A Sacred Landscape

As we drove along the murky Pahang River making our way further in the interiors of Chenor on the bumpy road, surrounding us was an endless sight of luscious greenery. The forest looked untouched, scattered with statuesque Tualang trees.

Eventually, we reached a hill overseeing the forest in which its facade was revealed showing its true self. Through the car window, it was obvious the native trees were only composed along the road and into the forest about 3km. Beyond that was a vast expanse of plants, foreign to the forest. As we drove on, these alien, homogeneous plants took over.

Another ecosystem altered. In its place, an oil palm plantation.

From the town of Chenor, it took about an hour and a half to reach Kampung Ulu Gumum 1. It is one of the Orang Asli villages where Yayasan Hasanah’s partner (Hasanah), Yayasan Kajian dan Pembangunan Masyarakat (YKPM),  is running an organic vegetable farm project with the Jakuns since early 2019. 

YKPM’s work with the Orang Asli dated back since 1983. Throughout the years however they realised that the challenges of working with multiple Orang Asli communities simultaneously considering the many issues they faced. “There’s only so much we can do to help with the small team that we have. Eventually we decided to focus on one community at a time.” said Kon Onn Sein, Executive Director of YKPM.

At the farm, 4 women were busily picking fresh vegetables to be packed and shipped to major supermarkets in Kuala Lumpur. Defect crops were separated to be turned into compost, which would later be used to keep the farm’s soil healthy and full of nutrients.

Beyond the hut was a thriving field consists of corn, mulberry, spinach of different varieties, okra and many more. 

It was not like this before though. With the never-ending conflict on land rights issues between Orang Asli and the state, the forest is rapidly diminishing forcing them to change their lifestyle from hunter gatherers to sedentary farmers. Their source of shelter, knowledge sustenance and livelihood is on the decline together with their identity. 

Stricken by poverty, the community initially resorted to clearing the forest around them to plant cash crops like rubber and oil palm on a small scale. Getting undercut by the middlemen made it even more difficult but it was something for them to get by to put food on the table and pay for their children’s education.

The villagers also tried their hands on planting vegetables in their front yards as a source of income. It was again a difficult attempt of survival as their produces were undersold and with little knowledge on farming, it was a strenuous effort to keep on planting crops that kept on being destroyed by pests.  

YKPM’s interests to work with the Jakuns are to provide a source of stable income, and in turn limiting the need for them to cut trees for cash crops. Since the community were interested in farming, YKPM started with encouraging their interests and support them by bringing experts on organic farming to train the farmers and bridging access to market their produce.

Kak Nor, is in her 40’s and is one of the participants under YKPM’s project. She is also one of the persistent farmers in the early days who kept on trying despite the challenges. 

Access to fair market price was a challenge that YKPM successfully bridged and now the 32 farmers could earn earn up to RM 1,200 per month. “Our losses were too much previously when there’s a middlemen involved. Now we can double the amount of what we used to make”,Kak Nor said. It was the cherry on the cake when Jaya Grocer, a major supermarket franchise, agreed to take in their products.

The organic farming endeavour  started to bear fruit as nearby Orang Asli village, Kampung Melai, was also keen to take their own initiative to farm and requested YKPM to take them under their project. 

“When villagers from Kampung Melai saw our farm, they were curious and interested. They too wanted to have a farm of their own. We gave them some seedlings for them to try and plant the crops at their village”, Kak Nor said proudly. 

Kak Nor and her fellow farmers had their fair share of challenges when the project first started but the community was eager to learn. YKPM brought in experts on organic farming to build the community’s skills. 

“When the experts came we understood why some of the veggies we planted before didn’t work. We also learnt how to get rid of critters that were eating our crops using natural pesticides,” said Kak Nor. The words “Organically Grown” emblazoned on each of the tags attached to the vegetables.

A lorry loaded with one basket after another filled with vegetables. Ready to be shipped to Kuala Lumpur.

There are signs of success for the project but not the forest as Kak Nor recalled it in its glory days. “In the past, when we needed food, we would enter the forest to find something to eat. But now, there’s nothing much left. Nowadays, we only go in to collect herbs for medicine ” lamented Kak Nor. 

The forest is a sacred landscape for Orang Asli in general but when food is scarce and their lands risk being taken if left idle, choices are limited. Lack of access to adequate housing, nutrition, clean drinking water and funds for children’s education forced them to use whatever land that is available around them to make ends meet. Within the community here, it became a race to the bottom where forest is cleared for cash crops before the arrival of YKPM.

If one were to walk in Kampung Ulu Gumum 1 today, it would be difficult to tell if the community here are Orang Asli considering that they live in a somewhat modern house, wear the same clothes as those in the city, and smartphones in the palm of their hands, especially the youth.

Even though modernity is here to stay, Kak Nor mentioned they still practice their traditions because their identity as Jakuns are important. It is only the integral relationship with the forest that is dimming. 

Earlier during our conversation, Kak Nor recalled her younger days where she was able to enter the forest. I could see the excitement in her eyes. “In the early 90s when the forest was still thick, I have seen wild animals…tigers, deers, you name it. It’s different now.”, she said.

The Jakuns view the forest as a landscape that is beyond commodity. They have established a set of environmental ethics from traditional knowledge to ensure practices to avoid the forest from being exploited. Take what you need, not what you want is basically the principle. 

As my conversation with Kak Nor came to an end, there was a brief moment of silence between us as we observed three men moving the last few baskets of vegetables into the lorry. “From time to time I am reminded of the forest and I miss it. It’s my home…”, said Kak Nor, breaking the silence.