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Story Publication logo February 24, 2011

Malaysia's Batek People Face a Crisis of Assimilation



The Batek face a crisis common to indigenous peoples around the world, as their dominant, more technologically advanced neighbors take what they want with relative impunity. Sometimes they take everything. Since time immemorial, this has gone on. In fact, this may be how the Batek people backed themselves into such a tight corner in the first place. It is believed that the Batek and other Negrito people were widespread throughout the region and chose to flee into the hinterlands to avoid confrontation. Now there is literally nowhere left to go. In Malayasia, lowland populations have gobbled up so much territory, loggers have cut so much once-impenetrable forest, and then the land has been converted to oil palm plantations. The new wrinkle is that the cloak of "green" technology, in the guise of oil palm, has been laid over the process, giving it the appearance of being a socially innovative and responsible act.

Early one morning, Sam and Dolah, both Batek, set out with their extended family for a day of collecting, hunting and fishing in the forest. Hunting is done by the men­–Sam brought his bamboo blowpipe–but almost everything else is done by women. We set out along the muddy logging road and in 30 minutes or so arrived at a wide clearing which probably served as a base camp for the logging company as they extracted the giant trees. The Batek occupy it during the rainy season. It is higher and relatively drier, but not now as blisteringly hot as it becomes during sunnier times. Word of our arrival has spread throughout the shelters, built just off the ground of bamboo with plastic sheeting over thatched rooftops and floors made of split bamboo. Cooking stations are at one end of the open-walled structures. There is a lot of coughing from the constant smoke. Children run around outside or stare at the strangers. Quickly, a few more women join our party, and we head up the logging road to the innermost settlement. At that settlement, which is larger and set on a hillside planted with cassava, more women join the group to go into the forest after catching up on gossip. While this is going on, I watch a willowy young woman—at first I mistook her for a boy—taking aim with a slingshot at small birds high in treetops, hoping to bag a very small meal. To hit a bird would be only slightly easier than a golfer hitting a hole-in-one, but her determination suggests she has had some success.

Batek women are energetic and earthy. They do not shy away from strangers, go silent or avoid eye contact. Most range around four-feet nine-inches tall. Like the men, they wear simple T-shirts and shorts. Most wear flip-flop sandals, crocs, or go barefoot. Their hair is worn in "afro" style with various hair clips to create a variety of styles.

The party heads past the "Chinese" logging camp, so called because most of the loggers are ethnic Chinese-Malaysians. A Batek man is digging a hole at the end of a long tent that serves as a company cafeteria. The Chinese-Malaysian foreman looks up, smiles and waves. In Malaysia, events in life do not seem to be lived in black or white,right or wrong. Though there is a palpable tension as the Batek pass the camp from where the foreman and his crew will destroy the last little parcel of the world as they had always known it, the Batek are unfailingly gracious. The foreman, for his part, hardly fits into the mold of villain, nor is he one.

The bright orange-colored clay of the logging road cut abruptly straight up a slope through old growth rainforest with deep ruts of erosion already slicing into the mountain. Such erosion, left alone, could take a century or more to heal with runoff cutting deeper with every rain shower. Along the way, several women plucked edible greens from the forest and waxy yellow-green leaves to stick in their hair. At first I thought this might be some sort of camouflage to help hunt birds because the young girl with the slingshot had done the same thing. Then it became apparent that these particular leaves were ornamental. The women sat and waited at the top of the hill for the others at an intersection of logging roads, each labeled for identification. No valuable tree would be missed by the loggers.

At the place where the women descended the hill and entered the forest, a rivulet of orange clay runoff from the logging road stained the forest floor all the way down to the edge of a clear river where the Batek fish. When the loggers begin again in earnest, the soil will cloud the river and make it much harder to fish. The Batek are running out of options. Watching the women fishing, I am reminded again how the rainforest, which seems so perfect, so invulnerable in its pristine state, is like the arctic, an exceedingly vulnerable ecosystem that does not heal when violated.

If a temperate forest is like a candle, a rainforest is the biological equivalent of a blow torch. In the Malaysian rainforest, the vast majority of the bio-mass is above ground in the trees, vines, and underbrush, but there is almost no topsoil because the fuel of life is consumed so quickly. That orange clay-like sub-soil is almost right at the surface. Remove the trees and it immediately washes away, as is evident in the famished orange underneath oil palm trees on the adjacent plantations.

A 45-minute drive north of Kuala Koh, in a place called Post Lebir where the Malaysian government has built a school to help the Batek integrate into the larger society. A dirt track leads back from the main highway through large swidden fields tended by Malay settlers. Some have already been converted to oil palm. Closer to Post Lebir, in an old, overgrown rubber plantation, I climb out of the car, deciding that walking is better than risking getting stuck in the orange muck between the car and Post Lebir. Closer to the school, there is a smaller, more sustainable swidden field that some Batek have planted with corn and cassava. There are large elephant tracks leading right through the middle of it leading down to the Lebir River, which flows out of Taman Negara but is wide and muddy by the time it reaches here.

A bright coat of paint dresses up the new school, which might suggest a model project intended to impress visitors, except no one is expecting me and it is populated by energetic children and engaged teachers. Still, the drop-out rate for Batek children is high. Aimee, a Malay teacher of English, tells me that she believes the ability of the Batek children to learn is hampered because the environment with large buildings, electricity, automobiles, structured schedules and other things taken for granted by most people, create an entirely foreign atmosphere for them. Others suggest it is just plain homesickness. For a child from Kuala Koh, an hour drive north might as well be a trans-continental flight. Take 9-year-olds from New York City or Tokyo and board them for months at a time away from their families and the same homesickness will stalk these children. Perhaps an approach to education that is designed primarily for urban children may be something indigenous children, wherever they are from, find hard to embrace. I have heard similar comments about the difficulty Mayan children from the highlands of Guatemala faced in that country's educational model.

More telling was that every Batek girl I observed was wearing a "hijab" head scarf. The Batek are animists. I asked Aimee if the girls were simply wearing a Malaysian-style school uniform or if the girls had embraced Islam. Every single one, she assured me, had willingly converted to Islam. Later, I spoke with some parents who did not share Aimee's opinion and expressed their displeasure with this development.

After leaving the school grounds, I made my way to a collection of whitewashed cinderblock houses. I met a young man named Apox who lived in one of the houses with his wife and young child. Apox led me around the village while describing how the Batek make ends meet by harvesting forest products and picking up occasional day labor. We looked out over the Lebir River and a monkey let out a deep mournful shout from the towering old growth trees across the river. It was not loud enough to drown out the droning chainsaws of industrial loggers, unseen behind a mountain ridge festooned with the continuous canopy of the primary forest that they were rapidly destroying.






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