Kuala Koh, Malaysia – In the village of Kuala Koh, deep in Malaysia’s northeast, basic tarpaulin homes surrounded by oil palms cling to the land – the shelters of an indigenous community in crisis.
Over the past six weeks, 15 Batek nomadic tribespeople have died in the area and more than 100 are receiving medical treatment after an outbreak of disease.
A handwritten list of the dead, shown to Al Jazeera, makes for devastating reading. Along with the adults are three children; one just six months old.
“I have just returned from Gua Musang after escorting the body of the latest victim for post-mortem at the hospital,” community leader Mohamad Pokok told Al Jazeera in Kuala Koh. “She went into the customary land for four days and developed a fever … Three days after her return, she died.”
Malaysia’s Orang Asli, the indigenous people who live on the Malaysian peninsula, have long existed on the fringes of society.
The Batek are among the most marginalised tribes within the Orang Asli, struggling to survive as the forest they live in is cut down for timber and replaced with plantations.
“The marginalisation of the Orang Asli has left them in abject poverty,” said Alberto Gomes, emeritus professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne who has spent 40 years researching the indigenous community.
“They’ve lost their means of production and survival and been robbed of their cultural autonomy.”
In a statement on Monday, Malaysia’s health ministry said tests showed that 37 of the 112 people who had fallen sick had been infected with measles. Three had died from the disease, including a severely malnourished two-and-a-half-year-old child who had developed pneumonia, a complication from measles, and died at the weekend.
“Based on lab tests, the illness that struck the Orang Asli in Kampung Kuala Koh was measles,” Malaysia’s Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad said. He said immunisation coverage in the settlement was just 61.5 percent for the first dose, and that 95 percent coverage is required to protect a community.
The ministry began investigating the deaths after reports emerged earlier this month that Batek people in Kuala Koh were dying from an unknown illness.
About 185 people live in Kuala Koh, which lies in a rural area close to the Taman Negara National Park. Even though the area is reasonably accessible by road, there is no clean water or electricity and many of the Batek are severely malnourished and suffer from fungal skin conditions. The nearest major hospital is 75km away.
Colin Nicholas, executive director of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, who visited the Batek at Kuala Koh between 2009 and 2012, said the villagers he met then were a “healthy and happy people. And still in full control of their lives” despite encroachments that began in the 1970s.
The Batek’s forest and customary land have come increasingly under threat and the environmental destruction only accelerated after the devastating floods of 2014, which inundated large swaths of central and eastern Malaysia.
“Without an intact resource base for their subsistence needs, without the ability to practise their traditional way of life, without full control of their lives, they became malnourished, underweight, and depressive,” Nicholas added. “Their body resistance dropped.”
Dr Steven Chow, a dermatologist and president of Malaysia’s Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations, first visited Kuala Koh in the wake of the 2014 floods as part of the federation’s programme to provide medical aid to indigenous communities.
Chow immediately sounded the alarm after his visit.
“Living conditions were appalling,” he told Al Jazeera. “There was no safe water supply and sanitation was poor.” He added that, although there was no sign of measles at that time, children were suffering from health conditions including upper respiratory tract infections, diarrhoea, worm infestation, scabies, and gross malnutrition.
Pokok, who took over as community leader after the death of his brother and nephew last month, initially feared a manganese mine next to the village had contaminated the river they rely on for their water, saying it smelled like “oil and elements used for explosives”.
Tests at the site found no pollution and that water samples met national safety standards. Supervisor Tan Dok Fung said the mine was set up in the area three years ago but had not been in operation for the past two.
Health officials also ruled out diseases including tuberculosis, leptospirosis – a disease from water contaminated with rat urine – and melioidosis.
Near the village entrance, bright blue water-purifying units installed by the Malaysian government stand next to concrete houses with solar panels on top. The electricity, however, doesn’t work and, despite a message on the side reading “working towards ending water poverty,” the purifiers have long been broken.
Instead, the villagers, used to a nomadic lifestyle, built their shelters within walking distance of the forest and closer to the rivers and streams they depend on for water.
Many Batek remain under quarantine in local hospitals, and their village has been cordoned off behind a military checkpoint along the main access road. Only those investigating the deaths are allowed to enter.
Some of those who died were walking in nearby Taman Negara National Park, a vast tract of protected rainforest that the Batek consider their customary land, when they were taken ill. According to local custom, those who fall ill are left in the jungle.
There is just not enough jungle now in that area for their traditional nomadic way of life. It is a death trap.
“They took a raft upriver and died in the forest,” Pokok said. “One day there were two deaths and another day there were three deaths.”
About 12 of the 20 Batek who made the journey died. After an extensive search, police have now recovered the bodies, which have been taken to Gua Musang hospital for post-mortem.
Land and forests are a lucrative source of funds for Malaysia’s states, leading to regular conflicts with indigenous people.
Kelantan, where Orang Asli recently set up blockades to try and prevent logging and secure legal recognition of their land, now faces legal action by the federal government, although the case has yet to start.
“There is just not enough jungle now in that area for their traditional nomadic way of life,” Chow said. “It is a death trap. We cannot be laying blame on them. We should look for where and how the system has failed.”
Additional reporting by Tracy Toh