Shahril Ahmad wrote an article in FMT on March 4 – ‘The rape of Gua Musang’. I took great interest in the story because the destruction of Gua Musang is something I have witnessed first-hand.
This is my story.
In May 2014, my friend Ute M. from Koln, Germany, arrived in Malaysia. We have been working together for quite some time and agreed to embark on a new project called World Magazine.
World Magazine is a documentary project where we gather stories with good content from around the world, seen from the perspective of a child. Having had great pieces like child slavery in the Middle East, war in Syria and life in Africa, it was my turn to pitch a story from Malaysia.
Our documentary revolved around Sutera, a 12-year-old girl from the Temiah tribe, living in an isolated village called Kampung Kelaik in Gua Musang, one of some 500 villages occupied by 150,000 Orang Asli throughout Peninsula Malaysia.
Sutera’s village is situated near the 130-million-year-old rain forest, among the oldest in the world. Her family have been living there for many generations. As such, they have developed a special bond with the land.
Upon arriving at Kampung Kelaik, Sutera brought us to her favourite spot in the village – the river. We saw children swimming and playing while a number of villagers were busy fishing for lunch in the brownish red water. According to one of the villagers – Angah, the once clear river turned rusty due to the mining activities not so far from their homes.
We were then taken on a 20-minute journey uphill to check out the mining factory ourselves. Along the way, we saw forest reserves cleared extensively. There were lorries going in empty and coming out fully loaded with logs.
At one point, we got out of our vehicles where two streams of river met. We witnessed ourselves the streams of clear river water getting mixed with the polluted brownish red water from uphill where the mining factory was located.
We were then summoned for a brief discussion by two Chinese men who claimed to be the supervisors on site. Making sure our cameras were safely kept away, they denied being responsible for the river pollution, and instead blamed the Orang Asli for not taking good care of their own surroundings.
On our way back to the village for lunch, Angah and a few villagers took us to a palm oil plantation. It was massive. As far as my eyes could see, there were hundreds of acres of oil palm trees.
For a second, I felt proud knowing our country was the second largest producer of palm oil. But Angah knocked some sense back into me when he told me the area used to be a forest reserve full of trees, plants, animals, insects and many other forms of living species. Now all that was left was acre upon acre of oil palm trees.
We were then invited to join Sutera for a glorious lunch prepared by the Orang Asli women. With flower garlands on our heads, there was a huge array of food to choose from – steamed tapioca, rice, fish, eggplant and many types of green vegetables.
Just as we were about to help ourselves, I noticed that some of the villagers had a bad rash on their legs and body. Their skin had turned dark, and was cracked and peeling. It wasn’t a sight I wanted to see with all the good food staring at me and my empty tummy.
“It’s the water from the river,” answered one of the elderly men.
Angah then explained that the chemicals from the pesticides used in the palm oil plantation got washed down into the river during heavy rains.
“Our water source is only from these two rivers. One is polluted with the dirty water from the iron mining factory and the other is polluted with the palm oil pesticides,” said Angah as he took a bite of the fish they caught in the same river.
I looked at Ute. All of a sudden we both lost our appetite. While Ute refused to touch the food, I had to show some old fashioned Malaysian courtesy and forced myself to push some brown rice down my throat.
“Even the rice in our pot turns brown,” laughed Sutera just as I was about to take my second scoop of rice.
As the elderly among the group sang a few traditional tunes to entertain Ute and myself after lunch, a big car entered the village and a few Chinese men in suits invited themselves to join us. They were quite uncomfortable finding Ute and myself there, and requested not to be filmed.
A Mandarin-Malay translator then informed the villagers that the “bosses” wished to inform them that in a few days there would be trucks and lorries cutting through their village to get to the other side of the hill where the forest still existed.
Fearing the little ones roaming around, the villagers calmly refused to give permission. The Chinese men then stood up and uttered a few words to the translator.
“We are not asking for your permission. We are informing you. This entire area belongs to us. Even the land you are living on belongs to us. Show some gratitude.”
Ute and I were dumbfounded. The land belongs to them? The forest reserves belongs to companies from China? Who sold the land to these people? Whatever happened to the Aboriginal People’s Act 1954 which entitles the Orang Asli to their ancestor’s land?
“We make many trips to the state government office to meet officials, but we seldom get to meet them. Most of the time we are made to wait for hours before we are asked to leave. No one respects us. We are, after all, invisible,” said Angah.
“We do not know what the future will hold for our children. Our home is no longer our home. We have lost everything. We have no animals to hunt. All our fruit trees are chopped down. Not many fish like to live in dirty water. And our vegetables don’t grow much nowadays.”
Forcing a smile, he looks at my untouched coffee and adds, “Do you think we do not know that we are surviving by drinking poison water? But what choice do we have?”
As we drove out of Kampung Kelaik after our two days of filming, I continued to see trucks and lorries going in and out of the forest reserves at different junctures. Amidst them, we passed by a signboard that read “Hutan Khazanah Negara” (Forest is our national treasure). What irony.
Today, I live in a nice developed neighbourhood where I am blessed with clean water from my tap. I serve healthy toxic-free food to my children and watch them grow up perfectly healthy. But every time I use cooking oil, soap, detergent, shampoo or cosmetics, every time I consume margarine, ice cream, noodles, chocolates, biscuits or coffee, I can’t help but think these are the products of palm oil which are robbing children like Sutera of their health and their home.
It makes me feel shitty.
It really does.