Indigenous peoples’ position on sustainable development

Sonia Randhawa

3:26pm Wed Sep 4th, 2002

Around a quarter of Western medicine is derived from rainforest plants. Yet this huge pharmacy has not even begun to yield up its treasures. According to one article, less than five percent of all known plants have been analysed, and less than 0.1 percent of animals. Add to this the vast ignorance surrounding rainforests, the well-established lack of comprehensive cataloguing and the sheer potential of the rainforest becomes clear.

This is huge wealth. The money made by pharmaceutical companies is huge. If the Malaysian government can succeed in diverting a portion of that wealth into Malaysia, it would certainly be a major push towards achieving Vision 2020.

And it is a path being pursued by the current government. During the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on HIV and Aids, one of the Malaysian government’s key aims was to ensure that nations retained patenting rights to products found on their territory, particularly forest products.

And the people who know best about the benefits of rainforest herbs are the people who have inhabited the jungles for thousands of years. In Malaysia, they are the Orang Asli and Orang Asal.

In Southeast Asia there are more than 6,500 medicinal herbs used by indigenous people. And in another experiment held in Samoa, over 85 percent were shown to produce some biological activity in people: that is, they have some medicinal properties.

There is, however, a caveat. The land that indigenous people know is their land. If they are moved away from the lands that have been held and cultivated and researched by their ancestors for thousands of years, precious knowledge is lost.

Enter sustainable development

A lecturer in forestry at Universiti Putra Malaysia pointed out the problems. After spending many years focusing on one plot of land, the area will be earmarked for development, and a new plot earmarked for research. The years of labour will have been largely wasted, due to the huge differences in biodiversity even a mere 100m away from the original site.

Now imagine that you’re losing knowledge built up over thousands of years due to ‘development’. Some of the knowledge will travel, but vast amounts will be irretrievably lost.

Here’s where sustainable development can help. Firstly, it would allow us to more accurately assess the realisable value of the forest. And perhaps realise that there is more value to the rainforest than the timber that is currently harvested. Secondly, it would allow sustainable income generation. And thirdly, it would allow the traditional knowledge structures of the indigenous people to remain intact.

Current development paradigms remake indigenous communities, largely in their own image. The elders of the society find that their way of life and their knowledge, once vital to the community, are no longer needed. Power structures, based on mutual respect between generations, break down. The results are predictable: Alcoholism, crime and a lack of self-respect or grounding. It is what is seen in displaced communities throughout the world, particularly those whose culture had been deeply linked to the land.

Alternatively, if the knowledge of the villages, and particularly the elders, is valued, it can not only provide a valuable source of income for the community, but also help preserve the traditional community.

What we can learn

However, there are less easily definable ways in which traditional knowledge can benefit those outside the traditional indigenous community. The Semai who live predominantly in the Peninsular states of Pahang, Perak and Selangor practise non-violence and non-coercive political structures. Given the increasing violence in society internationally, what one author referred to as the brutalisation over the last century, there are sociological and educational lessons that could be learnt from these people.

Unfortunately, the knowledge of traditional indigenous societies is not being studied in a systematic manner. The remit of the Jabatan Hal-Ehwal Orang Asli (Orang Asli Affairs Department), for example, merely involves teaching, instructing and integrating the Orang Asli into the mainstream of Malaysian culture. There is no space for preserving traditional structures, valuing Orang Asli knowledge or learning from them. The transmission of knowledge is purely one-way: To the Orang Asli.

The other area, key to sustainable development, is our relationship with the land. There is no point fantasising that indigenous people are in some way better than non-indigenous people. They have their greeds and wants. They are human, with all the faults and failings that entails. However, the culture of a number of indigenous peoples (considered key to the definition of them in international documents) is their relationship to the land.

Land is not just another commodity to be bartered and sold. It is a cultural heirloom, the living flesh that nurtures and sustains the community. To exploit and rape it in the insatiable manner of the last decades is analogous to desecrating one’s mother. It just isn’t possible.

Nevertheless, it is possible to cultivate the land, to use its wealth.

Dying from gov’t neglect

If we are to move towards or achieve sustainable development, we have to change our attitude towards the forest, the rivers and the land. This does not mean harking despondently backwards to some non-existent pre-industrial idyll. It means re-thinking our relationship to the land and the environment.

How can we make the most of the resources we have, without putting too great a strain on them, leaving an impoverished world behind for our children?

Unfortunately, as reflected earlier, there is no place for learning from the indigenous peoples of Malaysia in government policy. Orang Asli and Orang Asal are still treated as children in need of a paternal figure to guide them.

They are evicted off their land without compensation, or with paltry sums, through badly designed and implemented programmes. A recent court decision that asserted the rights of an Orang Asli village over its land served to underscore the appalling treatment meted out over the last few centuries.

They die due to government neglect. Orang Asli mothers are 119 times more likely to die in childbirth than other Malaysian mothers. In Kuala Krau, Pahang, two children died due to an anti-malarial programme carried out by government authorities. Their infant mortality rate is over three times higher than the national average. Women die 20 years younger, men 14 than the rest of the population. Almost 80 percent of malaria cases are reported among the Orang Asli, and they are five to seven times more likely to get tuberculosis.

They receive little education, and are often underweight and show stunted growth. Evidence shows a concerted effort to convert them to Islam. Their bumiputra status is not defined adequately in law. Most do not own their ancestral lands, even when they have staked a claim to them as Native Customary Land (as in East Malaysia) or had them gazetted as Orang Asli Reserve.

Integral citizens

Despite all this, Orang Asli are not mentioned as a separate category requiring assistance in the health, environment and sustainable development, women and development, youth and development, or agricultural development chapters of the Eighth Malaysia Plan. They are mentioned in the section on housing, under rural communities, with a plan to motivate women to ensure school attendance by children.

Rather than preserving living heritage and culture, there are plans to open another Orang Asli museum.

Unsurprisingly, they are mentioned under ‘poverty eradication’, which shows over 65 percent in poverty — a contested figure with other sources saying it is much higher.

However, of 76 paragraphs, only three mention Orang Asli. In contrast, over 50 mention bumiputra, including comprehensive analysis of the problems faced (unemployment, training, etc.).

‘Development’ is not only not reaching the Orang Asli, their status and health has been deteriorating as a result of evictions and government policy.

Yet the Orang Asli can not only make a positive contribution to national development, but deserve to have their problems and concerns taken seriously. Rather than continuing with the present patronising, patriarchal position, we need to adopt a consensual approach which values the Orang Asli not just for the wealth of knowledge that they possess, but also as integral members of Malaysian society, valuable in themselves.


  1. The Orang Asli and the contest for resources, Colin Nicholas.
  2. The Batek Home Page, Lye Tuck-Po.
  3. The Semai: A nonviolent people of Peninsular Malaysia, Robert Knox Dentan, quoted in

The Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli website

The Eighth Malaysia Plan

SONIA RANDHAWA is a volunteer with Save Our Sungai Selangor, a coalition of NGOs and concerned individuals [still] trying to halt the completion of the Selangor dam.