Padi Bukit Pos Lanai - pic by Jeffry Hassan

Back to the jungle? The myth of indigenous community resilience

Indigenous people in Malaysia and the world over isolated themselves from society to avoid Covid-19. But do they have enough food resilience to do so? Macaranga looks at the issue as part of its Taking Stock series.

WHEN MEDIA reported Orang Asli moving “back to the jungle” during the Covid-19 lockdown and blockading their villages against outsiders, the stories fed a prevailing romanticised myth that indigenous communities are self-sufficient.

But in reality, most Orang Asli cannot harvest all they need from the forest and have in addition, stopped subsistence farming. Instead, they are plugged into and rely on the modern economy for their livelihoods.

(Photo: In Pahang’s highlands, Muri a/p Jerhuk tends to her hill paddy plot. Pic by Jeffry Hassan)

“The most critical problem during the MCO was losing our incomes,” said Jeffry Hassan, a community leader from Pos Lanai in Pahang’s highlands.

The MCO, Malaysia’s strict Covid-19 movement control order, was imposed by the government on 18 March with only two days’ notice, and eased only in June.

“Daily life was completely changed,” said Jeffry. “I myself couldn’t earn anything from my main job, tapping rubber. Other villages couldn’t sell their forest products. Within a week and a half, we had to ask for help from outside.”

However, unlike other Malaysians who lost incomes during the MCO, their marginalised status meant that virtually all 50,000 Orang Asli families in Malaysia needed aid (see sidebar).


What’s more, getting that aid to the more remote of these communities was challenging, due to a combination of bureaucracy, logistics and data gaps on how many and where the communities were.

That MCO aid experience has made mobilising for food resilience an immediate common goal of several communities, the NGOs who provided relief, and individual government agency staff.

“A lot of the Orang Asli from the interiors came out or asked for help because they didn’t have rice,” said Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar from one of the large relief efforts, Misi Bantu OA (Orang Asli Relief Mission).

“And rice is a staple. So they need money to buy rice or they need rice to be donated to them. The crisis showed how very vulnerable they are.”

The Orang Asli response to Covid-19 and the challenges of getting aid to families during the MCO are well documented by NGO the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, including: the village blockades, appealing for help, the challenges of disseminating the aid and the post-MCO period.

Jeffry’s Semai community has some food resilience as they still practise traditional paddy planting.

Pos Lanai comprises a cluster of six villages in the Kuala Lipis district. On the surrounding hill slopes, generations of villagers have been growing padi bukit (hill paddy) using traditional shifting cultivation methods.

Jeffry explained that these methods allow the land to recover between agricultural cycles and have been sustainable over hundreds of years. Each family grows about one acre of paddy, enough to feed themselves for a year.

But the MCO was imposed before planting season. Rice stocks had depleted.

Changing with the times

In addition, Pos Lanai is an anomaly. Few Orang Asli villagers plant paddy any more.

“I’m not sure why the others don’t plant paddy,” said Jeffry. “Perhaps their lifestyle has changed. They now earn wages and don’t want to live hard lives. Then there are others who are just not interested.

“It cannot be denied that everyone should plant paddy. In my area, everyone knows how to do that. We even talked about it as a way to get through the MCO.”

And while the MCO has been eased and income gradually restored, the pandemic is far from over. The government has warned of reimplementing more MCOs and their variations if infections get out of control.

Jeffry is therefore supportive of efforts by groups like Nadiah’s who are planning to facilitate workshops for communities interested in planting paddy and other food crops.

“Communities who had rice fields and food crops coped better with the MCO than those who did not,” said Nadiah.

She added that many NGOs and community groups who are embarking to strengthen food resilience are inviting Orang Asli who have retained successful traditional farming practices and knowledge to share and mentor those who have not.

NGOs would fund-raise and facilitate the workshops.

“We are also looking at something as basic as getting them to open bank accounts so that government aid and grants for farming can be banked into their own accounts,” said Nadiah.

Jakun villagers in Pekan and Rompin such as in Kampung Terubing have been interested in farming for a long time. (Global Peace Foundation Malaysia)

Another group of Orang Asli who is interested in farming—even before the MCO—is down in Pahang’s lowlands, several hours’ drive from Pos Lanai. One of these villages is Kampung Petoh, Rompin.

“We started planting vegetables in December (2019) on our vacant land,” said villager Imah a/p Tan Giok Koon. “We decided to farm to see if we could save money on vegetables. Now it’s clear that we really do. For phase two, I want to plant fruits.”

Hers is one of the 70 Jakun villages in Rompin and Pekan that has expressed interest in farming since the NGO Global Peace Foundation Malaysia started working with them in 2016 to foster greater community resilience.

Hardcore poor

“The community is hardcore poor, and poor people want food security; they don’t need a pandemic to realise that food farming is critical,” said the NGO’s chief executive officer Dr Teh Su Thye.

This was confirmed in their post-MCO follow-up needs assessment of eight villages. One of the top long-term needs was planting vegetables for self-consumption.

“Their level of interest is very high,” said Teh. “It’s easy to help the communities get the vegetable project going because we just need to supply them with seeds and fertilisers. That’s all the women need to plant vegetables in their house compounds.”

Nordin Kereseng and his long bean vegetable patches: “All the children can come and pick the vegetables.” (Global Peace Foundation Malaysia)

Stable water supply is also crucial to vegetable farming. A Global Peace water pump installation project in Kampung Cerampak, Pekan, has allowed villager Nordin Kereseng to grow groundnuts and long beans, with more varieties to come.

“Everyone in this village can eat,” said Nordin. “Anyone who wants to eat, I will tell them to come and pick the vegetables.”

In addition, most of the communities are interested in farming for income.

When Teh and his team conducted a separate assessment for a livelihood improvement project, they found that “many started talking about cash crops: bananas, cempedak (jackfruit), serai (lemongrass)…(and that) most are very open to learning how to make a success of it.”

As of July, six villages are on standby to pilot the farming project. As with Nadiah’s group, the foundation is tapping the expertise of other Orang Asli “who are doing very well in farming, are very ambitious and keen to share knowledge.”

Subsistence farming

The interest in the planting of food among Orang Asli is a revival of traditional practices, said anthropologist Dr. Rusaslina Idrus in a webinar on food security and Orang Asli.

“Some villages are beginning to go back to growing tanaman kontan (subsistence farming), planting things like tapioca and sweet potato…(and) vegetables.

“This is something they used to do but because they are involved in work outside the village, it’s not been practised for a little while so they’re starting to relearn older ways of growing crops near their house.”

Nonetheless, farming does require a key element: land. And the dispossession of their customary lands is at the root of the Orang Asli people’s marginalisation.

Land rights

Since the 1990s, the Pekan and Rompin communities have had their customary lands encroached on, mainly by plantation owners. Villagers said this includes land on which some used to farm serai and fruits like pineapples and rambutans. The encroachment continues.

In 2012, the Pos Lanai villagers were moved to government housing closer to Kuala Lipis, so they could be “closer to amenities”, said Jeffry.

However, they were not told that their customary land—where they planted paddy and harvested forest products to sell—would be flooded by a new dam. They have been fighting the building of the dam since.

And even with good land, water and skills, farmers are still at the mercy of nature.

Climate change

When I spoke to Jeffry, it was July and the start of the paddy planting season. He was troubled by the weather. “It shouldn’t be raining now,” said Jeffry in a worried voice. “It’s too wet. We can’t clear the land.”

Paddy planting farmers have been struggling in the past few years due to climate change. It is the last thing the Orang Asli need to cope with.

That is why anthropologist Rusaslina is looking at the bigger picture. “Really, what we need to do is change the paradigm in thinking about development and thinking about our relationship to the environment.

“In a lot of ways, the indigenous people have led in this call for many years already, .. talking about more sustainable living, the importance of forests for clean air, food security, clean water.

Development mindset

“We need to fundamentally shift the way we think about development and growth.”

For now, the MCO has drawn more widespread public attention to the importance of food resilience for Orang Asli. It has galvanised Orang Asli communities and the groups working with them towards subsistence farming and community gardens.

The hope is that this will help empower them to ride out this pandemic and future shocks.

Acknowledgements: Darshana Dinesh Kumar contributed research. Global Peace Foundation Malaysia spoke to Imah a/p Tan Giok Koon on behalf of Macaranga.

Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

This is part of Macaranga‘s series, ‘Taking Stock’, where we examine how environmental sectors in Malaysia are responding to Covid-19 and a new federal government.