Dr Serina Rahman (left) holding a jar containing a marine sample, at Kelab Alami in Tanjung Kupang. PIX BY ZAIN AHMED

Like many other fishermen in villages that dot the seaside subdistrict of Tanjung Kupang, Shalan Jum'at has seen an increasing influx of Malaysians and foreigners wanting to hire guides like him to discover the natural beauty in this corner of southwest Johor.

The 30-year-old's life now is a far cry from the time his neighbourhood in Kampung Pendas here was regarded as a sleepy hollow that was too far off the grid for many urbanites.

The advent of development such as nearby Forest City, and a boom in eco-tourism have opened Shalan's eyes to the potential of the natural wonders in the sea and rivers that lie just at his doorstep.

"Rapid development has changed the face of Tanjung Kupang for the better.

”It prompted me to grab the opportunities by diversifying my skills.

"Though I cherish the good old days, when my family solely relied on the sea for our livelihood, I know I must face the changes around me head-on.

"I still go about my work as a fisherman, but I also train youths in the village to become eco-warriors.

“I teach them to seize opportunities around them by imparting entrepreneurial skills," said Shalan.

The subdistrict of Tanjung Kupang, Gelang Patah, has a population of 11,000; 245 of them are registered fishermen.

Nine years ago, Shalan co-founded Kelab Alami, an outfit that enables villagers and school pupils to learn more about the rich marine eco-system and environment there.

The area is known for its rich sea grass nearby Pulau Merambung and the Sungai Pulai estuary, which are teeming with marine life such as sea horse, starfish and a myriad of other species.

When reclamation work for Forest City began two years ago, the project's master developer, Country Garden Pacificview Sdn Bhd, began lending its support to Kelab Alami's grassroots initiative.

The master developer also adopted five schools in the subdistrict and provided free tuition for hundreds of pupils as part of its corporate social responsibility.

This has worked well for Shalan, who earns the respect of the local youth who are part of Kelab Alami.

Some of these youngsters returned to the club and now work as marine researchers and facilitators. Others have become entrepreneurs at Forest City and its surrounding traditional villages.

Shalan also met his wife, Dr Serina Rahman, through his work in Kelab Alami.

The couple have been training youths to become marine researchers and trainers for school pupils in the programmes conducted by the club.

Serina, 31, who is a conservation scientist and environmental anthropologist, relocated from Kuala Lumpur to Kampung Pendas in 2008 for a research project.

When she married Shalan four years later, the couple continued to bring pupils from nearby schools to conduct site research and expeditions to evoke awareness about the area's natural treasures.

"The children were as young as 10 when I first met them. We trained them to become citizen researchers and eco-tourist guides.

"Those that I met when I first came here are now grown up. They can present slides and give talks on environmental issues in the village.

"The tourists love it when the local youths share with them about things in their own village," said Serina, who is a down-to-earth person, despite her academic credentials.

She holds a doctorate in Applied Sciences from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) and a bachelor's degree from Cardiff University of Wales, United Kingdom.

When talking about depleting marine life in some parts of the country, Serina said it was an issue affecting the entire world.

"It is a global phenomenon where marine food stocks face a threat of being wiped out by 2050.

"The best we can do is rebuild and resort to species re-stocking.

"The master developer of Forest City is funding Kelab Alami," she said.

Serina said the club became a platform to mentor pupils from the nine villages in Tanjung Kupang.

Kelab Alami members inform each other about work and interning opportunities available in the development of the mega project.

"This club benefits the local children in various ways. As Internet connection is not good in some parts of Kampung Pendas, and most of the older fishermen and their families aren't Internet-savvy, our members will knock on their doors whenever there is news of job opportunities in Forest City," she said.

Nur Afiqah So'ot, 19, is among the many youngsters who joined Kelab Alami as a child and developed an interest in nature and conservation.

"As a child, I used to love playing marbles and all sports that boys like to play. But the club enabled me to learn about farming and the rich marine life that we have.

"I hope to become a scientist one day. I am hoping to pursue a degree in biodiversity and conservation," said Nur Afiqah.

Mohammad Irfan Yazid, also 19, initially dreamed of becoming an architect. But now, he has set his sights on becoming a scientist, specialising in the study of mangrove forests, which is in abundance in his village. For now, Irfan is helping out at a motorcycle workshop located in Forest City.

"I also dabble in making and selling burgers. I’m running an 'ikan bakar' (grilled fish) stall in the village. I am learning all these entrepreneurship skills from Shalan," Irfan said.

FREE TUITION


Zulkiflee Miswan

SK Tanjung Adang headmaster Zulkiflee Miswan, 47, said Country Garden Pacificview's free tuition programme had benefited the five schools that were adopted by the master developer.

"The tuition sessions come with complete meals for pupils and these have benefited them as they make preparations for their Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) this year," Zulkiflee said.

He said SK Tanjung Adang was among the five schools adopted by Country Garden Pacificview.

The other four schools were SK Tiram Duku, SK Tanjung Kupang, SK Murni Pok and SK Pendas Laut.

"No other developer has done this and we appreciate the developer's effort under its corporate social responsibility programme," he said.

Country Garden Pacificview corporate communications head, Aeron Munajat, said the developer supported Kelab Alami because its activities helped youths develop their confidence and self-esteem as well as their social and interpersonal skills.

"As a responsible member of the community, Country Garden Pacificview helps to increase awareness about the environment in this area as the community is surrounded by natural treasures some are not aware of.

"We are looking at a collaboration to set up a Nature Centre, which will boost eco-tourism in the area in the future. Eco-tourists also love the young ambassadors of Kelab Alami," she said.


Aeron Munajat

Aeron is a Johor Baru-born public relations practitioner, who decided to return to her home state after working for many years in the Klang Valley.

Aeron said events such as ‘buka puasa’ (breaking of fast) during Ramadan and gatherings, as well as donations of cattle and other items during big celebrations such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Hari Raya Aidiladha, have strengthened ties between the community at Forest City and folk in the surrounding villages.

She also paid tribute to the teachers of the five adoptive schools for their willingness to stay back after school hours to provide tuition in four subjects for the pupils who were taking their UPSR this year.

"We are also launching a free Mandarin tuition class for the villagers this month. We hope that all our effort will give the local community a sense of inclusiveness."

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