Tuesday, September 10, 2013

In Malaysia, the Orang Asal feel far away from home

BY SHERIDAN MAHAVERA
SEPTEMBER 08, 2013
LATEST UPDATE: SEPTEMBER 08, 2013 12:10 PM
Complaining she was suffocating in the city, Norazizah Ijan, her three kids and her father Ijan Batin Ismail, moved out of their five bedroom house in Desa Temuan, Damansara Perdana. They now live in an Orang Asal village bordering the Sungai Buloh forest reserve. - Pictures by Sheridan Mahavera, September 8, 2013.Complaining she was suffocating in the city, Norazizah Ijan, her three kids and her father Ijan Batin Ismail, moved out of their five bedroom house in Desa Temuan, Damansara Perdana. They now live in an Orang Asal village bordering the Sungai Buloh forest reserve. - Pictures by Sheridan Mahavera, September 8, 2013.About four years ago, Norazizah Ijan, her husband, three kids and her father moved out of their five-bedroom bungalow in the heart of Damansara Perdana, one of the Klang Valley’s most choice suburbs, to live at the edge of the forest.
Before that, the 32-year-old had spent eight years of her young adult life trying to make it in the urban socio-scape of wages, consumption and bills. 
She cut grass and planted trees for a landscaping company in Bandar Utama while her husband worked in construction.
Not just that, Norazizah and 146 other families, who are from the Temuan Orang Asal tribe, were given free water and electricity for a year. They were also not charged assessment fees for a year.
What sets her apart from other young adults all over the country who flock and struggle to build a life in the Klang valley, is that she got her bungalow for free.
Yet after nine years, only 30 of the original 147 families who were resettled in free houses in the Desa Temuan housing scheme, remain. The rest according to headman Ibrahim Chat, have left to live near forests in Gombak, Sungai Buloh and Banting.
The housing estate given to the orang asal in exchange for their land. - September 8, 2013.The housing estate given to the orang asal in exchange for their land. - September 8, 2013.The Temuan from the housing scheme did not return to their ancestral lands. That land was taken to build Damansara Perdana and the houses and aid they received was their compensation.
But they did return to a way of life of their ancestors despite being given an opportunity to transition to a way of life that modern Malaysian society wanted them to.
The way of life that this group of Temuan chose to return to centres on a relationship with the forest and the natural world that is sometimes at odds with how techno-industrial Malaysia treats its forests.
It is this clash of ideals, between what the Orang Asal want and what Malaysia wants them to do, that explains why despite 50 years and billions spent on development programmes, their future is still spoken of in terms of “plight” and “struggle”.
According to Orang Asal activists and leaders, a viable future for the tribes of Malaysia’s oldest inhabitants, would be to recognise their way of life and their right to their ancestral lands.
Most importantly, it can be argued that Malaysia will never live up to the ideal of providing a truly inclusive and plural home for its diverse family if it does not recognise those rights. 
At home in the forest
For the Orang Asal, the forest functions as their shopping mall, their work place, their utilities provider, their playground, their cultural centre and it houses their religion.
It explains why almost all of the young adult Temuan who were met at their homes in Desa Temuan wanted to leave for the forest even though some of them practically grew up in the city. 
Lawyer Anthony Williams Hunt, who is a Semai based in Ipoh, says that any policy that wants to help the Orang Asal must start from a recognition of this central fact.
The problem with many resettlement schemes intended to uplift the quality of life of Orang Asal he says, ends up severing them from their ancestral lands which are their primary source of sustenance.
This includes the scores of cash crop resettlement schemes managed by Rubber Smallholders Development Authority (Risda) and Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Felcra).
In these, Orang Asal families are uprooted from their ancestral lands and made to live in rubber plantations.
Although the families technically live near the forest, they have very little autonomy over what they can source from it. The authorities also deduct a certain percentage from what they get from the sale of latex, leaving them little, says Hunt.
The orang asal risk losing more land for various reasons should the government succeed in its efforts to change the law. - September 8, 2013.The orang asal risk losing more land for various reasons should the government succeed in its efforts to change the law. - September 8, 2013.The fear now, Hunt says, is that the government wants to amend the Orang Asli Act of 1954 to parcel out between two to six acres of land for each Orang Asal family.
“We could lose hundreds of thousands of acres of our ancestral lands,” says Hunt, claiming that the policy is a bigger plan to create more plantation settlements. 
The proposed amendments sparked the largest Orang Asal protest in Malaysian history. In 2009, more than 10,000 of them donned traditional costumes and descended on Putrajaya to march to the Ministry of Rural and Regional Development.
The amendments were not spoken of after that but its spectre has returned. Last June, says Orang Asal activist Abry Yok Chopil, the government announced that they were “refining the amendments”.
Land rights = citizenship
The challenges of getting recognition however have not made the community sit on their hands and wait for the government to come to its senses. 
Gregarious activists like Abry in communities all over the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak have been instrumental in helping their tribes map out the boundaries of their ancestral lands.
Through the use of topographical maps, global positioning systems and a deep study of their family histories and documents in their ancestral homelands, they have been able to create maps that demarcate where those lands lie. 
These documents have been effective in court battles when there is a dispute between a tribe and say, a logging or plantation company, over a certain parcel of land.
Adrian Lasimbang, who has helped many tribes and villages in Sabah and Sarawak with community mapping, says court victories have been won by the Orang Asal with the use of such maps.
“Because the government departments are often not sensitive to Orang Asal land claims, their maps do not show whether a certain tract of forest belongs to a community or village.
“So when companies buy these maps, they are under the impression that the land they want to log is free of inhabitants. Community mapping fills that gap,” says Lasimbang, who is based in Sabah.
Lasimbang’s community mapping work was featured in the documentary Towards Sustainable Forests by the Centre For Orang Asli Concerns.  
Unfortunately, the Orang Asal has to often go to court first to get these rights recognised. 
Which brings us back to the question; can Malaysia live up to its billing as a country that treats all of its citizens equally if there is still a problem recognising the land rights of Orang Asal, the true bumiputera?
After all, the reason why they are called Orang Asal (Which is the term they feel is more accurate than Orang Asli) is because they are the oldest residents of the territories that now make up Malaysia.
“How can you say we have come far in 50 years if we still cannot recognise Orang Asal land?”, says Lasimbang. - September 8, 2013.
~ The Malaysian Insider

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