Batek woman cooking with bamboo. Photo by Toby Holbeche.Batek woman cooking with bamboo. Photo by Toby Holbeche.

About the Author
Patrick Esteves Mills has a bachelor’s degree in Tourism and Geography. Primarily in Asia, he has engaged in sustainable, adventure-based and community-based tourism development. Patrick's focus is in establishing a career in international responsible tourism consulting.

By Patrick Mills, ECOCLUB.com Correspondent

The Orang Asli, or “original people”, constitute less than 1% of Malaysia’s population (Aljazeera, 2015). Many of these indigenous groups were once nomadic hunter-gatherers with strong links and dependency on their forest surroundings. In the early 1990s, a Malaysian government initiative to introduce indigenous communities to Malay culture brought many of these tribes into permanent villages. It was allegedly an effort to have them join ‘mainstream’ Malay culture and convert to Islam (Tacey, 2013). Over time many Orang Asli have lost touch with their indigenous nature, their culture becoming diluted by sedentary employment such as farming and wage labour and a reliance on non-forest goods such as shop-bought foods. The rapid deforestation of Malayan rainforests is further threatening their way of life as logging and farming creates an ever growing gap between them and the forest.

 

The Batek De Negritos are one of around 20 Orang Asli groups in Malaysia. They are a prime example of a tribe based in a permanent village that are nonetheless still very much in touch with their hunter-gatherer culture. A culture that is at risk of being lost with the Batek’s growing reliance on a sedentary lifestyle and rapid deforestation.

The Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MyCAT, Web: http://malayantiger.net) a conservation organisation, and ecotourism volunteer organisation, FuzeEcoteer (Web: http://fuze-ecoteer.com) have begun employing the Batek as guides recognising Batek’s knowledge of the forest and wildlife in conservation initiatives. This has led to the Batek being increasingly involved in conservation and community based tourism development. This article looks at the benefits and potential hindrances of this involvement and considers its potential in aiding in the preservation of their culture.

The Batek De Negritos account for 0.8% of all Orang Asli - 1,447 of 180,000 (Tacey, 2013). Originally forest dwellers, the Batek, have over time been relocated into villages on the fringe of these forests, allegedly at the behest of a misunderstanding government with an agenda of integration and islamification, according to some critics (Tacey, 2013). But this report focuses on the present situation and on the Batek community living on the western border of the Taman Negara National Park, the Batu Jalang community. No longer constantly in the forest, these communities have become increasingly dependent on wage labour and farming. This particular Batek community is amongst the poorest of the Orang Asli, still earning income from selling forest products such as rattan, an activity largely abandoned by others as the efforts in extracting rattan often outweigh profit gained. But even the poorest are becoming more and more comfortable with outside possessions and goods such as motorbikes, phones and even rice.

A Batek guide and FuzeEcoteer team during a CAT walk. Photo by Josh GrayA Batek guide and FuzeEcoteer team during a CAT walk. Photo by Josh GrayThe Batek’s hunting and foraging lifestyle is deeply linked to their surrounding forests. For them, the forest is not only an environment or a source of food, but also a source of culture and identity (Tuck-Po L, 2004). Indeed they hold their forests in such reverence that they perceive it in an altogether deistic way.  Essentially without the forest what is to be ‘Batek’ ceases to exist and in fact even by living in communities outside of the forest, overtime the Batek culture will probably dissolve and the Batek will have been fully transformed from nomad to semi-nomad to settled. Already in this particular Batek village, Batu Jalang, some members believe that children no longer speak or understand full Batek, but instead a Malayan-Batek blend. Consequently the younger generations no longer fully understand the elders and begin to misinterpret the knowledge that is passed down. Once this begins to occur then the full sense of the knowledge taught by the elders is slowly yet surely fragmented, misunderstood, or lost as a whole.   

Employment outside of the forest has affected the Batek interrelationships, in particular gender roles. In their culture, although gathering is primarily carried out by women and hunting by men, women are considered fully capable of hunting. Likewise men are knowledgeable of vegetables and medicinal remedies gathering these themselves. As such co-dependence is deeply linked in the Batek gender relations. As the Batek have gradually begun to participate in a number of different economic activities such as farming and wage labour these relations have changed. Most of “outside” work is primarily reserved to males rendering men as primary “bread-earners”, thus the Batek are experiencing a shift in dependency where the women invariably take on a more subservient role - much like in local Muslim culture.

As it stands the Batek today are debatably semi-nomads having spent a large portion of 30 years in villages, sourcing local wage employment and farming. In effect this has created a dependency primarily on secure currency and an appreciation of non-forest goods. On the other hand the Batek are still capable of surviving in the forest. Blow-pipe hunting and fishing is very much in use and they are known to migrate during fruit season or even if it gets too hot in the village. Nonetheless, as younger generations are born into domesticated environments and the surrounding forests are continuously cut down for farming, it is highly probable that visits to the forest become less and less common.

Deforestation in the wildlife corridor. Photo by Josh GrayDeforestation in the wildlife corridor. Photo by Josh GrayMass logging in Malaysia began around the 1970’s and today Malaysia is suffering from one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, accounting for 14% of its forest cover in the last 12 years (Butler, R. 2015). This focuses primarily in palm oil or rubber plantations invariably opening land to railways, roads etc. which in turn has led to an influx of workers, poachers and tourists (Yong, 2014, Tacey, 2013). The Orang Asli may not perceive the jungle as their property and even when they do lay claims to ownership, these are often disregarded by the Malaysian government (Blakkarly, J. 2015). They are thus often treated as squatters (Tacey, 2013) and their land is often swept from beneath their feet either driving the indigenous people further into the forest or out into the villages. The Batek are also frequently victims of harassment, their experiences with farmers, loggers and poachers having made them suspicious and fearful of outsiders both in and outside of the forest.

Farmers, loggers and poachers have also adversely impacted wildlife including the Malayan tiger, the Asian elephant and the sun bear; these species are now critically endangered (IUCN). Whilst poaching is illegal and logging restricted in natural reserves, animal numbers are still declining. This is occurring commonly in the great forest spine – the Sungai Yu wildlife corridor - connecting the great Taman Negara national park to the central forest reserve. Migratory animals such as the Asian Elephant (less than 1,500 left in the wild - wwf.org.my, 2015) and large predators like the Malayan Tiger (less than 300 - (wwf.org.my, 2015) are increasingly driven into smaller areas due to deforestation making them highly vulnerable to poachers. The plight of the tiger and other species is not dissimilar to that of the Batek, both even sharing the same land in Sungai Yu. As such the notion that the Batek are aiding in the conservation of these animals is somewhat fitting.

MyCAT, first established in 2003, is an alliance between the Malaysian Nature Society, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Programme and WWF-Malaysia, supported by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia for joint implementation of the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan for Malaysia (www.malayantiger.net). The Department provides support to MyCAT in the form of rangers and by policing poaching activity. (This support does not extend onto the Batek, perhaps some prefer not to involve the Batek in guiding or conservation). This initiative is mainly focussed between Taman Negara and the central forest reserve. MyCAT carries out aptly named Weekend “CAT Walks” (Citizens Action for Tigers!) where voluntourists (volunteer tourists), along with experts, hike through different parts of the forest documenting signs of animals such as pug marks and nests, while disabling and reporting any poaching signs in an effort to deter these activities. MyCAT recognised the Batek’s valuable knowledge of the local forests and natural ability in tracking animals and so offered them a role as guides. FuzeEcoteer, a Malayan social enterprise with an office in the Wildlife Corridor, has become essentially MyCAT’s feet on the ground conducting 3-4 weekly CAT walks and employing the Batek as guides on a weekly basis. Your correspondent was, at the time of writing this report, Volunteer Coordinator for FuzeEcoteer’s said project.

Elephant Pug Mark. Photo by FuzeEcoteer.Elephant Pug Mark. Photo by FuzeEcoteer.The potential for Batek involvement in conservation goes beyond guiding. FuzeEcoteer founder, Daniel Quilter, believes that their knowledge and the fact that they spend so much time in the forest makes them ideal candidates as manpower in conservation measures such as setting up camera traps, tracking and data collection. “They [the Batek] have the basic skills to do everything themselves, a bit more focus on things like how to use the GPS and data recording then we could really start building a good map of animal movements”. If the Batek were further trained, the data that they can provide may help dictate conservation efforts by registering vital data which aids in mapping population densities and seasonal changes.  This form of employment offers an alternative to farming or wage labour providing an opportunity for the Batek to earn an income whilst using their knowledge of the forest in conservation.

However, from your correspondent’s personal observation, the role of guide is currently only taken by men and as such Batek women do still struggle to earn an income. As the knowledge of the rainforest is fairly equal in these communities it seems appropriate that both genders be allowed the opportunity. MyCAT and FuzeEcoteer have introduced new activities with voluntourists that includes women and their traditional Batek lifestyle through foraging and camping trips. Voluntourists gain from a cultural learning experience whereas the Batek community earns an income in sharing their knowledge and partaking in traditional hunter gatherer activities.

The introduction of tourism however responsible or minor, has its risks. Although currently conducted with as of yet a minimal number of voluntourists, there is the potential for these activities to become more popular and more common in the future. This runs the risk of altering the Batek’s motivations in carrying these activities out. Younger generations, for example, may grow up seeing the activities carried out for monetary gain rather than as an authentic part of their culture. Conversely this may incentivise younger generations to become more knowledgeable of hunting and gathering and thus potentially sustaining this very knowledge. They also have the added benefit of showing the Batek that outsiders are genuinely interested in learning about their culture possibly reinforcing a sense of pride and self-confidence, a contrast to common attitudes that at times perpetuate disdain for the Batek. If these activities become popular it is essential that FuzeEcoteer’s involvement with the Batek be focussed on providing this form of income responsibly and in an effort to conserve rather than commodify their culture. As an example, a Batek community close to Kuala Tahan, on the south entrance to the Taman Negara National Park, is far more involved in tourism and as an effect their village is often a stage for an artificial display of their culture (Tacey, 2013).

Lastly, there is the issue of equally distributing opportunities. In an effort to conserve social cohesion, a strong element within a Batek community, it is paramount that as many families as possible can enjoy the benefits. At the moment both MyCAT and FuzeEcoteer juggle between a handful of male guides for CAT walks and, thus far, one group of 6-8 women for foraging and camping trips. According to MyCAT representative Ashley Seow, there is currently no guide picking system, other than whoever is available at the time. Perhaps a rotation system of some sort could ensure that more tribe members can benefit from these activities.

Batek woman carving bamboo. Photo by Toby Holbeche.Batek woman carving bamboo. Photo by Toby Holbeche.A meeting in August, 2015, between FuzeEcoteer founder, Dan Quilter, and village members, was carried out in an effort to understand the Batek expectations of the organisation’s involvement. During this meeting it seemed clear that the introduction of new forms of employment was welcome. However, elders expressed their worries of divulging too much of the Batek knowledge to tourists as well as revealing concerns on the number of foreign visits to the village. Dan Quilter expressed his own concern on the current lack of rotation between Batek families regarding current activities. By the end, a carrying capacity of no more than 10 people a day was established and a rota system (monitored by FuzeEcoteer) introduced. Meetings such as this are paramount in ensuring that initiatives are carried out in the best interest of the community.

Currently the Batek are visibly poor in a monetary sense but they are still fully capable of surviving in the forest in relative comfort. Hence, in perhaps a more primal sense they are still very rich. As deforestation eats through the land and the Batek gain a growing reliance on sedentary employment and goods, there is a risk of them losing touch with their nomadic values and blending into mainstream Malay culture. If indeed their forest knowledge is lost, then the Batek will truly be poor in every sense of the word and fully dependent on a government, thus far, ignorant of their wants. Conservation initiatives and community based tourism, if managed responsibly and with the full involvement of the community, could allow the Batek to spend valuable time in the forest, reducing their dependency on outside employment and providing them the opportunity to pursue traditional activities.

From a global perspective, the Batek’s plight serves as a reminder that the dangers of deforestation is affecting not only our wildlife but also humans whose cultures depend on the same environment. The Orang Asli are but a small portion of nomadic tribes ejected from their rainforest for the greater gain of uncompromising and ignorant entities. The construction of the Belo Monte dam in Brazil is another prime example whereby the vast land development has led to a mass influx of migrants, destruction of natural habitats, and the cultural fragmentation of local indigenous tribes (www.amazonwatch.org, 2015). Organisations involving conservation and community development within rainforests can take notice from the Batek case and perhaps recognise that local tribes can play a valuable part in conservation efforts which in itself can play a part in the preservation of these cultures.

Edited by Antonis Petropoulos

All rights reserved, ECOCLUB S.A. (2015)

 

References

Tuck-Po L. (2005). The Meanings of Trees: Forest and Identity for the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 6(3). Pp.249-261

Yong, C. (2014). Deforestation drivers and human rights in Malaysia. SACCESS and JKOASM.

Tacey, I. (2013). Tropes of Fear: the Impact of Globalization on Batek Religious Landscapes.Religions, 4(2), pp.240-266.

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Blakkarly, J. (2015). Malaysia's indigenous hit hard by deforestation. [online] Aljazeera.com. Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/03/malaysia-indigenous-hit-hard-deforestation-150329101349832.html [Accessed 28 Aug. 2015].

Butler, R. (2015). Malaysia has the world’s highest deforestation rate, reveals Google forest map. [online] Mongabay Environmental News. Available at: http://news.mongabay.com/2013/11/malaysia-has-the-worlds-highest-deforestation-rate-reveals-google-forest-map/ [Accessed 28 Aug. 2015].

Cultural Survival, (2015). The Batek De' of Malaysia. [online] Available at: http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/malaysia/batek-de-malaysia [Accessed 28 Aug. 2015].

Wwf.org.my, (2015). Elephant. [online] Available at: http://www.wwf.org.my/about_wwf/what_we_do/species_main/elephant/ [Accessed 28 Aug. 2015].