Give orang asli a bigger say

Posted on December 20, 2010. Filed under: Indigenous People |

-The Sun-

MALAYSIA has more than 90 groups of indigenous people with the majority found in Sabah and Sarawak. In Peninsular Malaysia, there are three major groups of indigenous people collectively referred to as the orang asli. Historically, almost all the orang asli communities share a similar way of traditional life where they are highly dependent on the forest resources to sustain their life. They act as forest produce collectors and gatherers, they hunt and fish. Nowadays, affected by development projects, the economic livelihood of the orang asli is also changing. Their traditional means of livelihood are threatened by deforestation and development activities carried out by other stakeholders such as logging companies and the government. The integration into mainstream society is also leading to the rapid loss of their traditional knowledge and cultural practices.


Over the past few years, the media and several NGOs working on conservation issues have often tended to blame the orang asli for the illegal wildlife trade without really looking at the bigger picture. I admit there are some who have taken advantage of their hunting rights for the illegal trade but then again, which community does not have a few bad apples? For centuries, the orang asli have traditionally been engaged in agriculture, riverine and coastal fishing and involved in economic trade, both internally with other orang asli and externally with middlemen. They also exploit a diverse range of forest resources including timber, plants, insects, birds, and other animals found in the forests. These resources traditionally serve as food source, medicine, construction material and are used in their rituals.


However, the excessive encroachment into their natural environment in the last two decades as a result of development and modernisation of the country has affected the livelihood and quality of life of orang asli. Nearly 80% are classified as living in poverty and are increasingly placed into national integration plans with many of them denied their rights to the forests. Nevertheless, as others have noted, the orang asli are not against development or progress but they do object to detrimental consequences of poorly planned change by the government.


This means that the government must plan better alternative livelihood strategies compensating for loss of income if they are serious about addressing the issue of illegal hunting of wildlife among orang asli. The government’s planning should also be in line with United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples obligations, which Malaysia supported and signed in 2007. Any conservation programmes by the government and NGOs should respect the orang asli’s traditional rights to harvest forest resources. Under articles 26 and 29, indigenous peoples “have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired” and “have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources”.


These plans must also recognise the orang asli as partners in the decision making process. In short, primary consideration must be given to the orang asli who are still dependent on wildlife as a source of food or income. As such, further approaches should be taken to determine a practical solution that benefits both wildlife conservation interests and the use of forest resources by orang asli.

Azrina Abdullah is doing research on the links between indigenous groups and wildlife trade. She was regional director of Traffic, an NGO which monitors the global wildlife trade. Comments:


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