BRUNEI Darussalam is well known as a country that has vast potential in ecotourism due to the sultanate’s natural biodiversity and pristine nature. However, one aspect of the sector is often overlooked by the masses: the community.
When ecotourism is discussed in the public sphere, its purpose always seems to revolve around the preservation of flora and fauna, of reconnecting with mother Nature in the most respectable way possible, but what of the community?
The people who have spent a majority of their lives wrist deep in soil; whose knowledge of the natural world is gained through hard-earned experience rather than learned.
For Eyon Ukoi, founder of Eco Ponies Garden, a farm-stay located in the Tutong district, her approach towards ecotourism has always been people-centric. Though the garden aims to reconnect urbanites with the environment, she simultaneously wants to give her visitors a peek behind the curtains, of the slice of life of those who live alongside nature.
“What brings me to do this (establishing Eco Ponies), is the trust that I have for the community (because) they (the community) are an asset, regardless of their age and background,” said Eyon.
Located in a small two-acre corner of Kampung Bang Nukat, Lamunin, the garden is on its way to becoming a popular tourist destination, with more than a thousand visitors since its establishment in late 2015.
In essence, Eco Ponies combines the spirit of community and sustainable agriculture as they provide visitors with the unique experience of farm-to-table living, using organic produce harvested by local farmers.
“We want our visitors to experience what it feels like to cook and consume food that they have harvested themselves; it is a unique experience that allows our visitors a taste of being part of a farming community,” she explained.
Proud as Eyon was with this achievement, she acknowledged that the success of the garden was largely achieved through collaborations with local communities.
“We have never seen the garden as a place of business but rather as a platform where local residents, from all walks of life can share their experiences and expertise – whether through growing produce or showcasing their ethnic traditions.
“At Eco Ponies, those who are involved, we work together to achieve the same goal, which is to bridge the gap between generations and cultures,” said Eyon.
According to her, one of the unique aspects of Eco Ponies is how international visitors are provided the opportunity to witness the strong communal relationships that are prevalent among Bruneian residents.
“Usually, when we have international visitors – mainly backpackers – you can observe how even as early as dawn, people from the community will come by to drop off their goods that will be used for the garden,” she said.
She added that when they receive tourists, especially those who stay for a significant period of time, Eyon and her team would encourage them to interact and form bonds with the communities living within the area.
“We would bring them around to visit the residents, and to our surprise, most of these individuals are very unfamiliar with our ways and interactions with the community, how our company is always received regardless of whether or not we give prior notice of our visit,” she added.
“They (tourists) love this aspect of our culture; it shows them the close familial bonds that Bruneians have with one another. By engaging themselves with the community, it gives them the chance to be a part of a family, away from their home countries, which makes the memories of their time here much sweeter,” she continued.
Eyon noted how the support from the local community has been essential in creating an environment where visitors can feel like they belong, through the donations that they have made. These donations, she said, encompass a variety of things, including organic produce, recyclable materials as well as ornamental decorations that help the garden give off its rustic vibes.
Most of the facilities that the garden has were built by tourists, according to Eyon, using materials provided by the community. She said that this has created a novel contrast within the garden’s aesthetics, an eclectic amalgamation of sorts between East and West.
“We often hear comments about Eco Ponies, of how even though the aesthetics represents the rural life, it is still too westernised, but we disagree with this.
“We have never presented the garden as something traditional… we always say that it represents something cultural, because every visitor (to the garden), whether they are local or international, leaves a little piece of themselves here,” she noted.
Despite seeming to channel her focus in ensuring the garden’s visitors have the most authentic and holistic experience of rural life, the initial reason for the garden’s establishment, which is community growth is not lost on Eyon.
She explained depending on the number of visitors or the type of events conducted at Eco Ponies, she would always ensure the involvement and participation of the relevant communities.
“Our role here (at Eco Ponies), you can see us more of a mediator, to facilitate business opportunities for the local communities, but the businesses that we conduct here, is done informally,” she said. “This is because we still want to maintain that village feel, so even with the farmer’s market that we have established (in the garden), it harks back to the olden days, where markets were a place for socialising among members of the community.”
Until now, there is no signage outside Eco Ponies Garden that provides any indication of the farm stay’s existence yet; a fact that Eyon is fully aware of and one that she also prefers.
“If we put any signage, it might deter community members from coming here because they might think the garden is strictly a place for business, but it is not. We want to maintain that the garden is an open space for local communities to share and contribute. Everyone is welcomed,” she said.
With all the progress that the Eco Ponies Garden is experiencing, Eyon hopes for a bigger and brighter future not only for the garden but also community-based tourism in the sultanate, as a whole.
“This is the dream, for community-run businesses like this to succeed and to be emulated by other communities, especially those with the potential for ecotourism, such as those in Temburong. I also hope that one day, even when I’m gone, the garden will be passed down to youths of the community because this place is important. If managed right, (the garden) provides people with connections; it tethers people to something bigger than their individual selves – the community.”
By Wail Wardi Wasil and Rosera Mohd, 19th November 2017, New Brunei Daily - nbd.com.bn