It was a tragedy that should not have happened – 18 reported deaths (three official) and 112 people sick among Bateq Orang Asli in Kelantan.
Som Yai had to watch helpessly as her husband, Hamdan, turned into a “bag of bones”. She had barely begun to mourn when her three children fell ill and died. A heartbroken Som told reporters: “I felt so helpless.... They were just lying there in pain, and could not even eat or drink anything.”
The “mystery” illness among the Bateq – which Kelantan health authorities reportedly tried to play down initially – turned out to be measles.
Measles, an extremely contagious disease, is easily preventable with vaccination. The vast majority of the world’s children are vaccinated against it. Some countries have even eliminated it.
Usually, measles deaths occur in countries that are poor or with weak health infrastructure. Not in a country like ours. This is a failure of state health services.
The Health Minister has now called upon all states to increase surveillance of measles cases and immunisation coverage among Orang Asli communities.
Measles is caused by a virus, but neglect, poverty and exclusion were factors here. Malnutrition, a problem in the community, increases the risk of complications and death from measles. One toddler who died weighed only 7kg at death, just over half the average weight of a child that age.
The real underlying issue here is one of rights: right of the Orang Asli to live on their traditional, ancestral lands. How can they live off the land with constant land grabs?
Nationwide, the Orang Asli are having to defend the land that their people have always lived on. To all those Malaysians who champion Palestinian rights to their land, can you also look closer to home?
Ask the Temiar who put up barricades again and again to fight loggers and intruders turning up unannounced to strip their land of resources. Ask the native people in the Baram area, Sarawak, who may have no idea about the companies that get licenses to log their land until bulldozers arrive. And ask the Bateq, who lost much of their land to plantations.
For the Bateq, they had to endure the logging first, then the agricultural expansion, and then mining, the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) says. The logging contributed towards the 2014-2015 floods in Kelantan, which severely affected the Bateq, depriving them of clean water.
This “continued environmental destruction of their customary lands” has made it much more difficult for the Bateq to find their daily calorie intake, COAC says. Thus their physical and mental health has declined in recent years, which was why this measles outbreak hit hard.
Although some legal provisions exist to protect native land, they are clearly not enough. State governments can ride roughshod over Orang Asli land rights.
Shockingly, one Kelantan MP even said outright that there is no ancestral land for Orang Asli in the state. That is tantamount to ethnocide for a nomadic community.
In January, the federal government filed a suit against the Kelantan state government to seek legal recognition of native land rights of the Temiar in Pos Simpor.
Attorney-General Tommy Thomas said that “the pursuit of profit must not come at the expense of the Temiar Orang Asli” and their rights to their traditional land and resources.
Kelantan has been described as the “worst state” for forest preservation by NGO Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM). A large tract of Kelantan’s permanent reserve forests has been felled and converted into “plantation forests”.
These “plantation forests” are alarming. They refer to gazetted forests logged and cleared and then replaced with plantations – yet still classified as gazetted forests. SAM has called for this term to be abandoned. Certainly, it is deceptive.
Forests are made up of natural vegetation and ecosystems and are biodiversity-rich. Monoculture plantations don’t compare – they are disastrous for water catchments, ecosystems and biodiversity, notes SAM.
In a report, SAM says “forest plantations” grew by 200% in just five years, from 2008 to 2013. And the state with the most timber tree plantations is Kelantan.
There needs to be complete transparency in our forestry statistics. We can’t pretend plantations are forests. Ultimately, we all lose, because forests play such a key role in climate change mitigation.
The issue of native land rights is thus a huge one, connected to a much bigger picture. It is high time we address it.
Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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