“Land is Life: When Protecting Forests means Saving Malaysia’s Original Peoples” by Serina Rahman

2019/52, 18 June 2019

Malaysia’s year-old Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has made the headlines for environmental progress. The quick arrest of those behind toxic contamination at Sungai Kim-Kim, the highly publicised rejection of container-loads of plastic waste, and declarations of poachers to be shot on sight were met with praise. But what of the severe forest clearing that affects Pensinsular Malaysia’s indigenous people?

Immediately after the 14th General Elections, there seemed to be minor victories for the Orang Asli too. There was a National Orang Asli Convention graced by the Prime Minister in which 133 resolutions were presented for the government to act on, endorsed by almost 1000 Orang Asli leaders; Professor Juli Edo, a widely respected academic and Orang Asli lawyer was appointed Director-General of JAKOA (Department of Orang Asli Development); and for the first time ever an Orang Asli MP was elected in the Cameron Highlands by-elections. The PH Manifesto pledged the acknowledgement of Orang Asli land rights, and these moves at the top seemed to indicate promise.

But on the ground, the Orang Asli continue to have to prevent encroachment of their land from loggers and plantation investors. On-going stand-offs between state officials, loggers, forestry officers and the Orang Asli, have the former threatening physical harm and criminal charges.

The deaths of the nomadic Orang Bateq in Kelantan is the culmination of the injustices the indigenous people face. Reactions to their deaths were muted compared to the outrage at the Sungai Kim-Kim incident. The government scrambled to determine if the deaths might be tuberculosis, while others conjectured that it might be manganese poisoning from illegal mining activities nearby. The Centre of Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) has long highlighted the issue of malnutrition and poor mental health amongst those whose lives are highly dependent on rapidly diminishing forest areas. Orang Asli experts insist that it was this undernourishment, difficulty in finding food and natural medicines from damaged or razed forest areas that left the Bateq susceptible to disease and finally death.

Real action for the environment requires the political will to withstand lobbyists who argue for ‘economic gain’. Until state and federal governments can understand that the protection of forests and Malaysia’s indigenous people are one and the same, declarations of environmental success ring hollow.

The loss of Malaysia’s primary forests spells the end of the nation’s natural heritage and endemic or endangered wildlife, as well as threatening water resources. The death of the Bateq is an immeasurable loss of a people, culture, knowledge and traditions which are integral to Malaysia. Forest devastation means the loss of Orang Asli identities, lives and souls. This is not an exaggeration.

Until Malaysia is able to centralise control over indigenous lands, acknowledge the importance of complete and healthy ecosystems for indigenous survival, and follow in the footsteps of Indonesia and Ecuador, there is no real progress. Moving the Orang Asli out of the forests ‘for their protection’ only drives the final nail into their coffins.

Dr Serina Rahman is Visiting Fellow under the Malaysia Program at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.