BATEK PEOPLE of PAHANG
In Peninsular Malaysia, there are about 18 different Orang Asli, or "First People" tribes. The Batek people, who are categorized in the Negrito or Semang subgrouping, are one of them. Traditionally, the Batek have been a mobile, hunter-gathering people that call the central rain forests of Malaysia their home. Similar to other aboriginal groups around the world, the Batek way of life is challenged by lack of government recognition, loss of traditional land due to monoculture developments and logging, and forced assimilation into modern society. These photos are of one Batek tribe on the western side of Taman Negara, Pahang, and intend to show how these people live, along with their modern struggles.
In recent decades Malaysia has invested heavily into the development of mass palm oil plantations. As the world's top palm oil supplier, it has been a crucial part of the economy and national wealth, but sadly at the expense of the forests. Between 2000 and 2012, Malaysia had the worlds highest rate of deforestation. This has had negative effects on both the biodiversity and aboriginal livelihoods that have relied on the forests for thousands of years.
In an attempt to limit the nomadic lifestyles of the Batek, the Malaysian Government has built communities, or non-mobile reserves, for these people to live in. Small mosques are even provided so that the Batek, who are encouraged to adopt Islam, can conveniently practice their muslim lifestyles. The Batek do not seem to enjoy living on these reserves though. The cement, non-breathable buildings that the government has provided are for the most part unsuitable, as the Batek prefer to build their traditional wooden huts (above). This particular reserve, Kampung Cecak Gelubi, was completely surrounded by a rubber plantation, which limited the availability of forest products for the Batek to survive on.
The forest is everything to the Batek. Their entire livelihoods, culture, and adat (tradition) is based off life under the canopy. To them, getting away from the cement reserves and living within the forest, usually without government consent, is crucial. I found this elderly Batek man (above) to perfectly display his people's need for the forest. He could barely walk, barely talk, and was practically made of skin and bones, yet he was determined to get to one of their forest camps. He wanted to be back in amongst the trees.
Within just several hours the Batek can build lean-to shelters, all made from forest products within their vicinity. The Batek are mobile and incredibly flexible, as decisions to pack up and move again are usually very short notice. A forest camp can be active anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. When leaving, they do not take down or destroy their lean-to structures - they simply let the forest take over.
Unlike the norms of Islamic Malaysia, the Batek are an egalitarian society. Roles are not distributed by gender but by capability. This means that both women and men take part in hunting, gathering, cooking, medicinal activities, and childcaring, among other things. Above is a father looking after his young boy as the mother was out in the forest gathering ingredients for dinner.
Kechik (above) is one of the elders for this particular Batek tribe. He stumbles around camp due to an enlarged foot, but when on a hunt he is more nimble than you can imagine.
The relations the Batek have with non-forest dwellers has primarily been based on economic terms. The Batek, among other Orang Asli, have historically been collectors of valuable forest products, such as ratan, which is used to make furniture. In recent decades they have increasingly been involved in ecotourism, as their extensive knowledge of the forest makes them practical guides. Akoi (above) has been working with the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) to lead treks around the Sungai Yu Wildlife Corridor.
Politics typically isn't the Batek people's forte, as they prefer to physically remove themselves from any argumentative environment, even among their own people. This approach is slowly changing as they are finding it increasingly difficult to "escape". Iwow, the headman of his Batek tribe, is trying to speak out against a hydro project just upstream of the Sungai Yu river. The Batek never had problems with drinking water in the past, but now the water in unsafe to drink without boiling first.
The forest has traditionally provided foods in all forms for the Batek. They consume roots, leaves, nuts, fish, ground rats, birds, turtles, and many more small animals and plant matter. However, the combination of limited forest accessibility and the introduction of currency into Batek society has made them increasingly dependant on cheap processed and store bought food. This has contributed to unhealthy diets, increased illness, increased reliance on modern medicines, and more importantly, increased dependance on the outside world.
Most of the Batek children, along with other Orang Asli children, dropout or never attend school in Malaysia. This is because many of the children are bullied, constantly told they are ugly and stupid by the teachers, and removed from their forest homes. As is the case with schooling aboriginals in other parts of the world, there is also the challenge of preserving their own culture. If the Batek do go to school, they will not be taught anything relevant to their traditional life - infact they will be discouraged from it. Going to school can therefore contribute to further assimilation into modern Malay society, which means loss of Batek culture and lifestyle, and could result in the disappearance of their entire people.
So what does the future hold for the hunter-gathering aboriginals in Malaysia? They are by far the minority in terms of demographics, and they are the poorest socio-economic group in the country. Rights to their traditional land is not being recognized by the government, and their forest homes are being converted into monoculture plantations. They are being forced or encouraged to abandon their nomadic lifestyles, and are encouraged to adopt Islam and other modern Malay norms. To communicate and stand up for their rights they must attend school in order to gain the appropriate literary skills, but then they risk loosing their own traditional knowledge. Change must occur. Orang Asli land rights must be provided so that they can steward their own forests. There should be alternatives to mainsteam Malay teachings, as Orang Asli could benefit from context specific education. Most importantly, respect must be given: to respect the lifestyles, traditions, and beliefs of another group of people. Without this, there is little remaining hope for the survival of the Batek and other Orang Asli tribes in the modern world.