MAY 8 — The area and community of Tasik Chini was what attracted a group of Asian Public Intellectuals (API) to gather there last year. This group of about 30, with two members each from Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and Thailand with the remaining number from Malaysia, was there as part of their regional project based on the common element — water.
Tasik Chini was their last stop. Since 2008, this group has visited the Kali Code River in Yogyakarta; Biwako Lake, the largest lake in Japan; the Tapee river in the Khiriwong community in south Thailand and the Batanes islands north of the Philippines.
Hezri Adnan was the leader of this site visit. He is an academic at UKM and also a visiting Fellow at The Australian National University. He said, “We are here to develop networking and collaboration within the API fellows in response to regional environmental challenges. The gathering here is to learn, document and promote local community knowledge and how they come to terms with the degradation of their traditional habitat — the water, lakes, forest and their communal life. We hope to learn from the indigenous Jakuns and then later frame an Asian perspective to mitigate these common and urgent environment issues.”
The Jakuns are believed to have moved south from Yunan (South China) about 2,500BC. Millions of years ago, the sea level and landmass in this region were not like what they are today and these indigenous tribes could move about freely in many directions.
In essence, these early roaming inhabitants could be said to be the forefathers and -mothers of most of us Southeast Asians. Of course, let’s not forget our distant relatives from the middle of Africa and elsewhere too.
There are now about 15 families of fewer than 500 Jakuns living in the six villages around Tasik Chini. This is the second largest natural lake in the country in the district of Pekan, Pahang. By the way, this area lies within the Parliamentary constituency of our prime minister.
Just south of Tasik Chini is Tasik Bera, the largest water catchment and wetland ecosystem in Malaysia where the Semelais, another indigenous community, are also living under similar stressful environmental conditions.
According to Henry Chan, from the Sarawak Forestry Cooperation, the deputy leader of this visit, “even just 30 years ago, the Jakuns could live here with security in this beautiful lotus filled lake — they could get all their daily needs like water, fish, game, vegetables and medicinal plants, and land to cultivate in this rich tropical rainforest.
“This was a major tourist spot for many years because of its natural beautiful landscape. But in the last 30 years, since the conversion of their ancestral land for agriculture (rubber and palm oil trees), mining and logging activities, their age-old livelihood has come under severe threat.
“The growing acidification and pollution of the water from agriculture waste, fertilisers and pesticides plus increasing land encroachments in the surrounding area are depriving the locals of fresh water, fish, game and land to cultivate.
“This was once a tropical Garden of Eden but now it is slowly turning into an ecological nightmare. There are fewer tourists now. Ninety per cent of these small villagers are living under the national poverty line.”
The last 30 years of the deteriorating ecological conditions of Tasik Bere and Tasik Chini have not gone completely unnoticed. On paper, there have been many extensive studies and reports and recommendations from the various related local and federal institutions, from experts, from local universities, UNHDR, NGO like SUSDEN etc. to mitigate the growing ecosystem degradation.
One of the plans did get done. In 1995, the irrigation department built a navigational lock gate at the mouth of Sungai Chini leading into the Sungai Pahang. This was done in the name of tourism and in favour of the Malay boat operators, to keep the water level constant, so that boat operators can ferry their customers all year round on the lake.
Unfortunately, this, in turn, flooded the lake, drowning many forests and killing off the lotus. For a few years, the stench from rotting vegetation in this stagnant water was unbearable to visitors and the villagers.
Realising their mistake for interrupting the natural flow of the river system, the height of the dam was later reduced to alloy the water flow out to Sungai Pahang. This, at most, was just too little too late; the damage had already been done. The lake is slowly dying.
Why is the vital wetland biodiversity allowed to continue to degrade? Why are the indigenous groups made to suffer the consequences not of their own making? Felda is one of the main players in the palm oil industry there but what have they done to safeguard the environment with their huge profits from the sale of the palm oil? What about the rubber, mining and timber industries in the area, what has these industries done to clear up their pollution and waste?
Is capitalism still just only about profits and protecting shareholders’ money without any obligation to corporate social responsibilities? Is the battle between ecology and capitalism endlessly irreconcilable? Why is this Malaysian government subjugating these small, early Malaysian tribes, in the same way, if not worst, that old colonial imperialists did to us years ago?
For five days with many of these questions in mind, the API fellows didn’t just sit around doing intellectual acrobatics, they also went round the villages, visiting, listening, talking, cooking, eating, joking and dancing with the young and the old at Tasik Chini.
In that short time, they met many locals and some were invited into their simple homes. Sitting on the floor, on doorsteps or on boats, the API fellows took notes, pictures and videos of what their hosts had to say about their plights and hopes. The API reports will be presented at their next meeting in Bangkok next year.
The Jakuns, in turn, sang two of their traditional songs and danced in a group for the API’s farewell party. They sang and moved in a circle, in melancholy and enchantment, accompanied by three drummers keeping rhythm with wooden sticks and a trunk. Songs to the gods to protect them.