The Orang Asli community was probably the last to be notified about the Coronavirus pandemic in Malaysia. Scattered throughout Peninsular Malaysia—some at the edge of towns, others deep in the remote jungles—the indigenous people, or Orang Asli (‘original people’ in English) are far away from the epicenter of the pandemic that has been largely concentrated in urban areas around Malaysia, including its capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Those who live in the villages rely on Whatsapp messages to communicate with each other and get their latest news. Up until the WHO declaration of Covid-19 as a global pandemic on 11 March,weddings and sewangs—ritualistic ceremonies for healing and worship involving the entire village—were still being held.
When information started trickling in, many Orang Asli tribes started barricading their villages from outsiders: from loggers to city “holiday-makers” who, bored with the Movement Restriction Order enacted to contain the outbreak, headed out to the forests to camp out in nature.
“This is the correct measure to take,” said Dr. Colin Nicholas, director of the Centre of Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), referring to the Orang Asli preventing outsiders from entering their native territories. Exposing the Orang Asli to outside diseases could be very “damaging” as they have low immunity, he told local online media.
Last year, 18 Orang Asli of the nomadic Batek tribe allegedly died from measles, a disease that was supposedly wiped out in Malaysia thanks to its near universal vaccination programme. Nicholas, who has spent decades advocating for Orang Asli rights, said that malnourishment due to the gradual destruction of their natural environment had rendered the Bateks weak and susceptible to diseases.
Marginalisation and control
The Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia suffer from the highest poverty rate among the multi-ethnic groups that make up Malaysia. Numbering at around 217,000, the 18 major Orang Asli tribes account for a little over 0.6% of Malaysia’s population.
While their numbers are small, their native territories are spread across the forests of Peninsular Malaysia, known to be the oldest rainforest in the world, and possesses one of the highest biodiversity zones on earth.
“The indigenous peoples or Orang Asli have lived throughout the forests of Peninsular Malaysia for more then 18,000 years,” Dr Lim Teck Wyn, founder and technical director of Resource Stewardship Consultants (RESCU) tells New Naratif. Dr Lim spent many years studying elephant-human conflict as a result of deforestation in North Malaysia.
He added that the Malaysian forests contain many endemic and endangered species such as the tigers, tapirs and pangolins, as well as many species and medicines that have yet to be discovered by science. The animistic belief system and nature-based way of life of the Orang Asli have enabled them to live harmoniously with the ecosystem. Although often neglected and marginalised by mainstream society, they thrive where the forests are intact and undisturbed.
Before the country’s independence, the British adopted a protectionist attitude towards the indigenous, regarding them as “noble savages” or wayward children that needed to be taken care off.
This paternalistic attitude was carried over to the new colonials of the independent state of Malaya, with the creation of the Orang Asli Development Department (JAKOA) to oversee Orang Asli matters “from cradle to grave.”
“They treat us like children, and that is an insult. We know how to lead our lives and we know what we want. But they control us so they can take away our self-determination, our land and our way of life.”
Tijah Han Yok Chopil, a grassroots leader and founder of the Orang Asli Village Network, is an oft critique of the system. “The JAKOA is tasked to “take care” of the Orang Asli, but what it does is disempower us by creating a system of dependency,” she tells New Naratif.
“They treat us like children, and that is an insult. We know how to lead our lives and we know what we want. But they control us so they can take away our self-determination, our land and our way of life,” Tijah says. She is the only Orang Asli leader who has successfully created a nation-wide grassroots movement and is instrumental in supporting the use of blockades as a last resort to protect their land against logging.
Land grabbing and deforestation
The nature of logging has changed over the decades, from selective logging to clear cutting with the sole intention of replanting with monoculture cash crops, such as palm oil or rubber. In recent years, durian plantations have become the centre of this issue, driven by the Chinese passion for the thorny fruit.
In 2013, Google forest maps showed that the highest rate of deforestation in the world is in Malaysia, with a high concentration in the state of Kelantan. Trees prevent sediment runoffs and forests hold more water than farms or grasslands and, as such, deforestation can lead to floods. The following year, the worst floods of the century, the Bah Merah (Red Floods) swept the state, causing death and destruction.
Blockading, for the Orang Asli, has become a matter of life and death. Using long bamboo poles and their bodies, the Orang Asli stand side by side in the scorching sun, blocking the laterite roads to prevent loggers from entering their forests. Whole villages have sprung up at blockading sites to support the people who take turns to man the blockades.
“We have tried all means to stop the deforestation, like sending memorandums to the state, demonstrating and protesting, and making police reports, but when all else fails, we are forced to turn to blockades,” Mustafa Along, who belongs to the second largest tribe, the Temiars, tells New Naratif.
“When Kelantan started the Ladang Rakyat (People’s Plantation), more and more of our native lands were bulldozed and made into plantations without our permission. It has caused us not only the loss of our forest and hunting grounds, but polluted our rivers, destroyed our farmland and, most disrespectfully [caused] the destruction of our old burial grounds and sacred sites,” he says.
In 2006, Ladang Rakyat was launched to convert thousands of hectares of rainforest into palm oil and rubber clone plantations as a way to combat poverty. But it was criticised by many for profiting government cronies and has been the cause of serious environmental damage such as the Red Floods in 2014.
Intensification of deforestation in disputed territories has resulted in violent skirmishes between the Orang Asli and licensed loggers. Forestry officers armed with guns and bulldozers removed or burned down the bamboo blockades to allow loggers to enter.
Mustafa has been arrested and taken to court for various “offences” such as inciting his community to break the law, trespassing on forest reserves and preventing officers of law from performing their duties. He was also sued by the durian plantation company for denying them access to the land licensed to them by the state.
“Permanent Forest Reserve”
The root of the problem lies in the legislation, or lack thereof. There is no black and white recognition of “native customary territories” as a terminology in any piece of legislation referring to Orang Asli land rights.
The Aboriginal People’s Act 1954 however, provides limited areas gazetted as “Orang Asli reservations” and “Orang Asli areas” where they can reside, farm, gather jungle produce or hunt. But the rights to do so does not amount to ownership of the land, and at best, the Orang Asli are seen as tenants under the benevolence of the state. Compensation for the loss of native lands is left up to the discretion of the state.
In the Stulang Laut case, the Seletar Orang Asli were offered RM5,000 (USD1,144) per person by the state of Johor, a sum that does not commensurate with the market price of the land. The 51 Orang Asli sued the state for fair compensation taking into account that the land price was valued at RM24 million (USD5.5 million) at that time.
The limited provisions have been made worse by the National Forestry Act introduced in 1984. Areas which have been traditionally recognised as Orang Asli native lands and their right to reside and subsist in it can be taken away by gazetting it as a “permanent forest reserve.”
But the term is a misnomer as it actually means that forests are exclusively reserved for the state’s economic exploitation, even if those areas have been occupied by Orang Asli since time immemorial.
“Under the forest laws, there are two types of forest reserves. There are protection forests and production forests,” explains Dr Lim. “But the vast majority, in fact, the default classification in Malaysia, and in Kelantan it is more than 90%, is classified as a production forest. And in a production forest, if you have a license, you can go in and log the entire forest.”
Faced with this limbo, many Orang Asli groups have fought the matter in court, with the support of NGOs and lawyers who take up the cases pro-bono. Surprisingly, the courts have been quite favourable to the natives, setting a few precedents that have protected the ancestral land rights of the Orang Asli. Lawyers have argued based on the legal interpretations of the highest law of the land—the Federal Constitution.
A National Inquiry on Orang Asli Rights by Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission stated that the Constitution recognises the special relationship between native communities and their land and guarantees the equal rights of all citizens to property and livelihood. “This relationship underlies the spiritual, cultural, economic, and social existence of native communities” in relation to their ancestral land, according to the Human Rights Commission’s interpretation of the Federal Constitution.
“Under the Constitution, the government has fiduciary duty, a responsibility to protect the welfare of the Orang Asli,” lawyer and the founder of the National Centre of Excellence for Biodiversity Law, Dr Gurdial Singh Nijar points out. “They have customary rights that precede the designation of the land as forest reserve. At any event, they have minimum user rights (to the forests) which cannot be impaired.”
Unfortunately, intrusions into native ancestral land continue unabated. The most recent one is the state of Selangor’s plan to degazette 97% of the last remaining urban forest—the Kuala Langat Forest Reserve—which will cut down the presently protected land from 985 hectares to a mere 28 hectares.
The plan for a mixed development project has sent shockwaves through environmentalist groups and the 2,000 strong Temuan Orang Asli community who live off the forest.
“The forest is our supermarket and our pharmacy. We not only obtain our food and medicines from it, but our identity and beliefs are linked to the forest. We collect medicinal plants for our ceremonies which form an integral part of our faith and spiritual connection to the forest.”
Temuan artist Shaq Koyok who grew up hunting and gathering in the jungle has spearheaded a campaign to stop the degazettement. He says his community depended on the forest for their subsistence, their health and spiritual faith.
“The forest is our supermarket and our pharmacy. We not only obtain our food and medicines from it, but our identity and beliefs are linked to the forest. We collect medicinal plants for our ceremonies which form an integral part of our faith and spiritual connection to the forest,” he says.
Environmentalists have also pointed out that the forest’s peat swamp plays an important role as a carbon sink and biodiversity conservation of critically endangered species such as the hardwood Meranti Bakau, the Malayan sun bear, the pygmy flying squirrel, the slow loris, and the rare Langat red fighting fish.
The current lockdown to fight the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down the process, which Shaq is grateful for. “We are asking for a delay in the degazettement in order to hold consultation with the local community, and right now everything is at a standstill,” he says.
The machines are quiet and the Orang Asli are safe—for now.
But when the pandemic is over, the onus appears to be on the Orang Asli to mount blockades or to prove over and over again in court their legal right to live and hunt on their ancestral land.
The Movement Restriction Order has led to a daily increase in requests for food from the Orang Asli communities. If you would like to donate to a fund to help distribute food and provisions to them, please go to this Google document or this page for more information. You can also visit Klima Action Malaysia’s Twitter page for updates.
Jules Rahman Ong
Jules Rahman Ong is a freelance writer, fixer, producer and an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker. He holds a permaculture design certificate and is passionate about creating an inclusive world where humans co-exist with nature.