Who Can Protect The Forest Better?

Published: 13 June 2005




Pitching Orang Asli against Professionals in
Protected Area Management in Peninsular Malaysia

Colin Nicholas

Paper presented at the International Symposium on Eco-Human Interactions in Tropical Forests
organized by the Japan Society of Tropical Ecology (JASTE), Kyoto University, 13-14 June 2005.

Keywords: protected area management, eco-colonialism, indigenous participation, indigenous rights,

Researchers and other information-seekers agree that when it comes to identifying those who have the most intimate knowledge of an ecological niche, especially forest areas, the fingers point to the peoples who reside in those areas – those who depend on the resources found therein for their subsistence and wellbeing, and who derive their culture and identity from that geographical space. In most cases, these would be the indigenous peoples – the descendants of the peoples who were there first, but who are now, invariably, dominated and legislated upon by later-arriving majority populations.

In the case of Peninsular Malaysia, these peoples are the Orang Asli (Malay for 'original or first peoples'). Numbering 149,000 today, about half of them live mainly in the forest and forest-fringe areas on both sides of the central mountain range. The peninsula is also the setting for several research efforts in various disciplines concerned with the management of protected areas. Some of the more well-known protected areas include Taman Negara (National Park), Royal Belum Park, Endau-Rompin Park and the Krau Wildlfe Reserve.

Without exception, however, the role of the Orang Asli in these protected areas have been, for the most part, mainly as temporary employees of individual researchers or of well-funded research projects. But, as far as I know, no Orang Asli is currently, or has been, in any management position or who is, or was, responsible for decision-making of any sort in the management of a protected area.

Why is this so? How did it come to this state of affairs?

The reason for this is two-fold: One, the divergence between western values and methods of forest conservation from that of indigenous systems of forest use and management. Two, the non-recognition of Orang Asli and other indigenous peoples as the owners and guardians of their traditional territories.

Divergence Between Western and Indigenous Values
For lack of a better term, the values, methods and philosophy behind protected area management in Peninsular Malaysia (some would call this 'scientific conservation') can be termed as 'western-based'. In such western-based conservation paradigms, ecosystem protection, the legal process, and intellectual property rights hold centre stage. Furthermore, western conservation ethics tend to emphasize resource protection and wise use (although at one time 'non-use' was also an ethic that was advocated).

On the contrary, for indigenous peoples, indigenous conservation systems are often founded on traditional use and guided by social and spiritual obligations. This involves, among other things, respect for traditional leaders, human dignity, and the observance of cultural forms.

As noted by Cox (2000: 330), issues of justice and conservation are also often seen differently through western and indigenous eyes. Unfortunately, the presence of indigenous peoples have historically been seen by westerners as a complicating factor in the creation of protected areas rather than as a great asset. In reality, the indigenous voices have long been ignored in the establishment of conservation areas.  This is true in protected area management today as it was for the Orang Asli in colonial times (cf. Harper 1997).

The imposition of western values on indigenous peoples, even when done with the best of intentions, is nothing but colonialism. If done in the name of conservation, it becomes eco-colonialism (Cox 2000: 330). Eco-colonialism – the imposition of western conservation paradigms and power structures on indigenous forest-dwellers – is invariably incompatible with the principles of indigenous use and control of community forests and their aspiration for autonomy and self-determination.

Non-recognition of Orang Asli as the indigenous people
I would however contend that the unwillingness of governments and resource managers to give due recognition to the Orang Asli as the traditional owners and guardians of their respective traditional or adat lands and the resources found therein, constitutes the single-most reason why Orang Asli are not involved in protected area management.

On the contrary because land is seen as a state matter in the Malaysian legal framework, the state authority frequently determines the nature, extent and content of protected areas in their jurisdiction. It is not uncommon to hear consultants and conservationists complaining about having to deal with state officials who have other considerations in their ideas as to how protected areas should be managed, or even if they should be declared protected areas in the first place.

The construction of a bitumen road effectively splitting the last remaining biological corridor between the Krau Wildlife Reserve and the National Park (Taman Negara) in Pahang is a case in point. So too was the construction of a fish hatchery with the Krau Wildlife Reserve that threatened to release invasive species into the waterways of the protected area. These decisions were administrative decisions based on the assumption that the state was the protected area 'owner' and therefore could do as it saw best. The qualified, and invariably justified, concerns, warnings, and counsel of the scientists commissioned to draw up a management plan for the Krau Wildlife Reserve simply went unheeded.

Ironically, a recommendation of the Krau Management Plan asked that the Chewong-Orang Asli be prohibited from riding their motorbikes inside the park lest they frighten the animals away. This was despite the fact that the number of motorbikes involved was only three, and that these vehicles were important to the Chewong to transport their produce, let alone being crucial means of transport in times of emergency. Furthermore, the distance of the narrow forest trek involved was only a fraction of the length of bitumen roads already constructed within the Krau Wildlife Reserve. As such, it does seem that only the Orang Asli were being singled out for pro-active contribution to the conservation of the reserve, not the other politically-stronger stakeholders.

In the same manner, because Orang Asli in the protected areas are not recognised by consultants and protected area managers as being owners of the territories now being proclaimed a protected area, their rights, opinions and involvement in the management of these areas are not protected. This state of affairs can lead, and have actually led, to Orang Asli retaliating by jeopardising the objectives and rationale of the protected area, or by acts of sabotage - their so-called 'weapons of the weak'. For example, in the Tasek Bera Ramsar site, the Semelai, when told to stop their slash-and-burn swiddening activities there retaliated by (unnecessarily) burning more of the forest than they needed.

In the Jah Hut side of the Krau Wildlife Reserve, when their employment in the protected area as rangers was reneged and given to other non-Orang Asli, the Jah Huts there 'retaliated' by sabotaging the objectives of the KWR. Some opened new cultivation plots inside the protected area while others exploited its resources on a bigger, more commercial, scale. When met in May 2005, Rosli Daik, a former field assistant during the Krau project, complained that because, "They didn't take us as staff; we now don't bother about the reserve. People poach, or enter the reserve illegally, we just close one eye."

Competing ideologies, regulations, and practices
There is no denying that there is a great divergence between how the proponents of the western model view the forest and how Orang Asli regard and use it.

This divergence is succinctly noted by Lye (2002: 162) in describing the contrast between the conservation ethic between the Bateq and the National Park (Taman Negara): "where Batek conservation privileges the presence of people, scientific conservation privileges absence...where for the Batek no boundaries exist between culture and nature, for the park administrators and conservationists, no nature is possible without boundaries."

For the Orang Asli, the forest is in the centre of the world. This philosophy is manifested in their myths and legends, in their taboos and cultural practices, in the history contained in the forest lands, and in their reverence for all things sacred that are connected with it. The spirituality, ecology, economics and agriculture that goes into opening, planting and harvesting a selai (hill-rice field) is in itself testament to how the Orang Asli regard and use the forest.

However, today, as Hood & Bettinger (2005) note, most interactions between protected areas and Orang Asli in Malaysia seems to be antagonistic, and thus far there has not been any concerted effort to consult Orang Asli in their planning and management. Neither are their skills and knowledge in this area utilized.

This state of affairs has its roots in the British colonial imposition of forest management on the Orang Asli. Then, the colonial government needed to exercise absolute control over the forests for two reasons: economic (its ability to appropriate natural resources and the incomes therefrom) and political (restraining and assimilating isolated Orang Asli communities with ambitions of autonomy). Thus, forest-clearings (for agriculture, development) were favoured more than wilderness (selais, adat lands). With this came the perception (later translated into law and practice) that the Orang Asli were considered as squatters on state land and plunderers of state resources.

Laws and regulations were then enacted that placed Orang Asli's rights to forests and forest resources at a lower priority than the state's desire to control and extract profit from them. In fact, forest development and conservation projects are still constrained by laws and regulations that still prevent the recognition of indigenous peoples' practices and rights. The value of customary systems for controlling local forest management practices is either underestimated or misunderstood. The legal mechanisms for acknowledging local people's rights over forest lands and resources remain dramatically underdeveloped (cf. Michol, et al, 2000: 159).

Needless to say, the inevitable result of all this is that the Orang Asli are excluded from protected area management. But are protected areas managed better without Orang Asli involvement?

The Professionals in Protected Area Management
By 'professionals' I mean all those individuals involved in protected areas, whether in a direct or indirect manner, and whose inputs, opinions, and decisions affect the management of protected area and that of the other stakeholders involved (in this respect, the Orang Asli communities resident or dependent on the protected area).

In Peninsular Malaysia, these professionals can be categorised as follows: the protected area managers (usually a civil servant), consultants and specialists (engaged on an ad-hoc basis to research and recommend on an aspect of the protected area's management), and politicians and administrators (who may or may not be experts in the area but whose authority can determine how a protected area is managed).

Consultants and Specialists usually have very little time to study and understand the dynamics of local communities, especially anthropologically unique ones such as the Orang Asli. As such it would be unfair to expect them to fully comprehend the intricacies of 'managing' such a people or of a protected area that has conflicting interests and uses involving local communities. Often times, they rely on research assistants, who are often students themselves, and who are just beginning to grapple with research and fieldwork. Nevertheless, while not denying the ability of anyone to collect good data and information by such methods, the assertion is that, in a field that requires inter-disciplinary approaches and information in order to be confident that a truthful and holistic 'report' is made, it is difficult to see how such a report can be realistically possible. This situation is further compounded if the researcher concerned is an expatriate with little fluency in the local dialect.

For this reason, it is not common to come across predictable recommendations (such as introducing fish farming and chicken-rearing as alternative income-generating projects, or recommendations that some members of the local communities be given the opportunity to visit other successful communities where eco-tourism or craft-making is being done, or the introduction of cash-crop agriculture to reduce the dependence of the Orang Asli on incomes from non-timber forest products).

The point to stress is that usually the consultant's recommendations are influenced more by what is practised and reported elsewhere, rather than from the opinions, practices and aspirations of the target community. Frequently, to avoid being accused of this, village-level consultations are conducted. This is usually in a formal setting, with limited time to achieve anything significant, and based on the assumption that the villagers will speak freely on cue. Frequently, also, especially in the Orang Asli context, there is likely to be little representation from the women.

I say all this not in arrogance or condescension, but as one who has experienced all these in my own consultancy assignments.

Politicians and Administrators are usually not experts in the field but they frequently wield enough authority to have their own way as to how a protected area may be managed. They can ignore or even go against the measured recommendations of consultants and execute their politically (or economically) expedient decisions. The construction of bitumen roads inside the Krau Wildlife Reserve, and the opening up of Felda and Risda settlements within its boundaries, all suggest that the politicians and administrators are playing a different game in the same court. They appear to be above the rules, unfortunately.

With consultants telling them what to do, and politicians and administrators taking matters into their own hands, the job of Protected Area Managers is not one that is relished. More attuned to following directives from their immediate bosses, these protected area managers are usually under-staffed and under-funded and invariably administratively over-stretched to do what they know needs to be done.


Management Reconsideration
Cooperation between protected area authorities and Orang Asli communities living within and around the protected area is an absolutely vital part for the sensitive long-term management of a protected area. It is necessary to recognize that these areas have long been used by the local indigenous communities for much of their subsistence and cultural needs, and that the protected area is also the communal heritage site that contributes to the unique cultural identity of the respective Orang Asli communities. Thus, in protected area management, the Orang Asli communities should not be perceived as part of the 'problem'; rather, they are to be regarded as part of the solution to the successful realization of the protected area's goals.

It follows then that if co-management is the accepted way to go, then the local communities need to be involved in its decision-making from the very early stages. For you really cannot call it participation if such 'participation' is solicited only after the activity has been decided upon or after the objectives and intended goals have been formulated. Fundamental to accepting this prerequisite is the acknowledgement that indigenous rights - including land rights, subsistence rights, and self-determination - are inherent and are to be recognized. And that the management of a protected area is necessarily the management of people.

International expectations
However, in the present circumstances it is difficult to conceive an Orang Asli population being involved directly in the management of a protected area. Nevertheless, one should not assume that this will always be the case. This is because, in keeping with current international standards and norms, due recognition must be given to indigenous peoples rights and their free, prior and informed consent in matters involving the management of protected areas that they also lay traditional claims to.

The 5th World Parks Congress held in Durban, South Africa in September 2003 had a specific recommendation on indigenous peoples and protected areas. Its preamble reads as follows:

Indigenous peoples, their lands, waters and other resources have made a substantial contribution to the conservation of global ecosystems. For this trend to continue, where appropriate, protected areas, future and present, should take into account the principle of collaborative management attending to the interests and needs of indigenous peoples.

Many protected areas of the world encroach and are found within and overlap with lands, territories and resources of indigenous and traditional peoples. In many cases the establishment of these protected areas has affected the rights, interests and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and traditional peoples and subsequently resulted in persistent conflicts.

Effective and sustainable conservation can be better achieved if the objectives of protected areas do not violate the rights of indigenous peoples living in and around them.
It is widely acknowledged that successful implementation of conservation programmes can only be guaranteed on long term basis when there is consent for and approval by indigenous peoples among others, because their cultures, knowledge and territories contribute to the building of comprehensive protected areas. There is often commonality of objectives between protected areas and the need of indigenous peoples to protect their lands, territories and resources from external threats.

In addition to the benefits to conservation, it is also necessary to acknowledge that indigenous peoples have suffered human rights abuses in connection with protected areas in the past and in some cases continue to suffer abuses today.

Resolution WCC 1.53 Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas, adopted by IUCN members at the 1st World Conservation Congress (Montreal, 1996), promotes a policy based on the principles of:

1.  Recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples with regard to
lands or territories and resources that fall within
     protected areas;

2.  Recognition of the necessity of reaching agreements with indigenous
     peoples prior to the establishment of protected areas in their lands or
     territories; and 

3.  Recognition of the rights of the indigenous peoples concerned to
     participate effectively in the management of the protected areas 
     established on their lands or territories, and to be consulted on the 
     adoption of any decision that affects their rights and interests over
     those lands or territories... 

Thus, the issue of indigenous peoples and protected area management has gone beyond the local level to the international arena. And this too at the urging and pressure of indigenous peoples themselves. It would be imprudent for the Malaysian authorities to think that the Orang Asli would not challenge the current situation. Already, Orang Asli plaintiffs have won cases in the national courts that reassert their rights to their traditional territories and to the use of resources in their traditional forests. Donor agencies, too, have also begun to place conditions that require indigenous people participation in nature conservation projects, if not granting the funding to indigenous organisations themselves.

Concluding Remarks
There are already several successful examples where traditional indigenous systems of resource management have been put in place and are bringing benefits both to the communities and to the conservation sector. The tagal system of fish stock management in Sabah's rivers is one example. Another is the sasi system in Maluku where a similar system has been in place for some time. And within individual Orang Asli communities, there are systems of resource use that have maintained and protected their forest resources for generations.

We can avoid situations of potential conflicts if we begin to recognise that Orang Asli and other indigenous peoples have a right to the forests, that they have systems of management that have worked in the past, and that they want to be co-managers of the resource area that others are now staking a claim to. Co-management between the indigenous practitioners and the mainstream professionals can help establish appropriate institutional relationships, thereby helping to facilitate the integration of traditional indigenous knowledge and western science to deal better with forest ecological problems.


Bettinger, Keith Andrew (2005). Protecting Sovereignty Versus Protecting Parks: Malaysia's Federal System and Incentives Against the Creation of a Truly National Park System. Paper read at the Asian Research Institute, May 2005, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Cox, Paul Alan (2000). A Tale of Two Villages: Culture, Conservation, and Ecolonialism in Samoa. In Charles Zerner (Ed.), People, Plants & Justice: The Politics of Nature Cionservation, 330-344. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hood Salleh & Keith Andrew Bettinger (2005). The Interaction Between Indigenous Peoples and Parks in Malaysia: Issues and Questions. Paper read at the Asian Research Institute, May 2005, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Lye, Tuck-Po (2002). Forest People, Conservation Boundaries, and the Problem of 'Modernity' in Malaysia. In Geoffrey Benjamin and Cynthia Chou, eds, Tribal Communities in the Malay World: Historical, Cultural, and Social Perspectives.  Leiden: International Institute for Asian Studies & Singapore: Institute for Southeast Asian Studies.

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Nicholas, Colin (2000). The Orang Asli and the Contest for Resources: Indigenous Politics, Development and Identity in Peninsular Malaysia. Copenhagen: IWGIA/COAC.