PETALING JAYA: Death among the Bateq people isn’t anything new. And 14 in over a month did not come as a surprise to the Orang Asli community, nor the NGOs helping them.
The living conditions are so bad that the indigenous people are susceptible to diseases easily and most do not live past 60 years old.
Pollution at Kuala Koh, on the borders of Taman Negara bordering Kelantan, for instance, is nothing new.
It has only worsened over the years despite complaints to the Kelantan state government, said an NGO that has done years of work with Orang Asli in that area.
Johan Halid of Sahabat Jariah said even as far back as in 2010, the water source had been polluted due to deforestation in Kuala Koh.
“We have been going in to visit the Bateq community here for more than 10 years to provide all kinds of assistance.
“We even built pipes for them using the gravity system, and the tank was placed on the hill to give it the pressure it needed,” he said.
“That was nine years ago. Even then, the water source was already dirty.”
Johan said the government built concrete houses for the community but there was no water or electricity supply.
“A RM3mil water system was put up by the Rural Development Ministry – but it did not function for even a day. So, the Bateq people preferred to stay in makeshift tents outside, nearer to the water sources,” he added.
He said as the Bateq people could still move around and gather food as well as hunt, they were still all right then.
Johan said the three main pollutants – in order of the worst form – are plantations, mining and logging.
“There is much deforestation due to the land having been cleared for plantations.
“We are talking about clearance of areas as big as 10,000ha,” he said.
He said the pollution is mainly from the chemical fertilisers used for the oil palm plantations.
“When this happens, the area in which they (the Bateq people) hunt and gather food gets affected. Most of the Bateq people in Kuala Koh are just skin and bones now,” said Johan.
He also said that among the 300 villagers, the oldest are around 58 and 60. The rest are mostly in their 20s and 30s.
He further explained that in recent years, with the mining of iron in the area, the pollution had gotten worse when the miners used certain chemicals to blast when mining.
“The current iron mine near the village of Kuala Koh has the state government’s concession until 2023.
“Only its licence with the Department of Environment had expired but they have been carrying on with the mining and blasting. Despite many complaints to the state government, nobody cared,” said Johan.
However, he pointed out that it was not only the pollution that is killing the Bateq people in Kuala Koh.
“Yes, there is pollution of the environment, but the fact of the matter is these people are extremely malnourished and they have very low immunity to withstand these pollutants which would not be such a big issue for people like you or me.
“As food became scarce, the Bateq’s immunity lowered and where there were perhaps one or two deaths every month from lung infections, the situation worsened last month when there were 14 with similar symptoms,” Johan added.Sahabat Jariah visits the Bateq people every few weeks with basic foodstuff and provides classes for the tribe in Kuala Koh.
“There are about 2,000 of them in the whole of the peninsula. Bateq are the most primitive among all the Orang Asli tribes, but the Bateq people in Kuala Koh are the worst off.
“They are illiterate and malnourished. The Bateq people in Aring Lima, which is two hours away, are better off,” said Johan.
Sahabat Jariah was the first to break the news of the 14 deaths among the Bateq community in Kuala Koh in a Facebook posting on June 2.
In its post that went viral, it said in May alone, there were eight deaths and many more were critically ill in Gua Musang Hospital.
“The villagers tell us half of the 300 villagers are suffering from the same symptoms and many have left to move deeper into the jungle or other areas.
“The areas around their village have been devastated by logging, plantation and mining,” the post said.
“Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia had sampled the water in the rivers around the village and found the water is contaminated with metals, arsenic and chemicals from the fertilisers. The blasting ingredients are said to be processed near the water source of the village.”
Environmentalist Lim Teck Wyn, who has stayed with Bateq communities in Pahang, said that the Bateq people were indeed the most reserved of the Orang Asli in the peninsula.
“They are scattered mostly in Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu – with the majority in Kelantan and the smallest community of Bateq in Terengganu,” said Lim.
He said that as they were hunters and food gatherers – and because of this, it is quite difficult to have a proper headcount.
“The men tend to move from place to place to hunt for days,” he said.
Lim also pointed out that the Bateq language which has its origin in the Mon-Khmer dialects of Indo-China, has been listed among the endangered languages in the world.
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