What We Think 2#: Ecocide and Prejudice – A Malaysian Emergency

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“Stop deforestation immediately.” I cringed the first time I heard it.

Socio-cultural anthropologist Dr Ivan Tacey, who was speaking about the role of the Orang Asli in addressing climate change, made it a key recommendation he repeated throughout the two-hour forum. It was echoed strongly by his fellow panelist Dr Lim Teckwyn, the co-founder and technical director of a natural resource consultancy, Resource Stewardship Consultants Sdn Bhd (RESCU).

The first thing that came to my mind was how stopping deforestation completely might disrupt the lives of thousands of workers in oil palm and timber companies. Of Bursa Malaysia’s top 30 listed companies this year, three companies depend on plantations as their main earnings driver. We have an entire ministry dedicated to championing the use of palm oil, flying to and from Europe to protest the ban on palm oil used for biofuels.

So who do these experts think they are to tell us that we should stop cutting down our forests and destroying the lives of marginalised Malaysians in order to avoid flash floods, health epidemics and other environmental disasters?

Wait a minute…

Maybe I should have asked myself who I was to think that my urban life with all its sweltering heat, rush hour traffic and smoky air was worth more than those of my fellow countrymen living in the cool oases of our tropical rainforests.

Tacey, who works with the University of Exeter, is arguably closer to the Peninsula’s native tribes and better at understanding their cultures than many urban Malaysians (including myself) can claim to be. He has spent decades living among our indigineous peoples, primarily the Batek and Manya that reside on the outskirts of Taman Negara.

In his presentation at a forum hosted by Imagined Malaysia and Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY) last Wednesday, his findings were presented in a way that showcased not just how dependent the Orang Asli are on the forest, but how dependent the forest, the rest of Malaysia and even the world is on their survival and well-being.

From left to right: Nadiah Quarantesi (KAMY), Dr Ivan Tacey and Dr Lim Teckwyn.

“The forest is unbelievably cool compared to plantations and urban areas. When water is sucked up through the roots of the trees then evaporated into clouds, you have local weather patterns determined by rainforest fauna which then affects rivers and ocean currents throughout the whole world,” Tacey explained.

He adds that the Orang Asli themselves are able to connect these geological phenomena occurring in various parts of the world to the destruction of wildlife and the environment.

To me, the term climate change evokes images of scientists using sophisticated instruments to measure the sea level every other day, or placard-toting activists in developed countries who can afford to buy non-plastic straws. It makes me think of health-conscious vegans but also seems out of place in a country like Malaysia, which depends heavily on the industrial sector to support its economic growth.

Worst of all, although I understand that any changes to the weather is most likely to affect those who depend on the ocean or the forest for survival, I also assumed I understood more about it than they do.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Lim, who also works with the University of Nottingham, highlights that the Orang Asli’s relationship with the Malaysian Peninsula is believed to stretch back as far as 60,000 years ago.

“Since then, the sea levels have risen and fallen. And at one point, the land was much drier and hotter than it is now – scientists believe that the peninsula was actually not covered by forest, but covered by a dry, savannah-like climate. So there were problems of drought and floods before, and the Orang Asli had already adapted to that way of life,” Lim says.

Unfortunately, much of this resilience to climate change has been destroyed by modern interference, no matter how well-meaning. Government aid or one-off acts of ‘corporate social responsibility’ are assumed to be changing their lives for the better. New concrete homes, access to education and public healthcare, and paved roads are supposed to bring modernisation – no, civilisation! – to their doorsteps.

But it was also deforestation and relocation that made the floods in Gua Musang, Kelantan back in 2014 and 2015 worse for the residents of the area than it could have been.

“The Orang Asli have a lot to teach us in terms of climate resilience. The question to all of us is whether or not we are actually willing to listen to that,” Lim says.

Tacey is quick to point out that exploitation of the environment and mistreatment of aboriginal peoples are not unique to Malaysia. In fact, the effects of colonialism, neoliberalism and even religious proselytising have been seen to affect aboriginals in America, Australia and elsewhere.

Is the damage done?

He shares a heartbreaking tale of his recent visit to a Batek community that once used to live within walking distance to the forest from their villages.

“That group’s been settled in the forest for roughly 40 years. They told me: “Ivan, we’re fed up. You know, it’s with the government has given nothing to us, they told promised us it development, Nothing. And then eventually, we’re going to get back to the forest. We’re going to get back to the forest.”

“I thought, are you really? And they did! It’s great, you know, now they shift between the forest and these forest camps.

“But we just went out last week – it’s all been destroyed – you cannot walk from that village to any forest now. And we were driving people back and forth 20 to 25 kilometres a day just to access that forest.”

What’s worse is the next heart-wrenching scene is not hard to imagine.

“People are crying their eyes out, completely distressed, [saying] we do not want to live like this. It’s an emergency for them,” Tacey shares.

In fact, he uses the word genocide at one point to describe the destruction of these environments that are a lifeline for Orang Asli communities. An audience member offers the word ‘ecocide’ as a term to describe what’s happening.

Putting a name on something makes it immediately easier to imagine or conceptualise. There is no shortage of stories about Malaysians having their livelihoods disrupted due to climate change wrought by government and corporate action.

The morning after the talk at Gerakbudaya, hundreds of fishermen from Penang staged a rally in front of Parliament calling for a stop to land reclamation on the island, which would destroy marine life in the area and their livelihoods.

Days later, moral outrage was sparked by the Health Ministry admitting to having administered contraceptives on Orang Asli women, possibly without their consent.

In Johor, schoolchildren have been hospitalised and diagnosed with myokymia, after having inhaled toxic fumes polluting Sungai Kim Kim.

And we still have the unsolved issue of a pneumonia outbreak among Orang Asli residents of Kuala Koh. While the Kelantan state government has denied this is due to the issue of water pollution, deforestation has certainly affected the quality of water there.

Despite the negative headlines, Lim is encouraged by the small steps Malaysia has been taking towards including more Orang Asli in government and government agencies. This includes the first Orang Asli member of Parliament, namely Barisan Nasional representative for Cameron Highlands, Ramli Mohd Nor.

Positive advances in ecotourism have also been made. Lim points out that the Ministry of Tourism has accepted certain Orang Asli tribes as what is known to be green badge guides that specialise in eco-tours.  Another example is that of Orang Asli living adjacent to the Krau wildlife reserve being employed as wildlife rangers there, he says.

But both Tacey and Lim argued that there is more the modern Malaysian system of governance, which closely mirrors its former colonial master’s, can learn from the Orang Asli than the other way around.

“We need to adapt our systems to the indigenous systems of management. Don’t just follow along with the British or postcolonial system of managing things the way it is now,” Tacey said.

In fact, Orang Asli rights were first championed by UMNO during their formation in 1946, Lim points out. Going further back, it was also an Orang Asli who killed James W. W. Birch, the British Resident of Perak and it was proof of Orang Asli lineage that legitimised claims to power by former rulers of Negeri Sembilan.

Those examples make me wonder if we’ve somehow moved backwards.

Even if I may never step into the green homes of the Bateks or the boats of Penang’s fishing communities, any one of them and their children could harbour ambitions and indeed, grow up to become groundbreaking scientists, doctors, engineers, writers or prime ministerial candidates. Shouldn’t we be safeguarding their health and well being as best as we can?

This is just one of the many questions we need answers to. What matters to the Pakatan Harapan administration? Can a balance be achieved between corporate interests and the livelihoods of those dependent on primary industries?

We don’t just need answers to these increasingly urgent questions. All Malaysians, from government leaders to civilians, need to act.

Originally published by The Leaders-Online. The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Leaders Online.

Photographs by Kalash Nanda Kumar