Rohana Angah is 12 years old but you could easily mistake her for a five-year-old girl. The orang asli child weighs 12.4kg and is only about 80cm tall because she suffers from malnutrition. Her eyes are dazed and distant, her mental impairment a result of a fit caused by an electrolyte imbalance in her body last year.
Sadly, her stunted body is not that unusual where she lives.
Rohana is an orang asli living in an interior village called Pos Kemar in Gerik, Perak. She is the third and shortest among seven siblings, but her brothers and sisters are also stunted to different degrees, signalling generally poor nutrition.
“All we have to eat is tapioca and rice,” her father, Angah Ajin, 39, tells us in Malay. (Photo above is of Rohana, second left, with her family, from left, sister aged 16, father, siblings aged eight, seven, and four, and mother carrying a one-year-old baby.)
There isn’t enough food to feed the children, according to Angah, a cry that is echoed by the Temiar in all four of the villages we visit while accompanying a relief mission organised by non-governmental organisation Persatuan Kebajikan Saudara Perak (PKSP).
According to the women who do the cooking, meals typically consists of rice with salt and the occasional addition of produce collected from the forest.
Located deep in the jungle about 35km south-east of Gerik, the Pos Kemar resettlement scheme consists of 15 orang asli villages of between 50 and 200 people each, making up more than 4,000 people within the area.
Since June 2018, three blockades have been established in the area – in Kampung Tasik Asal Cunex, Kampung Ralak and Kampung Cenawing – as the orang asli fight to protect their ancestral land from being logged.
Despite cries that logging companies are threatening both their heritage and livelihood, trees continue to fall.
Perak Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu has reportedly defended the state’s logging activities, saying that the protests will hurt the timber industry.
Orang asli, who make up only 0.6% of the Malaysian population, have the smallest carbon footprint but are the hardest hit by the threat of deforestation and a slow economy. These twin troubles are hitting them where it hurts most: in their tummies.
Due to rampant deforestation, there is little left of their food bank, the jungle. Traditional hunter-gatherer orang asli have relied for generations on the jungle for food, medicine, clothes, and building materials. Rivers, their only source of water, are also threatened by deforestation, as silt from denuded land ends up in waterways, making them shallower and murkier.
Once self-sustainable, the orang asli now have no choice but to be reliant on rice purchased from the “outside”.
Many of the jungle-dwelling tribesmen manage small government-sponsored rubber plantations, but this is no longer a viable economic option. Falling commodity prices means they can’t earn enough to buy the food they need.
The Temiars we meet tell us they sell their raw rubber for between RM1.60 and RM1.80 a kilogramme; generally, and depending on their collection, they can only take home a meagre RM200 a month.
PKSP volunteer paediatrician Dr Lee Kim Seng says that while there is a trend of malnutrition, it has yet to reach severe levels – “but if they continue their lifestyle like this, definitely it will compromise their health” in the long term. (See story on vaccinating the orang asli.)
Don’t Say ‘Elephant’
It has not always been this way, of course. Aleuj Tengah, 78, the former Tok Batin (village elder) of Kampung Ralak, remembers a time when food was abundant.
“When I was 18, we had enough to eat. Our plantation was not a joke, we had padi, potato, banana, sugar cane, everything was growing here,” says Aleuj (he is named after the creator spirit in Temiar folklore).
“Now, if I plant banana trees in the morning, in the afternoon the orang besar (VIP) will come, rip out our trees and eat our bananas.”
Like his fellow villagers, Aleuj uses the code “orang besar” for elephants. Mentioning the animal’s name is taboo as the villagers believe it will attract it to their homes.
“Just last night the orang besar came and stomped on our rubber seedlings, everything is gone.
“What can we eat now? This is our hardship, we are starving. But where can we run? We live with them.”
Every villager we speak to has a tale about competing for food with elephants. Aleuj’s wife pulls some grass up to show the arid soil underneath.
“The orang besar have destroyed everything. The weather is so hot, our crops are not growing, the river and jungle are empty.”
However, Aleuj doesn’t actually blame the elephants. He might not use words like “deforestation” or phrases like “loss of natural habitats” that force wildlife to invade human spaces but he knows where the blame lies: “It’s not the orang besar’s fault, it’s the loggers fault. The mountains are now empty, smooth as far as the eyes can see.
“And all our ubi asal (wild yams) are gone, so what do we eat now?”
Conflict Of Interest
Scientists from Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) say the orang asli’s increasing vulnerability to elephants is connected to a resettlement scheme known as Rancangan Pengumpulan Semula (RPS).
(MEME works with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia.)
In the 1980s, during the second communist insurgency from 1968 to 1989 (the first was the Malayan Emergency, from 1948 to 1960), the government moved orang asli into RPS areas. There were two reasons to do so: To stop the orang asli from helping the communist hiding in the jungles and to allow the government to provide healthcare, education, economic and infrastructure development.
There are a total of 17 RPS areas in Peninsular Malaysia with six in Perak, seven in Pahang, three in Kelantan and one in Johor.
According to human-elephant conflict researcher Lim Teck Wyn, traditionally, the Temiars would not live in one place for very long as they practised shifting cultivation and lived in small communities. Swiddening – the practise of slashing and burning to prepare land for cultivation – had allowed them to avoid the elephants but conflict is unavoidable now that they have settled in one fixed location, he says.
Elephants have learnt that these villages have abundant food for them, often returning to the same villages.
“The growing population in the RPS has also increased the risk and frequency of
conflict with the elephants,” Lim says, adding that the government encouraged farming and discouraged the orang asli’s traditional economic activity of collecting and selling forest produce.
“Now, the elephant is constantly in contact with people, the elephant is becoming braver and more aggressive towards people.
In a way, the scheme, while meant well, is actually responsible for creating a situation where the orang asli are more vulnerable to elephants physically, financially and economically, Lim claims.
“The very fact that the orang asli are complaining about a lack of food, poor access to food sources, and malnutrition simply says the RPS scheme has failed,” claims Colin Nicholas, founder of Centre for Orang Asli Concerns.
Nicholas says while the RPS has decreased mortality rate and increased healthcare and education, orang asli health statistics are still far below the national average. (“Orang asli children are not being vaccinated” – see story here.)
The Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa) website confirms that the socio-economic status of most orang asli communities still lags behind in various fields when compared with other races in Malaysia.
Nicholas says when the RPS programme was first introduced, the orang asli were willing to relocate and give it a try but around 2014, some groups decided to “go back home”, as they didn’t feel the scheme was benefiting them.
“RPS has not been designed to address a number of things, including the expansion of communities and the interest of the orang asli.
“A number of policies that were put in place along the way, such as agriculture, are actually working against their interests,” Nicholas says, adding that it took away their autonomy.
Nicholas says at least four communities in Gerik have left the RPS scheme to re-establish their communities on ancestral land.
“Some who have left are even doing better than they did at the RPS.”
However, this puts them at odds with the state authorities, as the state considers the customary land state land and that it has the legal right to exercise full ownership over it.
One of them is Kampung Tasek Asal Cunex, which is in the spotlight for the ongoing Cunex blockade.
“I’m aware that some groups are leaving their RPS to reclaim their ancestral land,” says Jakoa director-general Datuk Ajis Sitin, attributing this to an issue of space.
He says the design of the RPS did not foresee a growing population, adding that the department has intentions to extend the size of the settlement area.
“Now, some RPS areas are becoming crammed, the population has grown so there is not enough housing, not enough food or farmland,” he says.
He acknowledges that human-elephant conflict is prevalent in Hulu Perak and Hulu Kelantan, but pegs it as a logging and development issue.
“The forest area is getting smaller due to expansion of agriculture land, the elephants have nowhere left to roam and so they are entering the villages.”
Ajis, who is from the Semai tribe in Pahang, says as long as orang asli ancestral land is not defined in the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954 (Act 134), the dispute between the respective state governments and the orang asli will persist.
“The Act needs to be reviewed so orang asli ancestral land is recognised,” he says.
“The orang asli in Malaysia are not B40 (lower income group), they are B0.6, they are the hardcore poor,” Ajis adds, referring to the fact that orang asli make up 0.6% of Malaysia’s total population.
As new logging signboards continue to pop up in the jungles of Gerik, the orang asli grow increasingly worried about their future.
“We are living with half our lives, not to our fullest,” village elder Itam Aman from Kampung Penseg says.
“Our living place is difficult to live in, food is difficult to find…. We feel that in the future, we may go extinct.”