Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo March 16, 2022

Losing Trees and Identities


Aerial view of the green trees of a palm oil plantation at a verdant rainforest's edge.

Yao-Hua Law's project investigates the sustainability of forest plantations in Malaysia and...


This is Part 4 of our four-part #LadangHutan series.

*In-process: There may be corrections made to some of the Orang Asli terms in this story post-publication.*

ON THE evening of 21 November 2021, Along Busu sat alone in a corner of Kampung Kaloi’s community hall in Kelantan. He has been blind for years, but he would have felt the villagers pacing on the bamboo floor.

His wife, Muna Angah, lay in the room behind him. She had been coughing incessantly for months and suffered bouts of lethargy. Visits to the general hospital in Gua Musang, about 55 km away, had not helped.

And so, Along was about to do what his ancestors have done for generations — consult ‘higher powers’ for guidance and help.

Whistleblowers and others in possession of sensitive information of public concern can now securely and confidentially share tips, documents, and data with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network (RIN), its editors, and journalists.

The 13 households of Kampung Kaloi are Orang Asli of the Temiar tribe. They believe that superhuman beings or spirits reside in the earth, rivers, and trees. These are the “Raja,” “Naga,” and “Datuk.”

Kampung Kaloi in the Gunung Stong Selatan Forest Reserve, Kelantan, is home to Orang Asli of the Temiar tribe. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2022.

Along himself, being the Tok Halak, or shaman, would lead the sewang ceremony to invite the spirits and ask their help to heal Muna. Sewang in the past had forewarned him of the disastrous floods in 2014, and helped his daughter-in-law through a difficult labour.

But sewang are harder to do now as the forests around Kampung Kaloi are replaced with plantations of rubber trees grown for latex and timber.

Since 2016, huge tracts of forests to the south and west of Kampung Kaloi, and north beyond the mountains, have been turned into forest plantations. These areas are inside the Gunung Stong Selatan and Berangkat forest reserves in Kelantan.

Image by Macaranga.

The land around his village “is all smooth now,” said Along. “Our lives were easy, no hunger, nothing. Now we can’t even plant ubi (yam)…We are surrounded by plantations of outsiders.”

Other villagers rattled off a list of fruits that used to be common in forests once virgin or selectively logged. Logging in the past took only the larger trees, they said. “[The loggers] didn’t develop plantations,” said one villager, “but now they take the land too.”

As forests disappear, so do the many foods, herbs, and materials crucial for the Orang Asli’s ceremonies and rites, and thereby their cultural identity.

Gallery: Disappearing forests

A site west of Kampung Kaloi in the Gunung Stong Selatan Forest Reserve, Kelantan, being cleared for rubber forest plantation in November 2021. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

Akar Prestij Sdn Bhd has a permit to clear this site in the Gunung Stong Selatan Forest Reserve, Kelantan, for a rubber forest plantation. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

A truck loaded with logs removed from a site cleared for a rubber forest plantation, west of Kampung Kaloi in the Gunung Stong Selatan Forest Reserve, Kelantan, in November 2021. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

South of Kampung Kaloi, a site in the Berangkat Forest Reserve, Kelantan, being cleared for a rubber forest plantation in November 2021. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

Weeds have overtaken a rubber forest plantation in the Berangkat Forest Reserve, Kelantan in November 2021. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

The condition of much of the 20km road leading to the Orang Asli villages and plantation sites in the Gunung Stong Selatan Forest Reserve, Kelantan. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

That November evening, as the sewang was about to start, people streamed into the hall. Women sat at two ends of the hall with long rectangular logs before their feet, and picked up bamboo sticks.

A few men sat in the middle of the hall, in a square demarcated by leaves and below a wooden pyramid painted blue, red, and white.

Along’s brother-in-law, Jabeng Angah, waited at one side of the square with a gendang (drum) on his lap.

Awie, son of Along, carried in a metal bowl that contained embers and pieces of tree resin called kemian. The smoke permeated the hall with a strong woody smell.

Along joined the men in the square. They unfolded hats weaved from palas leaves, passed them through the kemian smoke, and wore one each.

Suddenly, Jabeng started drumming, and the women followed his rhythm by hitting their bamboo sticks 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 calon leaves in their hands, and a few minutes into Along’s chanting, they smacked the calon leaves hard against their arms. Along, Awie and the others began to flick their heads vigorously.

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

Video by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

Muna, frail and expressionless, was carried into the hall by her daughter. Along touched his head to his wife’s belly and blew air through his fist onto her skin. Awie did the same, whispering words into his fist as he did so. They were citing jampi, or incantations.

Over the next hour, Along and the men, still in a trance, took turns blowing jampi through their fists onto Muna. Along scrubbed her back with calon leaves too. Other men and boys walked in circles around the mat, swaying to the gendang’s rhythm.

Suddenly, the gendang stopped. Along and the other men stood around Muna and sprinkled berteh — small hill paddy that is roasted like popcorn — on her. Then they counted the number of berteh remaining in their hands.

The Tok Halak had earlier decreed a number that should be counted — one of either an odd number, even number, or multiples of a number. If the total was a number that fit that, then it was a good omen from the spirits.

Gallery: A sewang in Kampung Kaloi

Led by Along Busu (in red, middle), the Temiar villagers pray for the recovery of an ailing villager. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

A sewang requires villagers to collect lots of leaves and resin of certain plants and bamboo sticks from forests. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

The village shaman, Along Busu (in red, middle), resting after he has led the villagers through a 2-hour sewang to heal Muna Angah (lying down, right). Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

Sewang are integral to Orang Asli culture. They perform sewang to appease spirits, avert natural disasters, and seek guidance on health, farming, and major decisions. And just as important — perhaps more so — sewang unites the community in common goals and concerns.

Regardless of what the Raja or Datuk would reveal, a sewang brings everyone under one roof in a union of songs and rites.

But sewang requires the use of natural materials from surrounding forests. And since logging began in their surrounding forests about 15 years ago, the people of Kampung Kaloi have been struggling to find many of these essential materials.

For this ceremony, the community collected the calon leaves from a regenerating forest by the Gua Musang town 55 km away. They requested kemian resin from other Orang Asli in Pos Belatim, 20 km away through the forests. And the bamboo sticks the women used for rhythm? Those were harvested about 10 km away from their village.

These materials for sewang, and the palm leaves and rattan used to build the community hall, were common in nearby forests, said Along. But much of those forests are gone now.

Gallery: Materials needed for a sewang

Bamboo sticks used as musical instruments in a sewang were collected from 10-15km away from the village. Old bamboo is preferred as it lacks the fine hairs that make hands itch. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

Dry plant resin, called kemian, are burned as incense in a sewang. For this ceremony, the villagers had to get theirs from another Orang Asli village 50 km away. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

Villagers used dried palm leaves of the cacur or beltop varieties to thatch the roof of their community hall. It is taboo to mix two varieties in one roof, but it has been difficult to find large numbers of either as forests are cleared. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

Bunch of calon leaves for the sewang were collected from a forest by Gua Musang town, 80 km away. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

Palas leaves and calon leaves are used to make hats (tempok), decorate the sewang, and to help the villagers communicate with spirits. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

A sewang cannot proceed without palas leaves and calon leaves, but villagers have had to travel far to find them. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

But Along’s people are fighting to protect their forests and way of life. They had erected blockades and are working with lawyers to defend their customary land rights.

His son, Mustafa Along, heads the Network of Kelantan Orang Asli Villages (Jaringan Kampung Orang Asli Kelantan) and champions their customary land rights.

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

“Selective logging isn’t as bad as clear-felling,” which “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.”

Protecting forests benefit everyone, not just the Orang Asli, says Mustafa Along. Recorded in December, 2021. Audio by Macaranga. Malaysia, 2021.

Villagers feed and comfort the ailing Muna Angah after the sewang. Image by Yao-Hua Law. Malaysia, 2021.

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 berteh showed a bad omen.

Time seemed to slow. The children who had been playing in the next room now huddled together, their eyes wide open, staring at Muna.

She passed away a month later. Kampung Kaloi held a 4-day feast to celebrate her departing spirit.

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

This is the last of our 4-part #LadangHutan series investigating forest plantations in Peninsular Malaysia.

Part 1: Tree Farming Gone Wrong

Part 2: Forest Plantations in Reserves: Quick to Cut, Slow to Grow

Part 3: The Problems and Promise of Forest Plantations in Kelantan

Acknowledgement: We thank Dr Colin Nicholas of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns for help with the terms on Orang Asli rituals.


yellow halftone illustration of an elephant


Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
teal halftone illustration of a young indigenous person


Indigenous Rights

Indigenous Rights
teal halftone illustration of praying hands





logo for the Rainforest Investigations Network


Rainforest Investigations Network

Rainforest Investigations Network

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues