BIDOR, Apr 17 (IPS) - In the thick rainforest outside this town, about 150 km north of the national capital, the guileless Semai aborigines, famous to anthropologists for their for non-aggressiveness, are falling sick from stress brought about by sudden land development that threatens to uproot them.
One day in March, tractors and earthmovers suddenly appeared in their settlement near this town and began mowing down fruits trees and rubber plants the Semai people had planted for a livelihood.
"It was sudden and without any warning," Tijah Yok Chopil, a Semai woman talking in Malay during a meeting with IPS at their Kampung Chang village. "We were told to tally our trees, fruits and animals because all these had to make way for a new project."
"Our people are rapidly being stressed-out and are falling sick. They get fever, stomach aches and cramps," Tijah said. "These are the symptoms of our people when we feel threatened."
"Falling sick is our way of protesting," she told IPS.
The Semai people, numbering just 15,000 in the world, are all settled in the central highlands of the country. They have been studied by European and American scholars who are invariably attracted to what one American scholar described as a "total lack of violence" in traditional Semai society.
However human right activists and opposition lawmakers say while lack of violence is admirable, such values are taken advantage of by greedy "outsiders" who dupe the Semai and take away what rightly belongs to them.
Today the Semai are semi-settled with some surviving as hunter gatherers while others subsist on the cultivation of manioc and rice, fishing, hunting, and trading jungle produce like rattan.
A few run small farms growing fruits and rubber for sale in nearby towns like Bidor. They exchange meat and fish in the town for basic provisions like salt, rice, sugar, tobacco and tea.
But living at the edge of the town is constantly fraught with danger. As the towns expand and eat encroach into Semai settlements land-hungry developers use political clout to drive indigenous people like the Semai from their settlements.
"Semais are easily taken in by promises made by government officials and developers as more forest reserves come under the axe for housing, golf courses and mines,'' said opposition lawmaker Kula Segaran who raised the plight of the Semai people in the federal Parliament last week.
"Government policies pay scant attention to the long-term welfare of not only the Semai people but all indigenous people in the country. To them golf courses, housing development and theme parks are more important than the welfare of the original people of the land."
"To the policy makers in the capital the Semai and other indigenous people are just jungle people who are in the way of progress," Kula Segaran told IPS. "They are shunted about mercilessly from one place to another."
Previously the Semai, numbering about 1,000 here, had to make way for large scale oil palm plantations.
This time the threat to their way of life comes from a cause that even the Semais say is good -- an arboretum called the National Botany Park covering 300 hectares, half of it eating into Semai reservations.
The project to protect Malaysia's rich biodiversity, preserve rare species from extinction and collect seeds for a seed bank has the personal support of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.
The government says the arboretum is the gift to the enlightened, forward looking and hugely popular regent of Perak State Raja Nazrin Shah, an Oxford and Harvard educated prince.
"We are all for the National Botany Park but locate it somewhere else where people are not affected," said Ridzuan Tempek, a Semai activist fighting to preserve the Semai heritage. "It is unfair to just arrive and claim a big chunk of our ancestral land for a project without first informing us or consulting the Semai elders."
He said the project will take away nearly half of the Semai ancestral land. "It is not just a question of lost of area for gathering food and jungle produce. Without the ancestral land our people's collective memory will be lost."
In Semai culture every stone, stream and tree tell a story. "Each item in the jungle is part of our collective memory. This project, if it goes ahead, will severe us from our heritage," Ridzuan told IPS.
"If we are moved again we will end up as strangers in a strange land," he said.
Semai elder Semah Ah Yin, 51, said: "The forest is our home. Now we live with the forest and without hurting it. But under the botany project a large area will be fenced off and we will be banned from entering our home."
"How can we survive without our forest? This is an insult," she said. "We are helpless and surrounded by hostile forces."
The government, unused to determined opposition from indigenous people, is stung by the criticism and opposition from the Semai elders. Its argument is that the Botany Park project will preserve rare plants and trees from extinction and will eventually benefit the Semai -- though they are not buying.
"The Semai can find employment in the park," said R. Ganesan, a local government leader in the area. "They now only earn about RM200 (60 US dollars) a month -- they can double that income."
After the Semai protest hit the news officials have slowed earthworks and rushed to promise help and offers of opportunities to earn more cash from home-stay programmes, work in the construction of chalets for tourists who will visit the nursery and permission to set up stalls to sell food and trinkets.
"They have to look at the long-term benefits of the project for their future generations," Ganesan said.
But the Semai people are adamant and refused to be sweet-talked into parting with their land and their heritage. "We are not taken in by the promisesàour people have been cheated before," said Tijah. "We might consider a written agreement that puts our people's welfare first before all other considerations."
Tijah took care to say that ‘'contrary to some news report we have not given our approval for the Botany Park projectàthey must get our permission first''. ‘'So far we have rejected the project."
Everywhere in Peninsular Malaysia indigenous communities, collectively called Orang Asli (original people) who number about 110,000 in 18 sub-groups, are facing a bleak future marked by official neglect and the greed of private enterprise.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) highlighted their plight in February in a comprehensive study calling for major changes but officialdom took little notice of even those recommendations.
Importantly, the NHRC study warned that if the culture and belief systems of the Orang Asli are not reflected in government planning the country's oldest heritage will be lost.
The report said loss of land, sudden eviction and paltry cash compensation has seriously injured the Orang Asli community. The plight that the gentle Semai people face is not new or isolated. What's new is that they are beginning to fight back. (END/2007)