INDIGENOUS communities globally have demonstrated that they are the best guardians of their traditional environments. The fact that the ecosystems the Orang Asli reside in remain rich in biodiversity proves how
conservation-compatible these communities are by living in balance with nature. 'Serog ek' in Temiar translates to ‘our forests’.
Recent research reviewing the global importance of indigenous lands for conservation adds to the growing evidence that indicates that partnerships between conservation practitioners, indigenous communities and governments will benefit ecologically valuable landscapes for future generations.
Anthropologists have traditionally categorised the Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia into three categories — Negrito, Senoi and the Aboriginal-Malay — and further categorised into 19 subgroups. The Centre of Orang Asli Concerns, established in 1989 by Dr Colin Nicholas, documents the current state of affairs of the Orang Asli and observes that some tribes live close to the coast, some tribes live close to or within forested areas and some tribes live in urban areas — all of whom live in varied ways.
Attuned with nature
The sustainable livelihoods of the Orang Asli are characterised by their intimate and intricate relationships
with the natural environment. They have deep knowledge of what the forest can produce, how the landscape regenerates, and how to harvest in a sustainable and minimally invasive way. The traditional practices of the Orang Asli have allowed these communities to live within the capacity of nature for millennia.
Dr Colin Nicholas explains that historically — as the first peoples of the peninsula — the Orang Asli engaged in active participation in the economic structure of the early civilisation. The Orang Asli are integral to the history and heritage of Malaysia that remains underappreciated.
The self-governance and democratic status of the Orang Asli shifted drastically upon the influx of immigrant peoples during the British colonialism era. Changes from industrialisation and modernisation have disrupted their way of life and are exceeding their capacity to adapt. Finding a balance between humans and nature requires all sources of knowledge and understanding. Including traditional knowledge and perspectives from the community level can help build a more robust consideration for ecosystem conservation than scientific studies alone. Partnerships between indigenous communities and scientists for research, applied research and conservation action are noteworthy.
By way of illustration, within the Belum-Temenggor landscape in North Perak, several successful conservation efforts have been integrating communities into conservation activities for over two decades.
The primary indigenous inhabitants of the Belum-Temenggor forested landscape are the Temiar and Jahai tribes. A JAKOA 2022 population census records around 7,338 inhabitants and 1,107 households within 35 villages in this landscape.
Among these indigenous villages, the men and women work with numerous NGOs in the plight to safeguard and restore the Central Forest Spine (CFS). These indigenous men and women are trained and employed to become rangers, researchers and foresters. Organisations can create better forest ownership and stewardship through active engagement with indigenous communities.
WWF Malaysia, RIMAU, Pelindung, and Perak State Parks Corporation work with the Jahai and Temiar for tiger conservation and anti-poaching measures. The Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME) hire indigenous staff for research and data collection on the movement and behavior of the Asian elephant. The Malaysia Nature Society (MNS) trains and recruits indigenous hornbill guardians as well as help the community to develop non-timber forest products such as Tualang honey and beeswax. TRCRC works with Jahai and Temiar communities for the twin goal of ecosystem restoration for increased forest connectivity and endangered flora species conservation.
New research published in the Malayan Nature Journal Special Edition 2017 compiles a selection of local names of birds found within the Temiar homelands. UNESCO recognizes the Temiar language as an endangered language which underscores the importance of documenting the Temiar vocabulary. The study lends itself to preserving traditional knowledge that may support many different fields of research and conservation.
Belum-Temenggor forest complex is a bustling biodiversity hotspot with an active conservation ecosystem that includes the public and private sectors, academia and civil society organisations. Together, these groups have mobilised boots on the ground to safeguard and restore the CFS in Northern Perak. Participation and partnerships with indigenous communities lie at the heart of conservation successes within this landscape.
Community-driven conservation sits at the intersection of environmental and social development that requires careful and special attention. Traditional indigenous knowledge can further strengthen efforts in biodiversity conservation. Policy and administration that involves the indigenous communities, particularly on land rights, should be implemented with consultation and involvement from the communities themselves.
A valuable lesson from field experience is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to community-driven development and conservation. Indigenous communities and social systems are dynamic and multifaceted. The complexity of the term 'community' in community-based conservation is colored with nuances that should be approached with care and heedfulness. There are a multitude of lessons yet to be learned from the indigenous communities that have mastered a way of life with nature without destroying it. It is not too late to reignite our relationship with the land. You can do your part by supporting conservation projects that meaningfully include indigenous communities through long-term partnerships.