It was a typical day in June 2020 under the Movement Control Order (MCO) in Malaysia. I was scrolling through Facebook when a headline caught my eye: “The Loggers are Back!” I clicked on the post. It was an article on blockades in the Gerik and Gua Musang regions, involving confrontations between indigenous people and loggers in Kampung Kelaik and Kampung Sungai Papan. This was not the first time events of this nature occurred there.
In February 2019, the headman of Kampung Cunex, near Gerik, Perak, filed a police report, complaining that their tanah adat, or native customary land, was being logged without their knowledge or approval. Furthermore, they reported that they were being threatened by representatives of the timber industry. No action was taken by the authorities. What followed was a series of blockades by members of Kampung Cunex and five other villages on logging roads. Kampung Cunex asserted that logging was taking place in the northern and southern areas of their tanah adat. The state responded with a dismissal of the existence of the tanah adat concept, arguing that the blockades were hurting state income and the timber industry. The Cunex blockade was torn down in late April, rebuilt and then torn down again in early May. In August 2019, after the international media coverage that this standoff generated and rebukes of state sanctioned action by various actors such as NGOs and the Malaysian Bar, Perak agreed to temporarily halt logging activities.
It looks as if this period of respite is now over.
While I can only watch these developments from afar under MCO, last year, I had the opportunity to witness these dynamics first-hand. It was a not-so typical day in June 2019. I was halfway through my internship at the Centre of Orang Asli Concerns, a local indigenous rights NGO, and we were on a journey to Kampung Cunex, in the northern reaches of Perak, for a site visit. Five hours out of Kuala Lumpur, we reached the end of the paved section of our trip, and continued onto a winding and narrow dirt track into the foothills of the Titiwangsa Range. Entering this forest environment, I initially feel a strong disconnect from a familiar urbanity and the pronounced regimes of capitalism which control it. That is, however, until these regimes assert their presence in the forest. We suddenly veered onto a shoulder and stopped the car. Merely seconds later, a dirt covered truck came hurtling down the road. Looking back at the truck through the dust cloud, I saw it was carrying a towering stack of huge tree trunks. Despite driving deeper and deeper into the forest, the trucks never ceased. I lost count of the amount of times we had to stop to let these trucks through, collectively lugging hundreds of trunks each day down to the mills below. Despite seeing the spoils of deforestation making their way to the furniture store, I could see no actual evidence of logging, despite driving an hour and a half into the forest. If the deforestation wasn’t being carried out here, then where were the trees being cut down? How much further in could the logging be?
At noon, we reached an opening. The ground at this site was heavily disturbed, scattered with rocks and loose branches. Half-buried under the dirt and shoved to the side of the road lay bits of wood and the zig-zag pattern of weavings, the remains of a structure. In one corner of the opening, a brand-new red signboard displayed prominently:
“Amaran: Tanah Kerajaan. Penceroboh akan didakwa,”
translated to “Warning: government land. Trespassers will be prosecuted.”
We had arrived at our destination. This was Kampung Cunex, Temiar territory. The Temiar are an Orang Asli group who reside in the foothills of Central to North Eastern Perak and Western Kelantan. It is estimated that there are about 30,000 Temiar, making them one of the larger Orang Asli groups of the Malaysian indigenous minority. However quiet and remote this Temiar territory might seem for a city boy like me, it has long been a site of contestation, pitting indigenous rights against state ideas of national development. The villagers of Cunex were first moved out of the forest through a resettlement program because the area became a hideout for communist insurgents in 1977, and then again due to the construction of the World Bank-funded Kenering Dam in 1981. It was only in 2016 that the people of Cunex decided to resettle their ancestral territory, with the particular aim of protecting a local sacred site, the rock where the sun descended, from possible infringements.
A bit further up the track, we stopped the car next to the local balai, the community hall, which serves as the centre of the village. Surrounding the balai at the fringes of a clearing were houses of wooden construction, roofed with dried leaves and separated by fruit trees. Past the houses lay the ladang which supplied Cunex with vegetables, which in turn was bordered by a wall of trees, marking where the village ends and forest began. After being greeted by members of the community and taking lunch with them, we adjourned to the hall for the main purpose of our visit, a meeting with Temiar leaders about the logging problem. As the discussions wore on, a blanket of seriousness descended upon the hall, and the smiles of lunch faded away.
In brief, the problem of logging in Orang Asli territory is directly linked to the problem of proving tanah adat rights in indigenous territory in Malaysia. The establishment of tanah adat as a legal concept can be traced to the 1954 Akta Orang Asli, or Aboriginal People’s Act, which stipulates that the declaration of aboriginal reserves, aboriginal areas and rights of occupancy are to be granted by the state and may be revoked at any time. There is no mention of a process for Orang Asli to initiate claims or appeal decisions. Moreover, aboriginal titles are excluded from national land codes: in effect, this leaves much of Orang Asli territory classified as “land yet to be alienated”, meaning that this land belongs to the state in the eyes of the law. The lack of a central forest management body further exacerbates this problem. Though states are fully in power to gazette land as Orang Asli reserves, it is not in their interest to do so due to the extensive state revenue generated by logging and subsequent use of the land as plantations. A further problem is that of converting and codifying markers of traditional occupation, including graves, sacred sites and certain fruit trees, into legal boundaries of land ownership. Even if the Orang Asli produce data that maps these traditional markers, local land offices must then confirm these through an official survey. While this slow and bureaucratic process of mapping is conducted, if any logging activities are carried out in the meantime, it is common for these markers to be destroyed with no acknowledgement or respect.
During the discussion, the hall turned dark as rain clouds drifted overhead. Concluding the meeting, the assemblage split into smaller groups to chat and wait out the impending rain. The blanket of seriousness had been lifted, and a casual atmosphere returned to the hall despite the encircling gloom. Tired from the long journey, I lay flat on the rattan floor and closed my eyes, allowing the cool forest breeze and sound of a distant waterfall to drift me slowly to sleep.
The waterfall which sent me to my nap lay at the bottom of a deep valley carved into the forest by the side of the hall. At this waterfall there is a rock formation, where at certain times one can witness shafts of light through an opening in the rock. For the Temiar, Lanoh and Jahai Orang Asli groups, this is believed to be the place where Aleuj, the creator spirit, and the Sun descended and rested for a day during the creation of the world. They rested for a day before heading west, and since their departure the physical manifestation of their escapade remains as the rock formation which is a sacred landmark of the origin of Cunex.
For the Temiar, who have called this land home for millennia, their connection to their territory goes beyond a need to have forests to hunt in and rivers to bathe in, and far beyond a desire to convert the forest into commodities to sell elsewhere. The Temiar believe that features of their environment, including plants, rivers and hills, are not passive: instead, they are actors and possible collaborators. Through the Sewang singing ritual, the Temiar interpret the rainforest landscape into human culture through song. These songs provide information on resource availability, origin stories and kinship connections to the land. Temiar spirituality with its taboos, rules and folklore serves to maintain the human-environment equilibrium. The people of Cunex are inextricably linked, culturally, spiritually and socially, to their tanah adat, their ancestral inheritance.
I awoke to the sound of shouting and then laughter. The hall was now empty. I stepped out of the hall, squinting in the brightness. The sun had returned to the sky, albeit now closer to the mountain peaks lying west. Everyone was gathered at the dining area nearby, where a teatime snack was being prepared. Earlier that day, while someone was trying to cut a particularly stubborn bunch of bananas free from a tree, the trunk had somehow buckled and the tree fell, just narrowly missing one of the small, multi-use huts dotting Cunex. But all was well, and we all enjoyed the fried fruits of the late tree. After a refreshingly cold shower in the Denlak river, we took a leisurely stroll around Cunex, guided by the headman.
Trailed by a clumsy pack of recently born puppies, we made our way through the village on a quick tour as the sun was setting. It seemed like the right time to ask the headman about a story that I had heard of before coming to Cunex, the story of the rock where the sun descended. He graciously regaled the story which he must have told a thousand times before. I asked him where it was and what it looked like, hoping that perhaps I would be able to see it with my own eyes. He walked us over to a ledge above the valley and pointed down. Despite being able to hear the waterfall where the rock was located clearly, the trees obscured the view. This was as close as I was going to get. The waterfall, the headman explained, was strictly out of bounds for outsiders as it was a sacred site. I was never to see this elusive rock. The rock was never mine to see.
As we concluded our tour in the darkness of night, we were urged to leave as soon as possible in order to prevent any risky encounters with the Orang Besar1 on our outward journey. We left Cunex with only our headlamps to guide us through the winding dirt road and set off into the night.
The case of Kampung Cunex is not an isolated one. Caught in a nation-state with one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, the indigenous people of Malaysia have been forced to take direct action to protect their territory from outside exploitation as they are cut out of negotiations and rejected from dialogue. It is unfortunate that their inalienable land rights, which should ideally transcend contemporary politics and government bureaucracy, is locked in a structure which marginalizes them.
Blockades have been a form of protesting this structure since the 1980s when Penan, Kayan, and Kelabit communities in Sarawak shut down logging access roads for a period of eight months. In the 2010s, as land encroachment intensified, so did blockades in Perak and Kelantan. Despite leading to several arrests, repeated instances of blockade destruction, and threatening of the community, indigenous people have persevered. The importance of protecting Orang Asli tanah adat is more important now than ever. As the inhabitants of the rainforest, the Orang Asli protect it from deforestation activities that contribute to air and water pollution, droughts, the loss of biodiversity, environmental degradation, and a rise in global temperatures. Seeing the re-commencement of logging activities in June 2020 from KL was frustrating, I could not help but feel a deep sense of anger and frustration. It not only demonstrates a staunch refusal from various parties to acknowledge the importance of the Orang Asli community to our environment but also is an indictment of the lack of empathy non-indigenous people afford to those whose lives we cannot imagine.
When I think back on my experience of visiting Kampung Cunex, I often reflect on the disappointment I felt when the headman did not allow me to view the rock where the sun descended. As an outsider and urbanite, coming from a position of privilege, it is common to feel entitled to access to knowledge and locations, regardless of intention. I made the mistake of assuming there would not be a mismatch between the regimes of knowledge and access I was embedded in, and those of Cunex, as the owners. Therefore, I would like to conclude by expressing my deepest respect and appreciation of indigenous decisions, and I hope that this article will help to stimulate discourse regarding an oft-forgotten yet essential component of contemporary Malaysian society.
1. For the Orang Asli and indeed many other communities living in/near forested areas, it is believed, and sometimes reported, that uttering the name of animals is the same as calling them to visit. Therefore, you can only mention them through pseudonyms, in this case Orang Besar translates to large man/big people and refers to Elephants.
The author based this article on his experience of visiting Kampung Cunex as an intern at the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) in June 2019. Since 1989, COAC has advanced the Orang Asli cause through compilation and distribution of information, facilitating and assisting in court cases and research. The purpose of this particular visit to Cunex was to facilitate a meeting between SUHAKAM and the Temiar, drop off supplies, including batteries for the GIS mapping devices for local coordinators, and bring a CNA journalist to record interviews for a story on the blockades.