In May 2019, the Batek of Kuala Koh was blighted by a mysterious illness that they purport to have originated from the polluted runoff of a manganese mine upstream from their settlement. 16 villagers out of 186 had perished from this malady within two weeks and another 100 were hospitalised, leaving only 20 unaffected.
Soon people couldn’t breathe. They shrivelled and their bodies turned black. – Mahmet Pokok, Tok Batin (headman)
This was just one of the latest in a series of problems that have been plaguing Malaysia’s Batek communities. As the Batek lose more and more of their livelihoods and culture, we too will lose part of our country’s heritage and valuable knowledge that we would’ve gained.
The Batek Tribe, Malaysia’s Oldest Nomadic People
The Batek are among the last indigenous inhabitants of Malaysia or “Orang Asli”. About 1,500 Batek live in Kelantan, Terengganu and some parts of Pahang, leading a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The Batek traverse the jungles together with several other family members, erecting temporary shelters called “haya” along water sources such as the Kuala Koh River. Often, to cover larger distances, they will also utilise bamboo rafts and, in modern times, fibreglass boats to travel along the river.
The period of stay in the tents [is] temporary and [does] not have a fixed time. Whether for a one-month period, a week or shorter than that. Subsequently, they move to new locations. – Dr Wan Ahmad Amir Zal Wan Ismail, Associate Professor, Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK)
Their Cultural Uniqueness
Like many hunter-gatherer societies, the Batek are largely egalitarian when it comes to gender roles. Both men and women in the community are involved in gathering food and materials. What differentiates them is the type of materials gathered and how far they will range from their camps.
Men head deeper into the jungle to hunt game using blowpipes and gather bamboo, rattan, resin, agarwood, honey, frogs and other jungle resources.
Meanwhile, women will stay with the children in the “haya”, gathering fruits, vegetables and medicinal herbs in or around the encampment.
Their value of total reliance on the jungle renders them invulnerable to the pressures of normal and routine needs as they believe that the jungle will provide without fail. – Dr Wan Ahmad Amir Zal Wan Ismail, Associate Professor, Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK)
Of all the Orang Asli communities, the Batek possess a strong link with their jungle environments, and their jungle survival knowledge is unparalleled. Batek trackers can easily retrace locations without the need for markers, while the women possess knowledge of herbs and their applications.
Batek’s unparalleled knowledge of the jungle led to the tribe being called upon to search for London teenager Nora Quoirin, who tragically died in the Malaysian jungle while on holiday with her family. The Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MyCAT) and ecotourism volunteer organisation, FuzeEcoteer have also been employing Batek as a guide, recognising Batek’s knowledge of the forest and wildlife in conservation initiatives.
The Batek do not believe in having elaborate celebrations for weddings or other functions. Instead, an unmarried man demonstrates himself as eligible for marriage after he proves himself a good huntsman. Each young man is given a blowpipe and after each successful hunt, the headman carves a line on it.
If a man has many lines carved on his blowpipe, then it’s proof that he is ready to get married and have children. – Dam, Batek tribesman
An animistic people, the Batek view everything, from the jungle to the river, as having a spirit. To disrespect the jungle and its inhabitants are seen as taboo and to destroy any part of it is to invite the wrath of the gods. The Batek also see themselves as the guardians of the jungle, believing that this is the reason why they are chosen to become foragers. For the Batek, the jungle is a part of them and without it, the Batek will cease to be.
It’s our belief that we would be struck by heavy rain and thunderstorm if we use the same stove to cook both kinds of meat. – Sena, Tok Batin
Although they are among the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia, the Batek, like so many other Orang Asli communities, have long been disrespected and marginalised. And now their culture and vital knowledge of the jungle are dying out.
Uprooted, Forgotten and Dying
They cut down our jungle, destroyed our home, and then poisoned our environment. – Uncle Johan Tahun, Batek villager
For generations, the Batek have slowly been losing their nomadic way of life, as the government forces them into holding a semi-nomadic lifestyle with designated permanent settlements.
For the Batek of Kuala Koh, this change happened in 2007 when, without consultation, much of their jungle territory was felled to make way for oil palm plantations.
In 2010, the Federal Government gave the tribe a piece of land with half a dozen concrete houses to form a settlement. However, their new houses lacked running water or electricity. Their houses were furnished with muddied sleeping mats and bars on their windows. Furthermore, the nearest school is over 60 miles away, meaning most of the tribe are barely literate, and without the jungle nearby they have to rely on sporadic handouts for food.
These people have been completely neglected for years, the government does not care what happens to them. Without the jungle, they have nothing, and without access to power and schools, there is also no way for them to integrate into society. If we did not bring them food, they would not survive. It is as simple as that. – Johan Halid, Sahabat Jariah aid worker
Because of the lack of piped water, the Batek rely on a mountain stream for their water supply, collecting the life fluid in a small pond and then piping it into the village. Previously, the waters ran clear. But after the manganese mine opened in 2016, the water became contaminated with pollutants such as heavy metals and will turn a murky brown after it rains.
I believe we were poisoned because of the mine. When it rains, we don’t use water from Tonduk. – Mahmet Om, Batek tribesman
Despite having a permanent settlement, the Batek’s nomadic way of life has not completely died out. Many still make forays into the jungle to gather small amounts of food and sandalwood to sell. The trek is long and arduous. Unfortunately, the hunters could never gather enough food to feed everyone or make enough profits to live off.
Outside it is hard but at least we have houses, people bring us food and maybe things will get better. [The] jungle used to be our home but not anymore. – Jamal Rafi, Batek villager
With the deaths of 2019 still fresh on their minds, the Batek’s fears about another epidemic repeating were reignited with the mine’s operations resuming earlier this year.
They died here in the house. Before they died, they said eating their food was like eating poison. They also complained that their necks and stomachs hurt. – Papan, Batek tribeman
Why do they matter?
Like many other indigenous groups, we have much to learn from the Batek if we are to become a more environmentally sustainable society.
The Batek’s vast knowledge of the jungle makes them valuable as guides for conservation groups such as MyCAT. Their ability to track animals such as elephants and tigers as well as disable and report poachers’ traps all help contribute to our ongoing mission to protect and conserve Malaysia’s endangered species.
Their knowledge of and ability to identify herbs will also be valuable in finding medicinal plants, contributing to our medical practices and enabling us to find radical new drugs to combat a growing number of diseases.
As such, the Batek ethnic group is known for its intimacy with the jungle and expertise in jungle herbs compared to two other indigenous people in Kelantan, namely, Temiar and Menderiq. – Dr Wan Ahmad Amir Zal Wan Ismail Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK) Poverty Research and Management Institute director, associate professor
Batek’s respect for nature is something that should be emulated by each one of us. By respecting nature, the Batek know how to best protect it, taking only what they need and ensuring that there is still plenty for future generations to enjoy.
When we lose the Batek, we will lose an important part of our country’s heritage. We will also lose vital indigenous knowledge that would’ve helped in our fight to protect our natural treasures.
Explore our sources:
- K. Dickerman & J.W. Delano (2019) The eroding life for the Batek of Kuala Koh, Malaysia’s last hunter-gatherers. The Washington Post. Link.
- UNC Greensboro (n.d.) Peaceful Societies: Batek. Link.
- Bernama (2019) Batek people are jungle experts. The Sun Daily. Link
- H. Ellis-Petersen (2019) Out of the jungle and into a death trap: the fate of Malaysia’s last nomadic people. The Guardian. Link.
- P. Mills (2015) Preserving the culture of Malaysia’s Batek people through ecotourism & conservation. ecoclub.com. Link.
- K.K. Sucedaram (2016) Taman Negara Batek tribe rooted in simple existence. Malaymail. Link.
- G. Brill (2018-2019) BATEK | LAST OF THE FOREST PEOPLE. George Brill. Link.
- The Batek Community in Malaysia: Cultural Behaviour (2021) Link.
- A.M. Zulkifli (2022) Haunted by 2019 deaths, Orang Asli fear the worst as mining activities resume. Malaysia Now. Link.