By Andrew Sia
The Orang Asli from the Temuan tribe once had a large area of forests to roam in northern Shah Alam. This was before the area was turned first into the Bukit Cherakah Agricultural Park and then into houses at Bukit Bandaraya.
Today, their only remaining forest is at Shah Alam Community Forest (SACF). The closest Temuan settlement is Kampung Air Kuning at Bukit Bandaraya, which is also the entry point to Mirror Lake of SACF, via the trail popularly known as “backyard trail”.
“Our area covered several hundred acres of forest originally, but over the years, more and more has been lost.”– Wak Apuk Chairman of the JPKKOA (Orang Asli Village Development and Security Committee)
Most of the villagers are not highly educated and they get jobs such as cleaners in the nearby urban areas. However, they still go into SACF every two or three days to forage for herbs, fruits, bamboo and rattan.
“Some of the ‘cempedak’ and durian trees in the forest were planted by us,” says Apuk with pride.
This writer is visiting him along with the Orang Asli artist-activist, Shaq Koyok, who has relatives here. Apuk shows us the herbs the villagers have taken from the forest and replanted around his son’s house.
“We want to preserve these herbs in case anything happens to the forest,” explains Apuk.
There is ‘merian air’ and ‘merian batu’ (known to the Malays as ‘kacip fatimah’) which is traditionally given to women as a restorative remedy after birth. For men, there is ‘kayu peneras’, which is said to improve blood flow and ‘ubi jaga’ to improve male potency.
“Ini kasi barang kuat (this makes things strong),” smiles Apuk.
Jungle varieties of bananas have also been replanted in the village. The fruits are not suitable for humans (too many seeds) but the banana heart (the purple-skinned flower at the end of a fruit cluster) is eaten.
“If we don’t maintain these types of bananas, they may become extinct,” he explains.
While most Malaysians use mainly asam jawa or tamarind to add a sour taste into cooking, the Temuans have different sour fruits for different meats. These include asam kura, asam kandis and asam tambun, which is used to cook python meat!
The community is trying to claim 46 acres (about 18ha) of land as ‘tanah adat’ or Orang Asli customary land. This is what remains of their ancestral lands after various development projects.
“Our ancestor’s graves are here. This is our ‘tanah adat’ (traditional land),” says Apuk.
When the Bukit Cherakah Agricultural Park (now rebranded as Shah Alam National Botanical Park) was established in 1986, 73 acres (about 30ha) of the Orang Asli’s traditional forests were taken, to be made into a mish-mash of fruit orchards, mini zoos, model Malay homes and some forests.
Subsequently, when Bukit Bandaraya was developed over 20 years ago, 272 acres (110ha) of ‘tanah adat’ were taken. In exchange, Apuk said the developer promised to build bungalow houses for 21 families plus another 53 flats for youths aged 15 and above. The houses were built but till now, after over 20 years, the flats are nowhere to be seen.
“The world’s second tallest building is ready but not our (promised) flats,” sighed Apuk.
“Over the years, even the developer’s company name has changed from Eco Asli to Lebar Daun. They have already taken our land. But who will give what was promised to us?”
He shows us a photostated map, over 20 years old, of the area with “Mukim Bukit Raja” written on it that seems to recognise their claims.
“This map was drawn up by the government, not by us,” says Apuk. “We’ve had meeting after meeting with the authorities. They tell us, ‘OK, OK, OK’ and then they disappear.”
Mohd Yazid Mat Zain, the village’s secretary for the Committee for Orang Asli Village Development and Safety (JPKKOA), recalls that the meetings were held at the Selangor government’s SUK (state secretariat) offices in Shah Alam. The meetings were attended by Hee Loy Sian, the State Exco who also oversees Orang Asli affairs, State Forestry Department director and Tok Batin (village headman) as well as representatives from Shah Alam City Council (MBSA), state Land Office, Shah Alam National Botanical Park and UPEN (state Economic Planning Unit).
“We asked for the minutes of the meeting,” recalls Yazid. “They said, wait, wait, wait and in the end, they were never given.”
Similarly, minutes were also never given when SACF Society made official bantahan (objections) to MBSA’s Local Plan in April 2021 to build a road and graveyard in the forest. (Refer link here)
Apuk is disappointed that the Department of Orang Asli Development, (JAKOA) has not helped their village.
“We need help. The Orang Asli who are highly educated mostly end up working in the civil service. And then they no longer dare to fight for the community’s rights otherwise their bosses may scold them,” Apuk explains.
“The JAKOA department is called ‘Orang Asli development’, but till now they have not recognised our village,” laments Apuk.
In late July 2022, in reply to an official question at the Selangor State Assembly by Elizabeth Wong, the Bukit Lanjan representative, Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari confirmed that 53 housing units (30 flats and 23 low-cost homes) owed by Lebar Daun were never delivered to the Orang Asli.
In addition, RM1.375 million of promised funds for their welfare/education fund and living expenses, have still not been paid!
Orang Asli push back
The story of broken promises to the Orang Asli is not new in Malaysia. As a community with little political or economic power, they have all too easily been shortchanged. But that is gradually changing. Over the last 20 years, the indigenous peoples have been fighting back in the courts to reclaim their ancestral lands, says Dr. Colin Nicholas, the founder of advocacy group COAC (Centre for Orang Asli Concerns).
He believes that the Temuan of Air Kuning have valid claims of ‘tanah adat’ as the community have lived in the area for a very long time.
“There is proof as their ancestral graves are there, along with their kebun (orchards),” Nicholas explains.
But he recalls that the community complained that some of their fruit trees inside the Botanical Park have been cut down. “Was this to erase evidence of the community’s claims?” he asks.
Nicholas lists down several court cases in which the Orang Asli have won their ancestral land rights. One of these involves the Temiar tribe at Pos Belatim near Gua Musang, Kelantan.
In 2011, they discovered that their customary land had been given out to a private company by the state government, to be turned into an oil palm plantation. This was under Kelantan’s controversial “ladang rakyat” (people’s plantation) scheme. However, the High Court ordered the state government to officially gazette the area as Orang Asli customary land. (Refer link here)
The courts have also decided that Orang Asli land rights take precedence even when a forest has been declared a state or national park, for example when the Jakun people were evicted from the Endau-Rompin State Park, in Johor/Pahang.
And surprisingly, Orang Asli rights to ancestral lands take precedence even when an area has been declared a Malay Reserve or Felcra area. This was decided in Dec 2012 in the Mohd Nohing case involving the Semelai peoples at the Bera area of Pahang. (Refer link here)
In the Pos Belatim case, on appeal, a compromise was reached where both sides agreed to maintain the forest reserve forever. This meant that neither outsiders nor the Orang Asli can chop down the forest for logging or large-scale agriculture. But the Temiar’s traditional practices of hunting, gathering and small-scale subsistence cultivation were allowed.
Best conservers of forests
“Our land is sacred to us. Our ancestor’s graves are here. According to our customs we cannot just move here and there. There are many taboos and rituals we must follow,” says Apuk.
“For example, before we bury our dead, we must first warm up the grave by burning bertam leaves. And then put up altars,” he explains.
“If we don’t do this, misfortune, even death may happen. Even though we are now Muslim, tapi adat jangan lupa (we won’t forget our customs).”
Therefore, Apuk elaborates that the Orang Asli cannot “buka hutan suka-suka” (simply open up forests) as they like.
“We stay in our customary lands. For example, we don’t encroach areas like Puncak Alam which are not our traditional grounds,” he adds.
“It is we the Orang Asli who take care of the forest while the developers destroy it,” says Apuk.
“Since we are Muslim, we no longer eat wild boar or monkey meat. But we still sometimes trap squirrels, deers or porcupines.”
But he emphasised that they are keen to preserve the forest and only harvest plants or hunt animals sustainably, as they have for centuries.
“Orang Asli sayang hutan. Kalau ambik apa-apa, kita ambik sikit-sikit (the Orang Asli love the forest. If we take anything, we just take a bit),” underlines Apuk.
“We take care of the forest because this is our supermarket.”
Yazid chips in, “If the Orang Asli are here, you can be assured that the forest will be preserved. But the government wants to develop the land and give it to others. Then they tell us that we can no longer live in our traditional land.”