The Simmering Disquiet in Gua Musang

Koh Jun Lin, 12 Feb 2017

All is not peaceful in the woods and forests of Kelantan. An “uprising” of sorts is in the works, after years of simmering disquiet over rampant logging, that threaten the livelihoods and culture of the local Orang Asli.

This was conveyed to me by one of the natives, who hosted me during my recent trip into the hills of Gua Musang. An Orang Asli from the Temiar tribe, who is personally involved in the timber blockades set up to stop loggers, from encroaching into their customary land.

My host served a simple but delicious meal for lunch on the day of my visit. This is symbolic of the hospitable nature of the local Orang Asli, as well as a stark reminder of what they stand to lose, if the forest around them continue to be cut down, uprooting them from their way of life and source of sustenance.

There was roasted tapioca, fish, jackfruit, and more, with a helping of rice and sweet tea to wash it all down. His cat meowed incessantly and miserably from the adjacent room – begging to be let out to join the feast.

However, the mood around the floor (there was no table) was sombre, as my host Anga Anja, 42, pondered over whether his two grandchildren would be able to cook such a bountiful meal in the future.

Anga hails from the Temiar village of Kampung Barong, Gua Musang, and the land around him is threatened by deforestation. And the worry and anger over how this may impact their future, has stirred up the normally docile Orang Asli.

“We have awakened,” he said. “We have awakened and we are sad. How are our grandchildren supposed to live in the future? I could pass away at any time, but how are our grandchildren supposed to live after us? That’s why we have awakened.”

Loss of tree cover

According to analyses of satellite imagery compiled by the Global Forest Watch, Kelantan had 1.2 million hectares of tree cover in 2000. By 2014 however, nearly 30,000 hectares of that (20.9 percent) had been lost.

“It’s not even far away. It is just nearby, there are logging areas all around us. Yesterday they (loggers) said they want to cut down everything. It’s a forest reserve, they said,” Anga related.

In the grand scheme of things, this could seem mediocre compared to the rate of deforestation seen elsewhere in the country.

At the national level, the loss of tree cover over the same period is at a comparable 19.1 percent.

Kelantan’s loss of tree cover also pales in comparison to that of Negri Sembilan, Johor and Malacca, which occupy the top three positions (33.9 percent, 31.5 percent, and 30.3 percent respectively) in Malaysia.

But then again, watching green pixels on Earth turn Martian-red from space does not tell the whole story.

For Anga and his fellow villagers, the effects of deforestation on their culture and livelihood is clear and ever present, something that we, as visiting outsiders can perhaps only understand if we see it with out own eyes.

Kampung Barong was the first stop of my trip, after spending the night at Kuala Lipis and leaving the luxury of driving on paved roads.

Reaching the village entailed covering almost 50km. The average passenger car would take half an hour to cover such a distance on the highway, but this trip took three hours over muddy roads and across rivers in rugged four-wheel drive vehicles.

The journey also took me and my videographer through vast swathes of land that had been recently cleared to make room for oil palm plantations, before we finally reached the jungle proper.

The tale of the Orang Asli disquiet is probably better told by the broken and muddy landscape we saw along the way. Land which used to be hallowed burial grounds, bountiful orchard groves and favourite hunting grounds.

The driver of the 4WD vehicle that brought me there said he was thankful we were never caught on the road with anything worse than a drizzle. Otherwise, even these these rugged off-road vehicles and their intimidatingly large tyres with deep threads, would get stuck in the mud.

At least that’s what he would tell me when he was not busy expressing his shock, over the land that used to be lush and verdant green during his last visit just a couple of years ago.

He was keen on staying out of trouble, so I won’t be identifying him, and he would be steering clear of both the Orang Asli’s and the Forestry Department’s blockades to avoid any possible confrontations.

Buzz of chainsaws

As soon as we met, Anga was more than eager to recount how he and his fellow villagers first encountered the Kelantan state government’s poverty eradication programme Ladang Rakyat, which is similar to the federal government’s Federal Land Authority (Felda) settlement scheme.

It was about seven years ago. The time was about around 4pm.

Anga and some other Kampung Barong villagers had gathered at the crossroads just outside their village to wait for their ride, on their way to attend religious courses.

“Then around five o’clock, we heard the buzz of chainsaws near the steel bridge. It was the first time this has happened, and, hey? Why have they gone into the cemetery? They (foreign workers and a local contractor) had set up camp there.”

“After hearing the sound of the chainsaws, my friend went over. He found a lot of vehicles parked there, so he went over and asked, ‘Sir, how did you get here?’”

The friend found out from the workers that they were there to clear the land for the Ladang Rakyat programme. He objected, stating that the land they were cutting down for firewood was a cemetery, and the surrounding area were groves tended by the Orang Asli.

But the contractor leading the gang of workers would hear none of it, and rudely rebuked him.

“No way! These are not Orang Ali groves. Your groves are up there in the mountains. The durians are not planted by you. It’s (from) bear poop,” Anga recounted the contractor’s purported words.

He said his friend then returned to the group and told him and the others what transpired.

Blockade set up

After they returned from their courses, the villagers met.

“We thought and thought about it. There used to be just loggers. They destroyed the trees, but we didn’t know better.”

“Now we do,” he said, relating how the local community decided that it is time to act, as their culture and livelihood is at stake.

The first anti-logging blockades went up in January 2012. Some 300 Orang Asli from 31 villages in Gua Musang took part, claiming that their ancestral land is being taken by the state to be given to logging companies and for its Ladang Rakyat programme.

The blockade was the first of its kind in Peninsular Malaysian and continues to be a running battle between both sides today. Then, as now, the blockades are being continuously torn down by authorities and put back up by the Orang Asli from time to time.

The Temiars had also taken the Kelantan government to court over the alleged violations of their customary land.

The state government had alleged that the Orang Asli’s resistance were instigated by outsiders. Their lawyer Siti Kasim was even accused of championing the indigenous community’s cause, just so that she can fight with the PAS-led Kelantan government.

“This issue in Kelantan is driven by political parties, working with those who oppose the implementation of Islamic laws such as Siti Kasim who is against the Kelantan state government, not an environmentalist and certainly far from being someone who cares about the Orang Asli,” PAS working central committee member Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor reportedly said last December.

Angah bin Along
Kampung Chemal Resident

No outside instigators

However, all of the Orang Asli folk that I interviewed during my trip to Gua Musang – each in a different village – vehemently denied this. Instead they stressed that the initiative was their own.

If anything, the much-demonised ‘outsiders’ served as a moderating influence in the Orang Asli’s resistance and kept their campaigns non-violent.

“We fight with our mouths, with written letters. (Fist) fights, guns, adzes, blow darts are all left behind. We follow the law, the demand through the law, and we fight through the law,” Anga said.

Alik bin Busu
The Head of Pos Balar

His sentiment is echoed by the Pos Balar village chief Alek Busu, whom I met outside his home the following day.

He told me that the choice to fight is their own, but others had provided advise on the course of action to take.

“There is no outside influence. We merely sought their views on what we can do; things we can’t do, we don’t. The outside has no sway over us. Nothing.”

“The outsiders merely offered advice: If you want to claim this land, do it properly, do it by the book. This method is legal, because it doesn’t cause damages and all that nonsense. We follow the law, we go through the courts.”

“That was our decision,” he said.

Fresh from a hunt with a machete and a knife strapped to his belt. Alek too shared his anxieties about the depleting resources in the forest that they forage from, and the perceived trespass of their customary land.

“We set up the blockades because we have a stake in this logging, which we think is not right. It intrudes on our customary land, and all our livelihood is gone, destroyed. The Ladang Rakyat too, because they do this without the consent of the villages or anyone.”

“They don’t ask the chairperson (of the village committee) or the chief. No respect. So now we are deeply disappointed.”

“When the rainy season comes, we suffer. Back in 2014, three kids died because of the floods. The floods are the reason why we don’t like logging, because it disrupts our lives and livelihood.”

“The plants in the forest are all gone, like our fruit trees. It’s hard to find anything, and that’s why we set up the blockades. We don’t like it,” he said.

Lack of engagement

The Kelantan Menteri Besar Ahmad Yakob had previously denied marginalising the Orang Asli. On the contrary, he said, the state had looked after their welfare.

He said the state government had gazetted 973 hectares of land as Orang Asli reserve, and another 19,000 hectares for them to roam about in the state.

Notwithstanding the state government’s efforts, however, it appears that a lack of engagement had worsened the conflict between the state and the Orang Asli.

“This issue should not be raised. The Orang Asli community in Kelantan is only about 10,000 and the area should be sufficient and need not be raised again,” Bernama quoted him as saying in a Dec 4 report last year.

According to Alek, the Orang Asli had tried to bring their grievances to the menteri besar’s office, but their memorandum was not accepted, and they were given the runaround instead.

Meanwhile, as the tussle between the Orang Asli and the state continue over the land and blockades, Anga shares his idea of what a good life looks like.

“They said that these matters should be referred to the Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa). When we met Jakoa, they said this is the Forestry Department’s matter. When we met with the Forestry Department, they refer us to the state government,” he said.

He said one company involved in the Ladang Rakyat project offered his village RM10,000, purportedly with no strings attached. Though the money was turned down, as they preferred to keep their forests with which they can earn their keep, instead of receiving a one-off windfall, and losing their ancestral lands.

“We can count the money another day. But as long as we have this land and this forest, we can make bracelets and sell it in shops and so on to make some money.”

“Yesterday for example I went to catch fish. People ask, and we go fishing. I brought him there, and he asked, ‘Hey, go catch some fish. I want to eat’. I went, cast the net, brought it to him, and he gave me RM20. Enough. That would be nice.”

“If we were to take the (RM10,000) money just like that, we don’t want it. We don’t want to owe anyone anything,” he said.

Note regarding tree cover data: Not all tree cover are forests and the tally merely represents the presence of trees with canopy cover above 30 percent, and its loss. Such loss is not necessarily due to deforestation. For example, an existing plantation may be cleared to make room for new plants.

The figures are cited here as a proxy to the extent of deforestation, legal or otherwise, from an independent source.

The Global Forest Watch also provides data on tree cover gain, but is omitted here because differences in methodology do not allow for the tree cover loss and gain figures to be compared.

Share your view on this issue.