Palm oil threatens indigenous life in Malaysia

Growing demand for palm oil is depleting forests as the Orang Asli tribe fights for its rights.

Dendi Johari is an Orang Asli fighting for his tribe’s rights in Malaysia’s eastern state of Kelantan.

As an indigenous activist, Dendi makes trips from his village in the deep forest of Gua Musang to the state’s capital to attend court hearings, community meetings and participate in forest road blockades to protest logging in the lands that Orang Asli consider theirs.

“I see the forests being cut down with such greed and without control,” said Dendi.

In Malaysia, some of the world’s highest deforestation rates have led to significant loss of biodiversity and threaten such endangered species as orangutans. Indigenous people who depend on the forests for livelihood also fear for the day they will not be able to follow their way of life if nothing changes.

“If the land is barren, there are no more sources of life. Our traditions will die,” said Dendi.

Around 200,000 Orang Asli live in Peninsular Malaysia and have a powerful relationship with nature.

They praise it through the Sewang ceremony where, guided by sounds of bamboo, they sing and dance.

“Nature gives us power. It gives us dream songs,” said Dendi. “We ask nature to protect us from misfortune and disasters. We regard the forest as our home. It’s very valuable. You cannot buy it with money.”

To not disturb nature, Orang Asli use blowpipes to hunt in the forests and wear special crowns as a sign of their good intentions.

In the forest, they find food, medicine and other needed materials. 

Dendi looking around the cleared lands after hunting in the forest [Drew Ambrose/Contrast]
Dendi looking around the cleared lands after hunting in the forest [Drew Ambrose/Contrast]

A multibillion-dollar business, however, reigns over the tropical lands of Malaysia. Lush forests are cut down to plant oil palm plantations that produce the most commonly used vegetable oil in the world.

Palm oil can be found in half of the packaged products in supermarkets, including biscuits, ice cream, soap and cosmetics. The world consumes around 60 million tonnes of palm oil each year. The figure has gone up 400 percent in 23 years.

Demand is expected to keep growing.

Malaysia produces around 39 percent of the world’s palm oil and is the second-biggest producer after Indonesia.

For Kelantan and some other states, logging is one of the main sources of income and the state governments are the ones responsible for granting logging licences, as they possess constitutional powers to make decisions on matters related to lands.

The federal government affirmed that this jurisdiction cannot be disputed, even though the courts claim that such powers are not absolute and that the country should respect and protect Orang Asli land rights.

“States have to think about the future. The forest is not a factory,” Jerald Joseph, commissioner at SUHAKAM, the national human rights institution of Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.

Orang Asli witness a truck full of oil palm fruits struggling to drive up the hill [Drew Ambrose/Contrast]
Orang Asli witness a truck full of oil palm fruits struggling to drive up the hill [Drew Ambrose/Contrast]

“If we were dealing with some other products, that would be more understandable, but once you deplete the forest, it creates problems for the future.”

There is hope that the recent major political shift in Malaysia might bring positive changes for Orang Asli. The new government has promised to do more to protect their customary land rights.

The new prime minister has announced setting up a special task force to safeguard the interests of the Indian community, women, youth and Orang Asli.

While activists claim Orang Asli matter could qualify for a special ministry, meetings between Orang Asli representatives and politicians are being held in Kuala Lumpur to shape the future of collaboration.

“In my heart, I pray that victory is on our side. But it is very difficult because they (the loggers) have power and money,” said Dendi, walking around the expanding cleared lands. “It’s sad that I see the forests disappearing day after day. The next generation will not know the names of the trees and medicinal plants. And that is a great loss for all human beings, not only the Orang Asli.”

The Curse of Palm Oil, a virtual reality film, produced by Contrast and 101 East, current affairs documentary programme, explores the connection Orang Asli have to the forests that are cut down to make way for oil palm plantations.

Source: Al Jazeera