrepreneurship and other skills courses, and English lessons funded by Nestle through WWF-Malaysia.

Alongside these income generation projects, the women also took part in environmental conservation work guided by WWF-Malaysia, in a bid to make them environmental ambassadors. They replanted mangrove trees, helped to hatch turtle eggs and spread turtle awareness.

At first, these activities were confined to the village but gradually, they evolved to become community-based tourism programmes. Visitors were welcomed to join in making banana chips, planting mangrove and casuarina trees, and helping with turtle hatchlings.

Cultural activities were later added such as making kites and spinning tops, both popular traditional games in this seaside state.

Of late, Pewanis also hosted groups seeking to volunteer in community work such as painting houses in the village. This has been particularly popular with school and college groups, Malaysians and foreigners including Singaporeans.

The tourism revenue generated goes to supporting Pewanis activities and covering the monthly rental of RM200 for the Pink House.

And of course, the turtles. It’s not been easy trying to change behaviour but awareness is growing.

“Before, the children liked eating the turtle eggs. Now they don’t. Many people have stopped eating it. We asked the children to sign a pledge, and they take it seriously,” Rusnita said.

The WWF-Nestle project has now moved to its next phase to build on these achievements. Low-impact tourism will continue to be developed as a means to protect the fragile eco-system and sustain the communities.

In this new phase, Pewani will also be trained to become trainers for other villagers, as a catalyst to push the programme beyond Kampung Mangkuk.

“We have to learn to be independent and to think harder,” said Rusnita.

Its success has already seen an unexpected side effect.

When it began in 2007, all its members were housewives with a lot of time on their hands. Now, like Hamidah, all have found jobs, and have much less time for Pewanis activities.

“It may have become a bit too successful,” said Rusnita with a laugh.

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