FOR thousands of years, Malaysia’s ancient nomadic Batek tribes have inhabited the peninsular tropical rain forest. In other words, their lives were interwoven with the life of the forest itself.
Life has changed little for them till today. With very few permanent homes, Batek build their thatched lean-to shelters underneath the large canopy of the rainforest. They still hunt small game with simple weapons and gather the fruits and tubers that the forest provides them in abundance.
Although Batek, nowadays, are able to speak fluent Malay, they prefer their own language which has its origin in the Mon-Khmer dialects of Indo-China.
However, the traditional lifestyle of the Batek is now under ominous pressure due to constant deforestation and other man-made activities. It’s not far-fetched that the Negrito ethnic family, Peninsular Malaysia’s last of the semi-nomadic communities, to which the Batek belong, would abandon their natural lifestyle and settle down.
“We are just guardians of the forest and we cannot take more than we need,” said Hamdan Keladi, a Batek headman in Gua Musang district about 500km northeast of Kuala Lumpur.
“But town people come here and take everything like the trees and pollute the river with development, so I don’t know how long we can continue to roam the forests.”
His comments summarise the agony of these people in a nutshell.
In fact, a recent census figured out that there are only 1,000 Batek, distributed throughout the rain forest of Kelantan and surrounding states.
The orang asli community contributes about 150,000 of the country’s total population.
In my opinion, there must be profound management policies and strong enough acts to protect these indigenous people who are, in themselves, the virtual mirror images of the rain forest.
I would like to quote Ken Rubeli, an Australian born naturalist, who said, “We shouldn’t deny the primitive living people who freely choose to seek forest.’’
He added, “It is feared that in decades to come and following its present course, modern civilisation may well be reduced to battered remnants through self-induced environmental catastrophe, and so forced back into primeval existence.’’
In conjunction with this, I wish to emphasise that it is high time to listen to the wake-up call and conserve the remaining Batek community of Peninsular Malaysia before the total gene pool goes out forever.
Adding on to this, I must say civilisation is a life in harmony with nature, promising a secure and self-respecting sustainable future for the whole community.
DR TAPASH RUDRA
Department of Biotechnology
Faculty of Science
Lincoln University College, Petaling Jaya