Rainforest Journal

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Mass Deaths of the Orang Asli at Kuala Koh

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As a Malaysian, I feel grateful for living in this country, which has no major disasters, unlike many other countries around the world. Blessed with tropical rainforests, beautiful beaches, a resilient economy, and relative low cost of living, Malaysia has always been promoted as a paradise, and indeed this is still largely true.

However, for a small minority, the indigenous peoples (Orang Asli) of Malaysia, life cannot be said to be great, especially if you happen to rely on the forest for your living and sustenance. Logging and destruction of their ancestral lands, and being marginalized and discriminated against, are sadly very common occurrences in Malaysia unfortunately. And for the case for the Bateq tribes living at the fringes of north Taman Negara (the National Park) in Kelantan, at Kuala Koh, it has turned very tragic.

Recently, shocking news broke out that 14 Bateq Orang Asli have died in the space of a month alone (May 2019), from a “mystery illness”. Although this is supposed to be big news, apparently, it took a few days of silence before the news was aired on the major news networks. In fact it was on Facebook that people first got to know of the shocking incident. You might wonder why.

The background story for this goes back some years, from the time the forests adjacent to the northern border of Taman Negara Kelantan were completely felled and replaced with vast oil palm plantations by the PAS state government. Not even a buffer zone was left along most of the northern boundary of the National Park (as can be seen from Google Maps). And the wanton environmental destruction has never subsided, but increased over the years with the opening of mines to extract manganese very close to the main entry point of Taman Negara Kelantan at Kuala Koh. Hardly anyone knew or bothered about what was happening at Kuala Koh.

It is the contamination of their drinking water sources by these mines that the Orang Asli believes led to them getting ill and dying as a result. However, the true cause of the deaths can only be known by exhuming or recovering the bodies of the deceased, which the local police say is not going to be an easy task, as the Orang Asli have buried their dead scattered inside the forest in accordance with their customs.

One needs to understand that these Orang Asli are Negritos from the Bateq/Batek tribe who are the last true nomadic hunter-gatherers of the rainforest unlike the other aboriginal tribes of Malaysia such as the Temiar and Jakun who live a more settled existence and plant crops. The Bateq traditionally do not live a settled existence and subsist completely off the forest. Whenever deaths occur in their community, they will shift and move away to another part of the forest, as well as bury their dead in a raised platform located up a tree somewhere in the forest (as what I know). Also, many of them are illiterate and do not know how to report any deaths to the local authorities.

No matter what the cause of the deaths of the Orang Asli will be, it is so important to get the bottom line correct – When you destroy the forest, whether through logging, mining, or wholesale clearance to plant or build something, you cause an enormous amount of suffering and death to its inhabitants (including the human beings that rely on it). The fate of the Orang Asli are intertwined with that of the rainforest. This point cannot be stressed enough.

What has transpired is both very sad and an obvious dictum of the horrible environmental abuse and the low regard that Malaysia has for its forests and the wildlife/native people who reside in it. It is going from bad to worse, day by day. Currently, the Sumatran rhino has gone extinct, and the Malayan tiger looks like it will disappear as well, with latest estimates putting their number at barely 150. Numerous cases of elephants and tapir venturing out of the forest looking dazed and lost as the forest around them shrinks rapidly are commonly reported nowadays.

Although this is still a developing case, one thing is certain. Many human lives have been lost needlessly, and this again exposes what is wrong with Malaysia. The following are some observations:

1) Has Taman Negara been encroached into and allowed to be logged illegally by the PAS government? As I have speculated in my prior post on Taman Negara, it certainly looks disturbing to see a VERY large swath of the supposedly virgin jungle of Taman Negara scarred with numerous LANDSLIDES or exposed soil in Kelantan, which can clearly be seen from Google Maps when you zoom into that area. I am estimating the scarred forest area to be at least 10,000 hectares (or more) of the land within the borders of Taman Negara. This is both puzzling and disturbing to see.

The rivers in Kuala Koh certainly do not look as pristine as the touristy Tahan River down south in Kuala Tahan, and there is a puzzling lack of large timber trees if you peer behind the neram tree rows in almost all the recent photos I have seen to date of the area. Local people say the river turns murky whenever there is rain.

2) If indeed there was illegal logging inside Taman Negara’s borders which is supposed to be a totally protected area, I wonder if the perpetrators will ever be investigated and prosecuted by the MACC (the anti-corruption agency of Malaysia)? Or will it be hushed and swept under the carpet as is so usual in Malaysia? However, in order for the MACC to investigate something, a report needs to be lodged (by someone). A report has already been lodged with the MACC concerning the mine by a member of the Bateq.

Sad to say, the corruption culture in Malaysia is VERY entrenched and all manner of humans and political parties are “afflicted” by it, notwithstanding those humans that hide behind the veneer of religion but whose actions decry them. End of the day, Malaysia should not be seen by foreigners as a cowboy country where people with enough money and power can do as they please (this includes state governments).

3) The federal minister who visited the area said that the license for the mine already expired in 2017, and therefore it is operating illegally and should be closed. Meanwhile, the Kelantan state government still denies the mine caused the deaths. Go figure.

4) Last but not least. When the true cause of the deaths has been determined after post mortems have been done on the deceased bodies, will the whole issue be forgotten and business as usual resume once more? This must not be allowed to happen. The mass deaths of the Orang Asli at Kuala Koh is the culmination of the callous deforestation happening there, regardless whether it is “legal” or “illegal”. This announcement on Kuala Koh is probably just a temporary knee-jerk reaction considering the area has all this while been woefully neglected while illegal activities and deforestation flourished with impunity (but I guess we should still be hopeful).

The whole issue is not about the Orang Asli falling sick, relocating them to somewhere out of the way, and then continuing the environmental genocide once the whole thing blows over. This is what the culprits want.

5) An independent task force should be set up to thoroughly investigate the mass deaths of the Orang Asli so that there is no “cover up” on this matter. This call for the government of Malaysia to present a new roadmap for the indigenous tribes of Malaysia who have long been oppressed and discriminated against should be emphasized. The mass deaths that happened at Kuala Koh is only just one of many that the indigenous tribes of Malaysia have had to endure. Elsewhere in Perak and other parts of Kelantan, the Temiar tribes have had to put up blockades to stop timber trucks from entering their lands, only to have them destroyed by their own state governments using gangster-like tactics.

What can we learn from this tragic episode? Or did we learn anything at all? The fact remains – logging and clearing of large areas of forest (the trend now is to convert forest resources into “plantation forests” in order to plant durian or rubber/oil palm) is still VERY prevalent in Malaysia, while at the same time there is a great lack of will to conserve those same resources. The lure of big sums of short-term easy money is too great for most to resist. Therefore, as long as these misplaced priorities are still the top agenda, the flora, the fauna, and even the native peoples of Malaysia will eventually go extinct. Sooner rather than later.

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