For Malaysia's Orang Asli villagers, forest-clearing for plantations is devastating their way of life

The village of Kampung Kaloi in the state of Kelantan, Peninsular Malaysia.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

One evening in November 2021, in the village of Kampung Kaloi in Malaysia’s Kelantan state, villagers gathered at the community hall. Their blind shaman, Along Busu, sat alone and stared straight ahead.

His wife Muna Angah lay behind him. She had been coughing for months. Doctors at the nearest hospital, about 55km away, could not diagnose her illness.

Along was about to do what his ancestors have done for generations – conduct a ritual called sewang to consult superhuman beings for guidance.

The 13 households of Kampung Kaloi are indigenous peoples, or Orang Asli, of the Temiar tribe. They had moved here in 2016 from a larger settlement called Kampung Wook. Temiars believe spirits live in the earth, rivers, and trees.

But sewang s are harder to do these days. For these rituals, indigenous people usually forage for plants once commonly found in virgin or selectively-logged forests.

‘We can’t even plant tapioca’

Villagers at Kampung Kaloi in the state of Kelantan.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

In recent years, the lush swathes of forest reserves around Kampung Kaloi have been turned into forest plantations, after developers cut the natural forests and replanted single species of fast-growing trees such as rubber, eucalyptus and acacia.

After harvesting the trees, developers are then supposed to replant the land. This process takes place in cycles of five to 20 years, which is much faster than the 30-year cycles usually practised in selective logging of forest reserves.

Along said the land around his village was all “licin (slippery) now”, referring to exposed slopes of surrounding hills.

“Our lives were easy, no hunger, nothing. Now we can’t even plant ubi (tapoica) … We are surrounded by plantations of outsiders,” he lamented.

The Malaysian federal and state governments strongly promote forest plantations as a source of sustainable timber supply. The federal government has disbursed about RM1 billion (US$236 million) in loans to planters since 2007, and is adding another RM500 million more.

The National Land Council, which is chaired by the prime minister and comprises chief ministers of state governments, had in 2012 zoned about 439,000 hectares, or 9 per cent of Peninsular Malaysia’s forest reserves, to be developed into forest plantations.

The impact of forest-clearing in Kelantan.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Of the 185,000 hectares of forest reserves approved for forest plantations by state governments since 2012, about 80 per cent of these projects were in Kelantan and Pahang.

By 2020, developers had logged most of the 185,000 hectares but they had replanted only one-third of the land area. In recent weeks, the chief ministers of Kelantan and Pahang announced the states had cancelled 12,000 hectares and 23,000 hectares of forest plantation projects, respectively. They said developers had failed to replant after clearing the forests.

Abdul Khalim Abu Samah, the Kelantan state forestry director, said in November 2021 his office was cancelling about 30,000 hectares of forest plantation projects that had not been planted after three years.

Loggers “didn’t plant, they cut and ran”, he said.

It is unclear if the authorities have made an official assessment of the impact of forest-clearing on Orang Asli.

The Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA), which is responsible for the community’s development, said it was awaiting a full response from the Department of Environment on this matter.

Deep loss spanning generations

The villagers of Kampung Kaloi say the loss of natural forests has fundamentally impacted their way of life across generations. That November evening, as the sewang was about to start, women sat at two ends of the hall. They picked up bamboo tubes. Long rectangular logs lay before their feet.

In the middle of the hall, in a square demarcated by hanging leaves, a few men sat below a wooden pyramid. Nearby, another man waited with a gendang (drum) on his lap.

A young man carried a metal bowl that contained embers and pieces of tree resin called kemian . Smoke with a strong woody scent permeated the hall.

Along joined the men in the square. They unfolded crown-like headgear called tempok , that had been woven from leaves of the palas palm, passed them through the kemian smoke, and wore one each.

Suddenly, a man started drumming, and the women followed his rhythm by stamping their bamboo tubes on the logs.

Along started chanting loudly. He seemed to be singing one moment, then calling out to someone the next.

The men on the mat held bunches of dark green leaves in their hands, and a few minutes into Along’s chanting, they smacked the leaves hard against their arms. Along, Hasmawi and the others began to flick their heads vigorously.

“Spirits have entered them,” explained a villager. “They are not themselves now.”

Sewangs are integral to Orang Asli culture. They perform a sewang to appease spirits, avert natural disasters, and seek guidance on health, farming, and major decisions. A sewang also unites the community, allowing them to pursue common goals and discuss concerns together.

For this ceremony, the villagers collected materials needed from different towns and villages 10-55km away, since they could not get them from nearby forests.

The surrounding forest loss has also led to more frequent wildlife trouble, the villagers said. They live in fear of elephants, tigers, and sunbears.

Elephants used to avoid people, but of late, the animals had ransacked banana farms, damaged motorcycles, nipped sugar cane from inside houses, and wrecked burial altars.

Because the forests have been cleared, “the forest elephants are angry, they have no food, no shelter”, said Along. “Only our place has bananas.”

The afternoon after the sewang, an elephant barged into Kampung Kaloi. Luckily, nobody was hurt in the commotion.

Along’s people are fighting to protect their forests and way of life. They said that when discussions with the state authority to stop forest plantations failed, they erected blockades to stop loggers.

His son, Mustafa Along, heads the Network on Kelantan Orang Asli Villages and is working with lawyers to defend their customary land rights.

Forests are “the source of our culture and way of life”, Mustafa said. When forests are cut, “we feel stolen, robbed”.

“Selective logging isn’t as bad as clear-felling [for forest plantations],” he said. The latter replaces forests with rubber trees.

“Then the value of the forest is gone. No more value. We ask the government to stop clear-felling. We ask the government to conserve and rehabilitate the forests; we Orang Asli can help,” said Mustafa.

A site west of Kampung Kaloi is cleared to become a rubber plantation.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

In Peninsular Malaysia, Orang Asli rights are best provided for in dedicated reserves stipulated in the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1954. In such reserves, land can only be leased or granted to local Orang Asli.

But JAKOA, the government agency that oversees Orang Asli matters, said Kelantan has no Orang Asli Reserves. Rather, the state had only gazetted Orang Asli Areas, in which land can be leased to external parties, such as plantation companies.

Kampong Kaloi however, is not even recognised by the government. Regarded as a “splinter village” that had moved out of an Orang Asli Area, Kampung Kaloi is excluded from government aid.

When asked, JAKOA said it had no knowledge of problems faced by Kampung Kaloi and suggested that the problems could be alleviated if the villagers returned to Kampung Wook, where the government has provided utilities and farms.

But the villagers claim that JAKOA is aware of their problems. Jimi Angah, who heads Kampung Wook’s Development and Safety Committee, said he had questioned JAKOA several times on Kampung Kaloi’s problems.

And even in Kampung Wook, villagers are upset about their disappearing forests, he pointed out. They also fear the chemicals run-off from plantations.

The Kelantan chief minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Back in the community hall on the night of the sewang, the participants started whispering among themselves. Muna’s children began to sob as they sat her up. The omens were bad.

She died a month later. Kampong Kaloi held a four-day feast to celebrate her departed spirit.

Away from the feast, at the western, quieter end of the village, one could hear chainsaws working behind the hills.

A longer version of this article first appeared on the Macaranga news website. Reporting for the piece was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.