Kuala Wok, Malaysia – High up in the remote mountain jungles of Malaysia’s eastern state of Kelantan, massive deforestation and the country’s worst flood in decades have left indigenous tribes reeling.
In the village of Kuala Wok, the Temiar people’s Sewang ceremony is held to worship and seek guidance from the spirits and nature, and forms an important part of their religion and culture.
During the colourful ceremony the women beat bamboo instruments in rhythm, while the village head leads a group of men through chants, prayers and dances that increase in intensity over several hours. Many experience violent convulsions during the dance, which they attribute to spirits possessing them.
The Temiar place a high value on respecting the environment and its destruction by outsiders is threatening their way of life.
The logging businesses have long had a presence in the region’s expansive jungles, but the rate of deforestation has increased in the past decade as private companies clear-cut the forests.
Ussain Bin Anjang told Al Jazeera that this deforestation was making indigenous communities’ traditional way of life difficult to maintain.
“They are logging close to the water source, so in dry season the river dries up. There is much less water than before. Sometimes it is contaminated and people get sick. We can’t hunt, and it’s very difficult to get our traditional medicine or gather food from the forest,” he said.
Indigenous peoples’ claims of ownership to their land are rarely acknowledged by the Malaysian government when it decides to grant logging concessions to private companies.
Clearing the forests
From a vantage point high up in the mountains, the scale of the destruction is striking. Bald hills stretch as far as the eye can see.
According to a 2012 study by the University of Maryland using Google Maps data, Malaysia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Most of the land is cleared for palm oil or rubber plantations, which have played a major role in Malaysia’s economic growth. After decades of rapid development, the country is now one of the richest in the region.
The same University of Maryland study estimated that the state of Kelantan lost around 15 percent of its natural forest between 2001 and 2012.
According to the CIA World Factbook almost 12 percent of Malaysia’s population belongs to one of dozens of indigenous ethnic groups, each with their own individual language and culture. Most indigenous Malaysians live in the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
The term Orang Asli is used to refer to the various indigenous tribes of peninsular Malaysia. The roughly 180,000 Orang Asli make up less than one percent of the country’s population.
The Malaysian government have long sought to remove the Orang Asli identity by categorising them as members of the dominant Malay ethnic group. The government also promises basic infrastructure projects such as housing, electricity and roads as an incentive for villages to convert from their traditional animist beliefs to Islam, the dominant religion in the country.
‘The government closes their eyes’
Youth indigenous leader Dendi, who only goes by one name, told Al Jazeera that logging and plantations had destroyed many sites of sacred religious importance and that local graves had been desecrated.
Local indigenous customs require that the dead be buried along with their possessions. Al Jazeera was shown areas where the remains of clothes and other possessions could be seen after the earth was dug up for plantations.
“Sometimes the government close their eyes, close their ears. They don’t care about Orang Asli,” Dendi told Al Jazeera.
“When all the forest is gone, how will the small children know about the stories? They won’t know about how to use the forest to provide, how to go hunting maybe next year or another year, when everything’s destroyed,” he said.
Many environmental activists and some scientists believe deforestation was a contributing factor to the size of the flooding that hit the region in December last year, killing 23 people and forcing more than 200,000 from their homes. While flooding is an annual occurrence, December’s floods were the worst on record in Malaysia for 30 years.
“If you don’t respect the forest, this is what happens,” Dendi told Al Jazeera.
Villages higher up in the mountains were cut off from the outside world for a month due to landslides, but were spared the worst of the flooding. Those living further down in the valley, however, were not so lucky.
Slow rebuilding effort
The Malaysian government has promised millions of dollars for infrastructure repairs, housing and aid. However, more than two months since the floods, there were few signs of reconstruction in the Gua Musang region, one of the worst affected by the flooding, when Al Jazeera visited in February.
Whole families who lost houses in the floods can be seen huddled together along the highway, either in makeshift camps of bamboo and tarpaulins, provided by the Malaysian government, in tents from international aid organisations such as Rotary, or donated by the Chinese government.
There is a lack of information on the ground, and villages don’t know when or even if their houses will be rebuilt. The fact that many indigenous people do not own formal deeds to their land may prove to be an obstacle to receiving compensation or financial assistance to rebuild.
Mohamed Thajudeen bin Abdul Wahab, secretary of the National Security Council, the government body that oversaw the response, told Al Jazeera that the government’s response and rescue operations had kept casualty numbers low, despite many people not following the instructions to evacuate before the floodwaters rose.
“There has been no major issue in aid delivery. In fact, there was an overabundance in supply of food sources. It is not true that people didn’t receive enough help,” Thajudeen said.
He explained that the Malaysian government would not rebuild houses along riverbank areas due to the risk of future flooding, and that the reconstruction of 400 houses was already under way, with the work to be completed by June.
“Being poor, most of them are squatters and do not own land,” said Thajudeen. “They were squatting on land not belonging to them. As such again, the government couldn’t rebuild these houses. As land was a state matter, not a federal matter, the federal government [has] had to wait for the state government to identify suitable land for reconstruction of these houses.”
But Colin Nicholas from the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), a Malaysia-based non-governmental organisation that assists in legal cases and advocates for Orang Asli rights, told Al Jazeera that the government had essentially left NGOs to provide services to some Orang Asli villages affected by the flooding.
COAC plans to build 28 houses, and has already begun construction in the devastated Temiar village of Sintip.
Nicholas said that while the state of Kelantan was one of the worst for indigenous land rights and deforestation, the same issues had affected indigenous communities across the country for decades.
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