Biodiversity, Local Livelihoods and the link with Culture, Politics and Development
Published: 06 November 2006
A majority of the Orang Asli live in areas that are rich in biodiversity. Their indigenous resource management, with its set of intricate knowledge gained over generations, has been central to the conservation of resources in their traditional areas. This is because the Orang Asli, like other indigenous communities, have more than an economic attachment to the land and forest. The spiritual, ancestral and linguistic ties they have to the land are rarely shared by others – including the loggers, settlers, developers and politicians – who seek to exploit the most of tropical forests differently.
The knowledge of the Orang Asli is enshrined in daily living, ritual and taboo underlining how culture, language, religion, psychology and spiritual beliefs cannot often be separated from their understanding of the natural world. This knowledge has passed through generations and assures not only the survival and sustainability of the forest but also the people and cultures dependent upon it and the ecosystem as a whole. The ethos, as such, of Orang Asli knowledge is holistic and ecological. It takes into account, and relies upon, the complexity of interrelationships of all that exists.
It is understandable therefore that people-oriented anthropologists and conservationists (e.g. Nations 2001: 462) subscribed to the once widely-held ‘truism’ that a positive correlation exists between indigenous peoples and conservation. That is: “where there are indigenous peoples there are tropical forests, and where there are tropical forests there are indigenous peoples”. Or in the other ‘truism’ that in time to come, most of the tropical forests that remain on earth (and thus the largest repositories of biological diversity) will be those under the control of indigenous peoples.
Indeed, as Sellato notes of the traditional peoples of Borneo, extractivism – brought about by economic opportunistic behaviours leading to deliberate decisions to collect products with the most profitable return on labour, and to frequent switches from one product to another following the whims of regional or global market demands – have led to the depletion or near-extinction of particular animal and plant species, from the Sumateran rhinoceros to the eaglewood tree or the edible birds’ nest.
Similarly, the Orang Asli display contrasting behaviour and management practices vis-à-vis subsistence resources, on the one hand, and trade resources (such as non-timber forest products like rattan and gaharu) on the other hand. This is not surprising as people take better care of things that they own than they do of things that do not belong to them. As such they naturally feel a stronger sense of ownership over their subsistence resources, on which their daily life has depended for centuries, than over trade resources, for which demand changed, rose and sank, in the course of time. People worldwide, and not just indigenous peoples, behave in the same way (cf. Sellato 2005: 68).
Thus, in the case of the Orang Asli, internal conflicts – such as disputes on land ownership and control, and violation of community regulations on resource management – are within their experience and capacity and are consequently dealt with easily using customary laws and indigenous traditions. However, their resource management is no longer being dictated merely by internal factors but are instead being increasingly affected by external ones.
External conflicts, however, are more difficult to resolve as they involve outside actors who challenge the rights of Orang Asli communities to control and manage these resources. These outside actors encroach on, and often appropriate, Orang Asli lands thereby posing a direct threat to the continuity and viability of their indigenous social systems and the sustainability of their traditional resources. With an increased opening up of the traditional territory (roads) and society (ethnic mixing), a frontier situation has been created, in which members of the local communities and outsiders compete in a race to get products first (Kaskija 2002, cited in Sellato 2005: 69).
The external actors are not limited to those desiring only the commercial exploitation of the natural resources of the Orang Asli. Governments, through their policies, programmes and endorsement of an ideal ‘mainstream’ that the Orang Asli are required to aspire to – a mainstream based on the consumerist/capitalist model – further hasten the demotion and destruction of the Orang Asli indigenous systems. The process is further hastened when one considers that the policy of assimilation and integration for the Orang Asli invariably include programmes that seek to change Orang Asli cultures, languages, leadership and even spirituality.
The resulting diminished resource base and changes in their value systems invariably heightened the traditional levels of commercialization and extractivism present in the Orang Asli community – giving credence to Redford’s “myth of the ecologically noble savage”.
On the contrary, for the Orang Asli and other traditional 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 norms or adat.
As Cox (2000: 330) notes, issues of justice and conservation are also often seen differently through western and indigenous eyes. In fact, in perceiving the presence of the Orang Asli (and their ‘unsustainable’ extractive practices) as the problem in the conservation of protected areas, western-based conservationists tended to take the approach of excluding the Orang Asli altogether from these areas, even if those areas included the traditional territories of the Orang Asli. This has frequently resulted in heightened tensions and conflicts, often resulting in the Orang Asli retaliating by causing even further damage to the environment.
Furthermore, western-based conservationists tend to favour phrases and objectives containing the term sustainability. As Tainter (2001: 347) advises us, because the term sustainable is rapidly filling the niche once occupied in popular discourse by ecological, we must always insist on asking: Sustainability of what? For whom? For how long? And at what cost? This is because, in the absence of clear definitions and limiting conditions, sustainability is a carrier of social, political, personal, and even commercial meanings that we project on it.
Sustainability as such can mean better wages and work conditions, improved health, recycling, and spiritual-wellbeing. Politicians will also be able to endorse sustainability as a concept while denying that it calls for concrete action. They also tend to define the terms of the sustainability debate as consumption and employment versus sacrifice and unemployment. We therefore need an understanding of sustainability that is both more concrete and more nuanced (Tainter 2001: 348).
It should be clear that whether the management of the subsistence resources is sustainable or not depends on the special status of the primary survival needs and the special sense of ownership and continuity developed in relation to them. Strict, unchallenged ownership (in the hands of the Orang Asli) certainly allowed for sustainable exploitation (Sellato 2005: 69).
We also need to better understand how internal, behavioural factors have been instrumental, along with external more global, economic factors, in shaping environmental change patterns in the last few centuries. In fact, as Zerner (2000: 6-7) notes, in an era in which thought and action are dominated by economic models, metaphors, and material flows, it is incumbent that conservationists deploy the analytical methods of the social sciences and humanities – including revitalized area-studies and cultural analysis – to conceptualize, plan, and evaluate market-linked environmental management projects.
Perhaps therefore the most important first response required of others, including governments, is to affirm the Orang Asli’s right to exist as a people with their culture and practices intact. This affirmation must be both formal (as in fundamental constitutional guarantees) and real (as in the removal of all conditions that threaten their culture and survival; and that establish measures of support for the preservation and enhancement of their culture and practices).
One of the impediments to their cultural survival is the lack of secure tenure of land. In Malaysia, native customary land titles are being extinguished at an accelerating pace to allow such lands to be parcelled out to often questionable ‘unsustainable’ commercial enterprises. And yet, the Orang Asli are the ones who get the blame for causing environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. Now is the time for researchers to redress this situation.
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