Two Malaysian social organisations are improving the lives of Penan and Orang Asli communities

The Orang Asli communities are the best custodians and stewards of the forest. Photos: Francesco Cabras

This story is part of a series of articles featuring past Star Golden Hearts Award winners and the award’s newly introduced categories of causes which include community empowerment, education, environment and wildlife, social welfare, and disaster and crisis relief.
Nominations for this year’s awards are now open. Tell us about your heroes at before July 31, 2022.

Six years ago, Orang Asli labourer Zario Kuyu switched from his job as a rubber tapper to a farmer to earn extra income for his family. It was a bold move, but the Pahang-based Zario has no regrets.

Today, he is reaping the fruits of his labour. He’s scaled up his farm to one acre (0.4ha), where he plants various leafy greens sold to numerous markets around the state.

In addition, the father of two plans to use part of his savings to expand his farm to grow pumpkin, okra and chilli.

“Although it’s hard work, there’s nothing more rewarding than harvesting my vegetables. I often scroll through YouTube and Google to increase my knowledge of organic farming, cost-cutting measures, and improving my yield. Just last week, my barber approached me, requesting help to launch his organic farming business.

“I hope my story will inspire more Orang Asli villagers to venture into organic farming too,” said Zario, who is from Kampung Ulu Gumum, Pekan, in an email interview recently.

Zario hopes more Orang Asli villagers will venture into organic farming. Zario hopes more Orang Asli villagers will venture into organic farming.

From the Jakun ethnic group, Zario believes in financial freedom and development. He is determined to build a better future for his children and his community by venturing into farming.

Zario is also one of the farmers who has received help from OA Organik (previously known as OA Organics). This Kuantan-based fair-trade community enterprise works with Orang Asli communities in Pekan.

OA Organik is a project under the Foundation for Community Studies and Development (YKPM), a charity organisation that conducts development programmes (literacy classes, provision of safe drinking water, and start up of income-generating projects) for the indigenous community.

OA Organik was one of the 10 winners of the 2017 Star Golden Hearts Award (SGHA), an annual award by The Star and Yayasan Gamuda that celebrates everyday Malaysians who make a positive impact on society while promoting unity.

On May 12, YKPM chalked another milestone after receiving the Asean Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation award for its outstanding contributions to rural development and poverty eradication.

YKPM managing director Kon Onn Sein, 57, was surprised and honoured by Asean’s recognition of their achievements, specifically OA Organik’s programme.

“This indicates that YKPM is among the leading models in Malaysia that aim to eradicate poverty. We are working hard to improve the lives of rural communities,” said Kon, who set up OA Organik in 2015.

The community enterprise provides capital, training and marketing support to Orang Asli farmers from Zario’s community and Kampung Orang Asli Melai in Pekan.

One of OA Organik’s objectives is to empower the community to cultivate eco farms.

“Organic farming remains attractive as the Orang Asli like farming. Men and women enjoy the art of growing organic vegetables.

“To them, farming is a work of art that involves the ability to read nature, weather and plant language. It requires commitment, skills, insight and care to succeed,” explained Kon.

OA Organik has trained 72 farmers in seven years, and 36 of them are actively involved in farming.

In addition, a major supermarket chain is working together with OA Organik as part of its corporate social responsibility by selling the Orang Asli’s produce at its outlets around the country.

“Some farmers can earn RM1,700 each month. The farm has also grown and reached out to 25% of the community. Slowly, these farmers can strengthen community cohesion and leadership.

“It is also important to support the Orang Asli to enable them to develop a green economy and combat climate change,” said Kon, a lawyer by training.

In 2000, Kon gave up his legal career to become a full-time executive director of YKPM.

He wants to help the community because of his sense of justice and realises their potential to move towards financial independence.

“The Orang Asli have a beautiful culture of respecting nature and seeing themselves as part of the ecosystem. They go beyond the concept of sustainability, they practise the idea of harmony. They believe (nature) is the Creator’s gift to them, and they, in turn, have to nurture this gift responsibly.

Kon (in striped T-shirt) believes in the Orang Asli's potential to move towards financial independence. Photos: OA OrganikKon (in striped T-shirt) believes in the Orang Asli's potential to move towards financial independence. Photos: OA Organik

“They are the best custodians and stewards of the forest. In addition, some studies show they play a critical role in sustaining our economy,” said Kon.

Kon wants to do much more to empower the indigenous community to ensure they have a firm footing in the agricultural industry.

Sadly, many farmers are caught in a vicious poverty cycle where they cannot improve their farming skills to achieve their high income potential.

“Many of them are still apprehensive about focusing on farming due to the uncertain earnings from selling their produce. So instead, they would work on an oil palm plantation that guarantees a payment of RM50 for each tonne of fruit bunches gathered or go fishing as they would at least have food on their plate.”

To overcome this challenge, OA Organik is working towards redesigning the farming model to enable farmers to continue to work as labourers in plantations.

“Some farmers have chosen the hybrid approach rather than relying on one economic activity. The way forward will have to be a hybrid of the two but balanced in a way that, in totality, achieves the desired income.

“Thus, the farm has to be integrated with their existing oil palm or rubber as a whole livelihood strategy,” shared Kon, who aims to replicate and start similar farming projects with other Orang Asli communities.

It is Tan’s dream to empower Penan women to be self-sufficient, financially independent and confident. Photos: Helping Hands PenanIt is Tan’s dream to empower Penan women to be self-sufficient, financially independent and confident. Photos: Helping Hands Penan

Lending a helping hand

Frida King has been a weaver for over two decades and her intricate bags and baskets with Penan motifs have graced many exhibition booths in Malaysia, Singapore and Australia.

But for the Penan woman, it isn’t so much about showcasing her beautiful handcrafted pieces to the world. As the sole breadwinner in her family, she is more concerned about earning an income and putting food on the table.

She also needs to keep aside some money to pay for her ailing husband’s medical bills.

“My mother taught me how to weave traditional Penan designs on baskets and mats. I have been a bag weaver for many years.

“It takes me about one or two days to weave a basket, depending on my schedule,” explained King, from Long Sebayang in Limbang, Sarawak, in an email interview.

“I hope that I can earn more money as a basket weaver. My dream is to lead a better life and enable my four children to complete their studies and have a brighter future,” she added.

King is one of the Penan weavers who supplies her products to Helping Hands Penan.King is one of the Penan weavers who supplies her products to Helping Hands Penan.The weaver supplies her products to Helping Hands Penan (HHP), a Miri-based social enterprise on a mission to empower Penan women through weaving and offering education sponsorship programmes for students. Thanks to this initiative, weavers like King can move towards financial independence, build confidence and have the chance for a brighter future.

Last year, HHP was chosen as one of the SGHA winners. This year, awards will be given to three individuals and seven organisations, who will each receive RM8,000 and RM10,000 respectively. These recipients will also be eligible to win the coveted Gamuda Inspiration Award, which comes with an additional RM50,000 grant.

HHP director Violette Tan, 62, says winning the award has been the most incredible honour for HHP and the whole cohort of volunteers, weavers, students and networks.

“The award is a recognition and validation of our work and cause, which has been challenging. But unfortunately, the Penan do not have a voice and they are a forgotten group.

“However, the situation has improved. The rural development programme has started to improve the infrastructure in far flung Penan villages. Hopefully, it will be heightened to benefit more people living in the interiors of Sarawak.”

More Penan children now have the opportunity to gain an education thanks to Helping Hands Penan.More Penan children now have the opportunity to gain an education thanks to Helping Hands Penan.

HHP has also installed solar lighting in eight Penan villages in Ulu Limbang, Limbang, and Upper Tutoh, Baram.

Tan and her volunteers are also committed to their community development projects, including improving the welfare of the elderly and “Operation Milk Bottles”, a feeding scheme that provides milk to toddlers.

During the pandemic, HHP organised three rounds of food aid to their weavers and families, benefitting 80 families in three villages.

While winning the award is by far the most significant milestone for HHP, Tan explained that there have been many highlights along the way. They include the installation of water pipes in Long Ludin in Ulu Baram and the many success stories of their sponsored students who have managed to further their education.

“We also celebrated the achievement of our first graduate in 2016 and our first Master’s degree scholar who is currently pursuing his PhD.

“It made us believe that despite the odds, Penan children are capable of achieving tertiary education, which all children and youth are entitled to.

“This has boosted our drive to enrol more Penan children in school. We want more young Penans to further their education in colleges, vocational schools, universities and teachers’ training colleges,” shared Tan, a retired teacher who is based in Kuala Belait, Brunei.

The award has further fuelled Tan’s passion to do more for this nomadic community in Sarawak.

Her next step is to train Penan weavers to manage the orders and the distribution of their crafts.

“Since our inception, we have relied heavily on volunteers and networks. Unfortunately, this is not sustainable in the long run as our turnover rate for volunteers is high.

“We realise that we need to train the younger generation to take over one day. Therefore, we hope our young Penan graduates will eventually take over the management to achieve our aim of ‘By the Penan, For the Penan’,” said Tan.

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