Orang asli sending message to loggers that they are here to stay


GUA MUSANG: Up on a hill not far from the Perak-Kelantan border, orang asli men are watching a sepak takraw game.

A net separating the two teams is tied to poles of makeshift huts on opposite sides of a dirt road.

A group of other men – some standing on the road, others in the huts – watch the game, while two children are into their own game, kicking a plastic bottle around.

Women by the huts chatter nearby as they cook food over crackling wood fire.

The smell of ikan bilis simmering in oil, cooked rice and roasted tapioca wafts through the air.

It looks like any orang asli village in northeast Peninsular Malaysia if not for the red-and-white boom gate and a banner at the foot of the settlement.

It’s been there since late September. It is a single bamboo culm put up to stop anyone from going into the Balah Forest Reserve, 60km away from Gua Musang.

Above it is the white banner with words in Malay painted in red: “This land is only for the Orang Asli to live on.”

With that, the Temiar people here – one of the 18 orang asli groups in Peninsular Malaysia – are sending a strong warning to loggers who have been coming into the reserve for years: Enough is enough.

Last month, this place known only as “the blockade” had just a few huts and a small number of Temiar men.

But it has now grown into a full-blown village with more than 200 people from settlements across the Balah reserve who have been erecting new huts from bamboo and attap leaves.

By the boom gate, a guard post stands and men keep a lookout for outsiders trying to enter.

They have allowed a few in, mostly orang asli, jotting names and identity card numbers, and have turned away others, including state government officers.

They have organised themselves quickly. Every morning, dozens of men line up for duties of the day.

Some act as security guards, others keep records of events, with mobile phones and cameras at the ready. Meetings are held regularly throughout the day.

The women also have their own duties. Apart from cooking, they go to the nearest river to wash clothes and collect water for the blockade twice a day.

The Temiar are serious in their move about stopping the loggers. Many have left their homes from various parts of the reserve to band together at the blockade.

For example, of the 100-plus people of Kampung Bering, more than 20 have joined the blockade.

Manglo Tegau, 25, is one of them.

“I’ll bring my family here too,” he said, but only after one of his children who is ill gets better.

Limat Lias, 39, a manager here, said the blockade was the fourth the Temiar people had built in recent years.

Staying vigilant: Officials from the Forestry Department of Kelantan manning a checkpoint a few kilometres away from the Temiar logging blockade. — ASYRAF ABDUL SAMAD/The Star
Staying vigilant: Officials from the Forestry Department of Kelantan manning a checkpoint a few kilometres away from the Temiar logging blockade. — ASYRAF ABDUL SAMAD/The Star

“There are no leaders here,” Limat said, when asked who the blockade’s village chieftain was.

“He said all the men, women and children were regarded as “leaders”, a claim which he said confused the police.

The first blockade, according to an online portal was in January 2012, which saw hundreds gathering to stop the loggers.

The then Kelantan Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat said the land claimed by the Temiar belonged to the state, and was not gazetted as an orang asli reserve.

According to Limat, this latest blockade started on Sept 27 this year.

The next day, a group of men showed up to destroy the boom gate.

The confrontation was widely covered by the media and it showed the group, with a few men wearing what looked like police vests, using a chainsaw to cut down the bamboo barricade.

Some of the Temiar were led into civilian vehicles and briefly detained. Warning shots were also reportedly fired.

But the Temiar have held on, much to the frustration of the loggers and the state government.

A truck full of logs makes its way out of the forest, down the road away from a logging blockade.

Most of the time, the men wait around the blockade, if only to keep a strong presence. But they check every vehicle that comes up to the boom gate.

They let officials such as those from the Health Ministry through.

But those from the Forestry Department of Kelantan and the Department of Orang Asli Development (Jakoa) are turned away.

In response to the blockade, the Forestry Department put up their own checkpoint a few kilometres away from the blockade.

The Temiar can go in and out of the jungle freely but everyone else needs a permit.

One person who was stopped was K. Meganathan, 44, who visits the area frequently to set up solar power systems for the villages.

“I’ve been up here many times. I’ve never seen this (action from the forestry department),” he said, although he did not say if he had a permit.

Forest ranger supervisor Saari Hamzah said he did not know how long the checkpoint would last.

“We do not stop people from going into the forest, as long as they have a permit,” he added.

Saari, who was turned away by the Temiar at their blockade, said the department had set up a second checkpoint near Meranto, nearly 40km north of Gua Musang.

The Star team managed to get an entry permit into Balah, after a couple of hours at the forestry office in Gua Musang. Officials there remained tight-lipped on the situation.

The Temiar here believe the forestry department’s checkpoints were set up to “starve” them out.

This is because outside traders come through here a few times a week. It was a system which enabled the Temiar to get food and other supplies as the forest can no longer provide them with all their needs.

That trade has stopped since the forestry department’s checkpoints were set up.

A logging track cutting through the middle of the Balah reserve forest. 

Word of this has resulted in NGOs and other groups bringing aid, including food, water and medicine, to the Temiar.

One of these is the Association for the Protection of Natural Heritage of Malaysia (Peka), which has been sending regular supplies up there.

A Peka spokesman said they send a convoy carrying food and medicine to the blockade each week.

“Since 2012, they’ve (the orang asli) been begging the government not to log their forest, but they got no response,” she said.

“So when they want to do a blockade, we support,” she added.

As far as the Temiar are concerned, they’re not going anywhere, even in the face of threats and dwindling supplies.

“Who wants to fight, who wants to run, it’s up to them,” said Shaari Asip, 27.

Limat said he wanted to see the land he stood on to be recognised as orang asli land, and run by orang asli.

He warned that they would spread the blockade movement throughout the forests of Kelantan, to wherever the orang asli were, if the logging were to continue.

“If the government still wants to log and be rough with us, we will set up more blockades,” he said.

Related stories:

Kelantan highly dependent on forest-derived revenue

Fighting for their land and way of life


   

Across The Star Online