12 MONTHS LATER: Pertak EpiLOG, July 1997
(first published in the Sunday Mail, 10 August 1997, in slightly abridged form)
THE LOGGERS have gone, leaving an empty diesel tank and ugly scars in the jungle. Rumour has it that the Batin (Headman) of Kampung Orang Asli Pertak will be replaced soon but nobody really believes this. On June 6th a new Mentri Besar (Chief Minister) was sworn in. Within two weeks he has ordered helicopter surveillance to locate and identify environmentally ruinous projects in Selangor. The Star quoted him on 19 June 1997 as saying: “In future we want to be very careful not to develop forest reserve areas.”
However, the Orang Asli are more strapped for cash than ever before. This year the durian trees seem to be withholding their precious fruit. Mak Minah believes the spirits are angry and hurt because the forest has once again been rudely violated. Another reason, perhaps, is that the logging has scared off the fruit bats without which pollination cannot occur. (The barren season may also be simply part of a natural cycle. Utat Anak Kutup tells me that durian trees need a recovery period after a bumper crop, and there was indeed a bumper crop last year. Whatever the case, more Pertak villagers have been recruited into factories, restaurants, and work gangs than in previous years.)
The rivers in Pertak, miraculously, still run clear and playful in sunny weather. But when heavy rains fall they turn a treacherous blood red with sometimes a tenfold increase in level and speed. A violent flashflood in early April drowned 6 campers - the same weekend a 14-year-old boy was saved from a watery death by a party of picnickers.
On 21 March 1997 the Temuan revived an ancient ritual called sawai to appease ancestral spirits and help heal the land. They had been neglecting their ceremonial duties as Guardians of the Rainforest since the start of the last World War. This event (which coincided with the Third Worldwide Equinox Ceremony for Planetary Awakening convened by Mayan Elder Hunbatz Men and Aluna Joy Yaxk'in of the Hauk'in Center for Solar Initiation) was attended by Temuan from several villages, dozens of urbanite well-wishers, and a Reuters TV crew.
It has indeed been an action-packed year. Upon receiving word of logging in the vicinity of Bukit Kutu (gazetted as a bird and wildlife sanctuary in the 1940s), the press got on the job with gusto. Detailed reports began to appear in the New Straits Times and the Star, calling for a halt to the logging and a thorough inquiry into how the semi-literate Batin of Kg Pertak had been persuaded to lend his name to a scheme that would effectively destroy the future livelihood of his own tribe.
Spokesmen of various government departments involved produced the routine stonewall responses. We will investigate… This is nothing new… The application was in order… The boss is on medical leave… No need for EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) if the area logged is less than 500 hectares…
ONE MORNING in September 1996 I was visited by two Special Branch officers, bearing a special invitation from their boss for a special chat. My mother-in-law Indah got a little hysterical seeing me go off with the police. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back after lunch with some veggies,” I yelled, refusing to be drawn into the melodrama of the moment.
At the Special Branch HQ in Kuala Kubu Baru I learned that a formal petition for my eviction from Kampung Orang Asli Pertak had been lodged with the District Security Council. ASP Zulkifli Bashri handled it with impressive finesse. He said the petition was signed by Bidar Chik, the Batin of Pertak Village – though it was “highly unlikely” that he had drafted the text. But he wouldn’t say who he thought was behind the petition which basically stated that my presence in the village was a security threat. “Some people suspect you’re working for an NGO. Are you?”
“No,” I replied, “I’m working for the Earth. And I think loggers are much more of a security threat to the area than I ever could be.”
A few days later I chanced upon ASP Zul and his team at a tea stall. They beckoned me over for a coffee. “Just for your information,” ASP Zul began, “we have submitted our report to the District Security Council. Our investigation shows no evidence that you pose a security threat. Furthermore, as you are married to an Orang Asli and have a child, we see no reason why you cannot continue residing in the village.”
I was elated. Vindicated by the Secret Police! The officers I had met seemed like a fairly decent bunch. One even told me that he was glad to see someone defending the green, green hills of Pertak. But it was clear that the police operated within official guidelines laid down by the State government. If they were directed to use the ISA against environmental activists, they would have little choice - short of quitting the Force. (ISA can be taken as either the “Infernal Security Act” which allows the police to detain indefinitely without trial - or the Arabic form of “Jesus.”)
An earlier incident drove home this point. Soon after the loggers began wreaking their havoc, a nature-lover and regular picnicker at Pertak had notified SAM (Sahabat Alam Malaysia, a Non-Governmental Organization affiliated with Friends of the Earth)), who conducted their own investigation and decided to take up the case. Their representative, Sreela Kolandai, had visited Pertak Village to see if there was a general consensus amongst the Orang Asli to protest having their ancestral lands logged. Problem was, the only convenient place for the villagers to gather and discuss the problem was the balai (community hall) - and only the Batin had the keys. He was certainly in no mood to cooperate. Sreela then suggested that all those concerned about the logging should meet outside the balai the next afternoon.
When we arrived at 2.30 p.m. the following day, no one was in sight apart from a couple of Special Branch officers on motorbikes. One of them rode up to me and said: "I hope you're not about to hold a ceramah (discussion) here. We have orders to confiscate all your identity cards, and then you'll have to collect them at the police station."
"News travels fast around here," I quipped, looking over at the deserted and locked-up balai. "As you can see, there's no one around to hold a ceramah. If they all showed up now, maybe we could have our meeting at the Balai Polis?"
The officer sighed and offered me a cigarette. "Look, it's Saturday and I'd rather be with my kids. Please don't force us to do anything unpleasant, okay?"
"Don't worry, you can go home and relax. But could you tell me just one thing… how did you guys hear about today's meeting?"
He reached out to light my cigarette. "Someone called us early this morning. All I can tell you is that it wasn't any of the Orang Asli. The caller informed us that NGO people would be here."
I felt a fleeting sense of despair. Someone had snitched to the batin last night. There had been only a handful of us present, yet treachery was afoot! It was beginning to look like there was nothing anyone could do to save one of the few remaining green sanctuaries in Selangor.
MOST ORANG ASLI have gotten so used to being powerless, the idea of resistance to any kind of authority is almost alien. Some of them had an ingrained sense of setia (loyalty) to the Kerajaan (Government). Going against the Batin was tantamount to going against the Government - since he represented the will of the JHEOA - the visible face of Official Authority. And, moreover, wasn't "development" the avowed objective of the Kerajaan (which derives from the root word Raja, meaning Monarch, thereby effectively reinforcing the residual feudalism of local bureaucracy)?
One evening in a drunken burst of eloquence, my brother-in-law Ali expressed his misgivings about the whole affair. "I think it's not right," he spluttered. "The Batin is still the Batin - good or bad, smart or stupid - we must respect and support him!" Obviously the post-modern debate on Hang Tuah versus Hang Jebat as the "true Malay hero" had completely bypassed Ali (Hang Tuah was absolutely loyal to the Sultan’s orders, regardless of ethical principles; Hang Jebat was loyal to a sense of humanity and justice). Into the valley of death rode the six hundred… That famous refrain from "Charge of the Light Brigade" came unbidden into my mind.
"Look, I've told you before I'm only a burglar alarm - like a spotlight to keep rats away from the rice in the warehouse. I can't go after the thieves - YOU have to do that or stop complaining about having no rice to eat!"
THE UNPRECEDENTED PUBLICITY surrounding the Pertak logging concession seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the bulldozers charging around the slopes of Bukit Kutu. The loggers had cleared an area just in front of my hut as their logging yard. Every day at least 50 trees - ranging in age from 5 to 250 years - were added to the growing stacks of tropical hardwoods, valued, tagged and ready for the sawmills. In their zeal to maximize profits, the loggers had destroyed dozens of young fruit trees, including rare jungle species, and even desecrated a few Orang Asli graves. They also left behind hazardous heaps of broken branches, unwanted logs, and other debris, piled up at various points along the river, waiting for the rainy season to turn into another potential Pos Dipang disaster (a giant mudslide on 29 August 1996 that destroyed almost an entire Orang Asli village in Perak).
Bukit Kutu, once known as Treacher’s Hill, was a choice resort for the Colonials before Fraser’s Hill overtook it in popularity. I tried to draw attention to the fact that Bukit Kutu, apart from being a gazetted bird and wildlife sanctuary, was second only to nearby Gunung Raja in terms of its sacred significance to Temuan spiritual tradition. Instead, I found myself attracting the attention of various government departments. Senior officials from the Selangor Forestry Department dropped by my hut, armed with cameras. The Department of Environment sent a delegation to check if I was causing any damage to the ecosystem. The JHEOA chose to remain unseen like the Orang Halus (elven folk). They would work behind the scenes to get rid of the problem (namely me, I suppose).
It was very disappointing, to say the least. When I first came to live amongst the Orang Asli, I had harboured hopes of obtaining the cooperation of the Orang Asli Affairs Department, so that we could resolve basic problems like energy and water supply; and how to stimulate the curiosity and interest of the younger ones in left-brained learning. Kampung Orang Asli Pertak still has no electricity or piped water - but I was convinced that alternative methods of obtaining both would provide the villagers with free energy, courtesy of the river - and abundant clean water, courtesy of underground springs. Now I found myself surrounded by bulldozers and bureaucrats!
A VISITING GEOMANCER and Earth-healer from Queensland, Australia, told me the Orang Asli could try performing sacred rituals to reharmonize the magnetic field of the whole area. "They must do it on October 27th when the Goddess force will be very powerful," Soluntra urged. I passed her message along to some of the Asli, but all they could do was shake their heads sadly: "How can we persuade everyone to come together for sacred rituals when the Batin himself believes only in the power of money?"
There is a very fine line between faith in God (dess) and terminal fatalism. It seemed to me that my adopted Temuan kinfolk had succumbed to profound spiritual fatigue - and I perfectly understood why. To keep myself in good cheer I focused on seeing my baby son Ahau grow. He seemed perfectly content and mellow, giving me constant messages to quit worrying and let events unfold in their own good time.
Around midnight on the eve of October 21st 1996, a ferocious Water Dragon roared down the Pertak hills on a wild rampage to the sea, swallowing up over 200 metres (nearly 700 feet) of the Ampang Pecah road leading out of Kuala Kubu Baru. Fed by torrential rains and gorged on tonnes of raw earth, the monster flashflood forced the evacuation of hundreds of pyjama-clad urbanites and generated more than 15 landslides in its wake. October 21st, ironically, was the start of National Environment Week.
ALARMED BY the massive environmental damage they saw, an investigative team from Berita Harian filed a series of hardhitting reports on the Pertak logging concession and the glaring irregularities surrounding it. The Mentri Besar had little choice. He revoked the permit on October 27th (even though it was a Sunday) - the exact date indicated by Soluntra when Goddess Power would take charge! (Less than two months later, on the solstitial date of December 22nd, the same Mentri Besar was arrested in Brisbane while attempting to leave Australia lugging a suitcase stuffed with undeclared cash worth A$1.2 million. The first court hearing was fixed for the equinox, March 21st 1997 - the day the Temuan revived their sawai ritual. Make of this what you will!)
FOR THE TIME BEING the destruction has been stopped. But who can repair the damage already done? Why… the Orang Asli of course. With a little bit of help from the JHEOA - say, RM3 million, the estimated worth of the timber in their dusun (smallholdings) - to relieve them for two years from having to earn their modest wages as security guards, grass cutters and factory hands, and free them to replant the logged areas with fruit trees of their choice. Money well spent, I’d venture, since the accelerated healing of this vital water catchment area would save taxpayers possible billions in flood alleviation and landslide repairs in the coming years.
But the first step towards healing would be for the State government to immediately gazette the areas demarcated as Orang Asli reserves, to deter further encroachments.
"Gazettement is a mere procedural matter," the JHEOA director-general told the Star in a report dated 12 September 1996.
Kampung Orang Asli Pertak is among several such areas "approved for gazetting" in 1965 as Orang Asli reserves. Getting them properly gazetted ought to take a mere 32 days, not another 32 years.
Antares © 1997
Excerpt from TANAH TUJUH, for permission to reprint please email Antares@magickriver.com
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