SAHABAT Alam Malaysia (SAM) is extremely saddened by the deaths and ill health of the Bateq community living in Kampung Koh, Gua Musang, Kelantan. It is indeed shocking that days have gone by and the government authorities have yet to ascertain the actual cause of the deaths and the deterioration of health among the Bateq people.
While we welcome the emergency meeting called by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail to give special attention to the issue, SAM is of the view that it is not enough to just tackle the immediate health issues plaguing this Orang Asli community. There is an urgent need to address the root causes that led to the deterioration of their health.
A comprehensive response requires the Federal and State authorities to recognise the challenges faced by the indigenous communities as a result of the destruction of their land and pollution of their natural resources and surrounding environment, including their water sources.
The health woes of indigenous communities are not unique to the Bateq community alone. SAM has long documented incidences of poor health among the indigenous people since the 1980s. Through our ground work, we have regularly encountered the valid suspicions raised by indigenous communities in Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak, that many of their illnesses are caused by environmental destruction and pollution. These can range from fever, stomach and digestive problems to diarrhoea, vomiting, and horrible skin and eye infections to malaria. We have seen these especially among the nomadic tribes such as the Penan in Baram, Sarawak.
In addition, the deprivation and non-recognition of their native rights to land and natural resources to make way for companies involved in logging, plantations, mining and other interests have led to poverty, malnourishment, poor health and psychological distress, rendering them highly vulnerable to disease and death.
These problems are indeed preventable if states recognise the native rights and customs of indigenous peoples to their land and natural resources. Indeed, the states have a fiduciary duty to protect the rights of indigenous communities, as affirmed by our Federal Constitution and several judicial decisions.
There has also been failure on the part of our authorities to deliver basic services, from supply of clean water and electricity and good sanitation to transport and education infrastructure and quality healthcare services, to our rural indigenous communities.
Throughout the years, countless letters and memoranda have been sent to all the relevant federal and state authorities, repeating the litany of problems facing the indigenous communities in the country.
Many of our concerns have been captured in the 136 resolutions produced by the National Orang Asli Convention in April 2019.
Further, the Report of the National Inquiry into the Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples published by Suhakam in 2013 is a key national reference. It describes the systemic nature of the violations of indigenous customary land rights in Malaysia and their impacts.
Unfortunately, its 18 recommendations have yet to be implemented.
We therefore urge our federal and state authorities that are responsible for indigenous peoples, land, forests, water, natural resources, environment, healthcare, rural services, education, transport, primary industries and the law to work together with indigenous, legal and civil society communities to fully grasp the root cause of this tragedy in order to establish the correct policy and legal reforms to protect the rights and welfare of our indigenous peoples.
Similarly, Parliament must also establish a body to address the protection of the rights of Malaysia’s indigenous peoples.
Unless the government recognises the systemic roots of the problems of our indigenous communities, the correct institutional solutions will continue to evade us. If this goes on, the tragedy befalling the Bateq community could happen again and again.
Sahabat Alam Malaysia