Malaysia: Mapping as a Tool in Indigenous Peoples’ Struggle

#cartography #counter-mapping #counter-cartography #indigenous_people #Malaysia #deforestation #forest #resistance

4 August 2020


To convince the judges that their existence depends on the forests, Orang Asli communities use participatory mapping and inventory their places of culture, hunting and gathering, settlement and worship. This is also a way to become visible and to emancipate from a state that infantilises them.

by Aude Vidal

Text revised by Kavita Devi

After travelling along a track between the oil palm plantations, we are finally on a paved road, in the middle of the forest. The signs warn of possible elephant encounters and their excrement still fresh on the asphalt confirm their presence. The entrance to the Endau-Rompin National Park, the second largest in western Malaysia after the iconic Taman Negara, is at the end of the road, next to a Jakun indigenous village. The houses are modest, the surroundings verdant with trees and the inhabitants roam the village on their scooters. We are in Kampung Peta, the most upstream village on the Endau River that flows into the South China Sea, south of the Malay peninsula.

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An hour and a half from the nearest town, economic opportunities are scarce. There is little sustenance agriculture in Kampung Peta and the land is dedicated to the cultivation of rubber. Latex does not command a high price and the fruits and vegetables are difficult to protect from the intrusion of wild boars, monkeys and elephants. Like many of her generation, Sima, a young woman who works part-time in the national park, does not want to leave her village even though it is difficult to earn a decent income there. “If you live in the city, you have to pay for everything, everything only works with money. You can’t hunt wild boar, harvest wild herbs like we do here. Without the forest, I’d be really poor. Without the forest, we would have nothing.”

The forest, partly forest reserve and partly national park, brings a very unequally distributed bounty in the community between those who know enough English to take Western tourists on excursions, like Sima, and others. Those others depend on agriculture, in a limited area. To supplement their income or because they have no land, they collect rattan in the forest. They barely earn two-thirds of a Malaysian minimum wage and the remote location increases the cost of living. Because the population of the village has grown over the past few decades, it would be necessary to open new agricultural plots on the forest but it is protected and the authorities contain the Orang Asli in small “Aboriginal reserves.”

Not enough space on Aboriginal reserves

Before the intrusion upland of the Malays and British colonists, the Jakun lived in a much larger space, the whole valley of the Endau, here from the tip of Mount Janing to that of Bukit Peta or Mount Map, named after a mysterious Japanese map found after the war. The Orang Asli (or natural human beings, the indigenous peoples of West Malaysia to which the Jakun belong) consist of about twenty groups. Some are traditionally hunter-gatherers and plant fruit and tubers within the forest. Others are slash-and-burn cultivators: they practise a hill agriculture adapted to poor soils.

The Jakun have long cultivated by burning parcels of secondary forest which they then let regenerate over one or two decades. All use the primary forest for hunting, collecting plants, mushrooms, honey, medicinal plants, forest products such as rattan, camphor or dammar, a natural resin. They plant fruit trees, durian or petai. The forest and the river are also places where their spiritual life takes root. This way of life, which involves a very extensive use of the forest, is under regular attack by the authorities of the country. Malaysia has been the biggest exporter of tropical wood in the 1980s, and is now a champion of palm oil production despite being only half as big as France. The country does not like nor its forest nor its indigenous peoples, especially the Orang Asli of the peninsula.

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Main street, Kampung Peta.

Orang Asli make up about 0.7% of the population, and a majority of them are among the poorest. They were settled in villages like Kampung Peta during the communist insurrection and the Emergency that followed for twelve long years (1948-1960) in the jungle of then Malaya. The British and later the Malays in power have become accustomed to administering them under specific legislation, the Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954. The vast lands from which they derive their sustenance have never been given legal recognition, which now means that they are confined to reserves restricted to agricultural land, and too small to practise their traditional methods. In other locations than Kampung Peta, deforestation and palm plantations pollute the rivers and destroy the forest, depriving them of part of their resources. A situation that is even more worrying for the indigenous groups who live mainly on hunting, fishing and collecting forest products.

« Making these maps is to share the history of the peoples »

Treated like children, the Orang Asli have long been deterred from taking collective action against the authorities. Now, inspired by the indigenous peoples of the island of Borneo, they are engaging in a new balance of power for the defence of their lands: direct non-violent action [see box] and action in court for their land rights, each village strengthening their case with the mapping of their lands.

In 2019, at the time of this field work, Jef is a man in his late twenties. He belongs to the Jah-hut people and cultivates bananas in the state of Pahang three weeks a month. Every fourth week, he leads a community mapping project, trains new investigators, goes out into the field, and produces maps used in the lawsuits that indigenous groups bring to state court. Seventy villages are engaged in the project and ten of them are in court. They want to prove the historical uses of the land by their communities, listing places of settlement, places of animist worship, graves, fruit trees, all tangible traces of the presence of the Orang Asli, by marking them on a map. Their claims to these lands are not unfounded; they are long-lived territories. The thousands of days of walking in search of wild boar or rattan and the familiarity of people with their forest cannot be mapped, but, according to Jef, “making these maps is sharing the history of indigenous peoples.”

GPS in hand

Kampung Peta was one of the first territories mapped. The Jakun villagers were thus able to stand up to the management of the national park, which wished to deprive them of access to part of their land. The situation is rather favourable, according to Jef, since judges often rule in favour of the indigenous communities. Kampung Peta’s victory was achieved thanks to the villagers’ efforts to map their traditional lands. Machang, a 50-year-old man who lives on a parcel of rubber trees rented by his sister, took part in this initiative. Like him, about twenty people from the village have been surveying the land, GPS in hand, from one point to the other of the hills that mark the Endau valley. They listed each sacred place (keramat), each grave and every trace of cultivated land (an abandoned garden, a fruit tree) on a paper notebook, noting the description of the place on one page, and the GPS coordinates next to it. Others have entered the information into a geographical information system (GIS). Machang has an emotional memory of this adventure: “Jef is my master, this guy is a genius!”

Jef learned the trade in Sabah, in the Malaysian part of Borneo, from well-organised indigenous groups, and now shares his know-how in Western Malaysia. After he has been running a workshop with the villagers of Kampung Peta a few years ago, he now trains another rural community in Ulu Beranang Jeramkedah, a Temuan village in the state of Negeri Sembilan, south of Kuala Lumpur, the federal capital. Mimi, a young Temuan woman, handles with a woman of the village the organisation of this three-day gathering. This activist, whom I met in a training of the Malaysian branch of Friends of the Earth (Sahabat Alam Malaysia) for the indigenous “defenders of territories,” would like to convince her village to engage in such a procedure but the batin, or customary leader, refuses – as is the case in half of the villages contacted. Hoping to one day convince her neighbours to engage in such a struggle, Mimi helps other communities to self-organise.

From hand drawing to information system

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Map of a Temuan village. Ladang kelapa sawit: palm oil plantation ; hutan simpan: forest reserve.

First, rivers are drawn on the large white sheets, and then houses and crops. Little groups of villagers work together to produce maps of their village. Between the first draft and the final version, it takes an hour or two to agree on what will be represented, and how. This is the first step of a three-day training session. It takes place after a first contact but before the villagers actually decide to get involved. This is a way to ensure that everyone knows what they are talking about, and is not intimidated by a task that Jef is trying to show is accessible. The youngest villagers use their smartphones regularly so they can quickly learn to use a GPS.

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The village council meets an NGO in Kampung Peta.
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Mimi (whom we see from behind) leads a participatory mapping workshop in Ulu Beranang Jeramkedah.

On the first evening, Jef presents the maps developed by other communities, and participants are invited to produce participatory maps in small groups. There are a few more women than men in the village community house. In these indigenous communities where gender equality is being eroded by economic development, they will take on a large part of the organisation of the gathering, while men will constitute the bigger part of the surveyors. With GPS and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), their hand-drawn maps will take on a new dimension. The next two days are devoted to learning how mapping techniques work, step by step, from surveying to data management. After that, the communities can choose whether or not to engage in the mapping of their territory. They will eventually use the maps they produced to defend their rights to the land.

This pemetaan komuniti (community mapping) project is funded by a US digital company in collaboration with JOAS (Jaringan Orang Asal Semalaysia), the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia, and COAC (Centre for Orang Asli Concerns), an organisation that works only on the peninsula. The multinational company has already contributed to a mapping project led by the University of Maryland [1], which documents deforestation since 2000 around the world. It provides the necessary equipment and provides up to RM 2,000 (around 500€) for each workshop, which are used to buy food for almost one hundred people over three days. Jef wants to remain a volunteer and trains other people who will take his place. The Orang Asli also benefit from support in civil society, especially from green activists, who are trying with them to protect what remains of forest in the peninsula, and from the Malaysian Bar, whose members advise them pro bono in their court cases.

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Map of Kampung Peta. In brown, the officially recognised reserve. The thick lines at the top and bottom represent the ridges, the demarcation of the village’s ancestral territory according to the inhabitants.

The goodwill of the judges is encouraging, but that of the political majority in power from May 2018 to February 2020 [2] has been doubtful. Despite its declarations, the federal government has been unable to regulate the policies of the states, which issue forestry licences and benefit from these incomes. What can one expect then from a return to power of the coalition which had been ruling the country from 1957 to 2018? One thing is certain: the fate of the forest and that of the Orang Asli are linked, and deforestation is one of the greatest threats to the indigenous peoples of the peninsula.

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Participatory mapping workshop, Ulu Beranang Jeramkedah.
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Jef presents the participatory mapping project in Ulu Beranang Jeramkedah.


Resistance from east to west

The indigenous peoples of East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, have been fighting deforestation since the 1980s, with actions such as roadblocks and lawsuits against the state. They represent more than two million people, and a majority of the local population. The organisation process of the Orang Asli of the peninsula was slower and more difficult, because they are less than 200,000 and have a long history of domination by the Malay sultanates. The Orang Asli are inspired by the struggles in Borneo and now claim a name common to the two groups: Orang Asal, the original human beings.

Temiar communities have been intermittently blocking deforestation projects since autumn 2016, in the Gua Musang region of Kelantan, a poor state in the north-east of the peninsula that is suffering from floods and land collapses, consequences of forest loss. In May 2019, the Kampung Cunex blockade in the north-west of Perak State was dismantled after being held for a few months, again by Temiar, a group well-known for their non-violent culture.

↬ Aude Vidal