GUA MUSANG, Malaysia – In their fight for the rights of peninsular Malaysia’s native people, the Orang Asli, an alliance of women are making waves in the country’s highly conservative society as they support the efforts of communities and activists trying to stop logging of the region’s forests. The women represent a variety of fields and organizations and are speaking out and even risking arrest in their struggle for the forests and the communities that depend on them.
Mongabay joined them on a convoy deep into the rainforests of northern Malaysia’s Kelantan State to supply provisions to anti-logging campaigns, traveling by night to evade detection by State Forestry Department police. Here, the Temiar indigenous peoples are resisting deforestation by setting up road blockade camps in local forest reserves. By March 2017, three blockade camps had reportedly been torn down by forestry police, but the Temiar vowed to set up more.
The terrain was mountainous and the dirt logging trail had been regularly pounded by the heavy monsoon rains, making progress treacherous. The convoy passed Orang Asli villages along the road, punctuated with log piles and bulldozers at the trackside.
“If we see any of the big guys [elephants], turn off your engine and lights and wait for them to pass,” Karin Lee of PEKA (Preservation of Natural Heritage Organization) announced over the radio to the convoy.
“We brought cooking oil, rice, milk for the children, all the dry stuff for their basic everyday use,” said Sabrina Syed (full name: Puan Sri Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil), president of PEKA. The convey of three four-wheel-drive vehicles loaded with food supplies, arrived at the isolated community of Kampong Tambaga in Pos Gob district in Kelantan State at 4 a.m., after an arduous ten-hour journey.
“We have no choice but to come in at night,” Syed said. “Of course if they see us, they have the right to arrest us,” A successful entrepreneur with an eco-resort and restaurant, Syed established PEKA in 2010.
No permit, no entrance into the forest
In November 2016, the State Forestry Department stopped issuing permits to enter the forest reserve areas where the Orang Asli live, reportedly in response to the blockades. However, the forest is still subject to licenses that authorize private companies to log the forest.
“It’s not that we don’t want to ask for a permit, but they have frozen the permit at the moment because they do not want us giving any support to the Orang Asli,” Syed said.
Jules Ong, a film director and cameraman said he had already been arrested in January for filming a blockade being demolished by forestry officials.
“The sentence is three years and 15,000 Malaysian Ringit just for entering a jungle,” said Ong during an interview in March 2017. He thinks he will find out next month whether he will be charged. Despite this, he still decided to join the supply convoy into the forest reserve without a permit.
Section 47(1) of Malaysia’s National Forestry Enactment (NFE) prohibits entering a forest reserve without a valid permit.
“You can apply for a permit [at] the Gua Musang Forestry office,” Encik Razali Bin Abdu Raman from the Kelantan State Forestry Department said during a March 23 interview. He was unclear, however, on whether the freeze on permits was still in place. The Gua Musang Forestry Department office confirmed that a permit was required to enter the forest reserve, but refused to clarify whether it would issue one to enter the area where the blockades had taken place. Although the Orang Asli – which translates to “original people” and refers collectively to the indigenous groups of West Malaysia – have been living a subsistence livelihood for millennia, community members say their high level of dependence on food gathered from the forest has made them vulnerable to the impacts of logging.
“The logging companies keep on coming to the area. We want to stop that. This land has belonged to us for hundreds of years, since our ancestors,” said Yussuman Bin Andor, a Temiar man from the village of Kampong Pos Gob.
“We plan to do the blockades again to protect the waterfalls, the river, the medicinal plants,” Bin Andor said. “The fish in the river are all finished, we don’t have fish anymore. So we have to stop the logging however we can.” He explained that the river has silted up due to soil erosion from nearby logging. He said the variety and amount of plants gathered for use in cooking and healing has also declined, leading to concern about the impacts of logging on their region.
The main reason for bringing in the food supplies, Syed explained, is to sustain the communities while they are spending time on their logging blockades.
“They have to spend a lot of time on the blockade so they don’t have time to look for food,” she said.
‘We will be mounting another blockade’
The headman of Tambaga convened a meeting the morning after our arrival on March 12 to welcome the guests and thank them for the food supplies. Then, more than forty men assembled from the surrounding Temiar communities to discuss their next steps together with their lawyer Siti Kasim and PEKA’s Sabrina Syed.
“We will be mounting another blockade in the coming weeks,” announced Temiar activist Mustafa Along after the discussions, which included a debate on whether or not forming human chains would make future blockades more effective.
They agreed that they would keep the blockades peaceful despite what they described as heavy-handed tactics from the Forestry Department. Singaporean English language Asian cable television news agency Channel NewsAsia (CNA) reported the Forestry Department used chainsaws to cut down their manned barricades in January, allegedly leaving one man seriously injured.
“Blowpipes are not for fun, not for display, they are used for a certain reason. If we use blowpipes it is to kill,” said the elected headman elder known as the “Panghulu.” He reminded those assembled that the presence of poison dart blowpipes at the blockades was unacceptable as tribal protocol stipulates they are reserved only for killing. The Orang Asli live in permanent forest reserves administered and policed by the State Forestry Department. According to CNA’s investigation, 90 percent of reserves are licensed out to logging companies.
Syed says that the Forestry Department profits handsomely from the logging business.
“When they give out the licenses they get money immediately,” she said.
Experts say that logging, though not a new part of the economy in Kelantan, has taken a new turn in recent years. “Selective logging [of big trees] is being replaced by clear-cutting for plantations,” said Shamila Ariffin, research officer with Friends of the Earth Malaysia.
According to Forestry Department numbers, Kelantan had 867,866 hectares of forest in 2008 and is the state with the third-largest forested area in peninsular Malaysia. However clearance for conversion to timber plantations has skyrocketed from 14,819 hectares in 2008 to 166,291 hectares in 2014, for a total of 151,472 hectares converted over this period, and still continuing.
“What the authorities are doing now is they are clear-cutting the forest to plant rubber trees and it affects the water catchment area,” Syed said, explaining how heavy erosion after logging has caused siltation in rivers. “Once the water catchment is affected, the rivers are affected, and the fish in the rivers, so everything is affected like a domino effect.”
Those working with the Orang Asli say there is little official recognition of their rights. In a report, the NGO Friends of the Earth Malaysia states “in Peninsular Malaysia forestry resources are stipulated to be the absolute property of the state, while Orang Asli communities are burdened with numerous legal restrictions and impediments in their efforts to manage their ancestral forests.”
Taking the conflict to the courts
Siti Zabedah Kasim is a lawyer with the Malaysian Bar Council. She has dedicated herself to legally representing the rights of the Orang Asli for several years and is a frequent visitor to their communities.
“I‘ve decided to choose the Orang Asli area because I feel they are still under-represented and they need empowerment, they need more help,” Kasim said in an interview. She added that it is a painstaking task because “the court case will take so long,” by which time the loggers may have concluded operations and moved on.
According to Kasim, Orang Asli claims of land rights and ownership to their communal forest are routinely ignored by the State Forest Department.
“The Forest Department seem to think that the Orang Asli here are only ‘tenants at will,’ meaning they are not the occupier or the land-owners,” she said. “They keep saying that these people are merely squatters, have no rights basically. So because of that, the Forestry Department seem to think they can do whatever they like by taking the land or log around their ancestral land, without thinking how it will affect the community.”
The Malaysian governance structure provides state governments with the highest level of control over decisions relating to land use.
“It’s a problem when even the Human Rights Commission set up by the government…came up with a report with 16 recommendations [that] are still not done,” Kasim said, adding that the federal government does have a responsibility for the rights of the Orang Asli but have been reluctant to get involved.
“The federal government can actually do something because the Orang Asli welfare comes under the federal government,” she said. “The six million dollar question that we lawyers keep asking is why? Why is it not being taken seriously by the government, the federal or the state government?”
On January 17, 2017, Kasim won a high court judgement against logging company Jejarang Wagasan, which had taken the Temiar to court for blockading their logging operations.
“We established that the Orang Asli are actually in possession [of the land], not the loggers,” said Kasim, adding, “the court agreed with us.”
However, local resident Yussuman Bin Andor alleges the Forestry Department defied the judgement and ordered guards to break down three blockades, arresting 16 indigenous Temiar people in the process.
“On that day they just ambushed and destroyed everything,” Bin Andor said.
Mongabay made several requests for comment from officials at Kelantan and Gua Musang Forest Departments, but those requests were denied or went unanswered.
“They [the logging company] actually now have appealed…so we are just waiting for the date for them to appeal. So it’s still ongoing,” Kasim said.
Kasim added that she regularly receives threats for her outspoken work, but that she intends to continue: “They don’t like that I’m an outspoken woman. I receive a lot of threats, even death threats,” she said.
Sabrina Syed and her colleagues from PEKA departed a day early in one vehicle to make the long journey out of the forest. But they did not make it out.
“We have to get out now!” Siti Kasim shouted as we were woken in the community longhouse at 1 a.m. Syed had been arrested along with two colleagues and their driver, and their vehicle impounded. With no telephone signal, a Temiar scout had made the arduous journey through the night on his motorbike to alert us that the same temporary Forestry Department checkpoint that had caught them was still in place.
Attempting a longer route that would have bypassed the checkpoint, our way out was halted by a landslide. Instead we waited in the forest until Temiar scouts could check the situation. We finally got word in the small hours of the night that the checkpoint had been left unmanned and at 6.30 a.m. we finally emerged from the forest.
Syed and her companions were arrested at the roadblock, then escorted in a vehicle convoy to the town of Gua Musang. On the advice of her lawyer, Syed insisted on going to the police station rather than the Forest Department office. After a night in the police station, Syed and her companions were able to leave on bail terms. Mongabay spoke to her immediately after her release.
“You are trespassing on a Forest Reserve so you have to come with us,” Syed said, relaying what the Forestry Department guard had told her at the moment of their arrest. She said they were escorted out of the forest by three vehicles.
“Our lawyer recommended we go to the police station instead of the Forestry Department,” she said, and once there they filed a police report. She said that when they had finished, they attempted to leave the police station but were blocked by Forestry Department guards.
“They started getting rowdy. They pushed our hands behind our backs,” she said, adding that they retreated back into the police station.
“This Forestry Department is furious at us for opening this can of worms, the corruption and so on,” Syed said.
The Forestry Department did not respond to attempts made by Mongabay to confirm the events.
“We are all on verbal bail and have to return here April 14,” said Karin Lee of PEKA.
On April 23, Malaysia’s High Court ruled that 9,300 hectares of Gua Musang forest legally belongs to the Orang Asli – including 1,000 hectares the Forest Department had slated for clearing.
However, Lee said that the Forest Department is still threatening to destroy any new blockades.
“They [the Forestry Department] also ‘advise’ the community to not further set up any [more] blockades,” Lee said, adding that the department provided a warning that “if they continue with [a] blockade, the [Forestry Department] will NOT hesitate to demolish it under the forestry act.”
Syed, who was also arrested in December 2016 for making comments about deforestation, which the Sultan of Johor Baru regarded as insulting, vows to continue.
“They expect me to stop doing all this or what?”