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Malaysian 'lords of the jungle' cling to ancient ways
by Staff Writers
Nahajale, Malaysia (AFP) Dec 21, 2011

As their wooden boat nears the river's edge, hunters from Malaysia's Kayan tribe reach for machetes and spears while their dogs leap out and splash up the banks on the scent of a deer.

As the dogs and hunters dart into the thick jungles of Sarawak state on the island of Borneo, 50-year-old Ngajang Midin points to the fresh footprint of a deer in the mud at his feet.

"Hunting is a part of our culture," said Ngajang, who hails from the Ukit tribe, allies of the Kayan.

"We want to keep it that way but we feel vulnerable now with all of this development around us."

Ngajang was referring to the nearby Bakun dam, a huge power project deep in Sarawak's interior that began operations in August and which local natives say embodies relentless development pressures threatening their ancient ways.

Thousands of people from several tribes -- ethnically distinct from Malaysia's majority Malays -- were uprooted by the dam, whose growing reservoir has left hunting and burial grounds and huge swathes of jungle deep underwater.

About 15,000 people were herded by the government over the past decade to the new village of Sungai Asap, 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the dam, which has a medical clinic, electricity, and Internet access.

But others are making a defiant stand, resisting the lure of the modern world to preserve an ancestral life as jungle hunter-gathers despite the pressure on Sarawak's once-pristine rainforests.

"The jungle is my home. We will live and die here," said Inuk Bato, 38, one of about 1,000 Kayan and Ukit living in the jungle village of Nahajale.

Her father, village headman Bato Bagi, died in August. But his offspring are honouring his wish that they stay in the jungle.

"I know how to hunt for wild animals and pick vegetables in the wild alone. If I live in Sungai Asap I will need money for everything," said Inuk as she prepared a lunch of rice and wild produce for her family.

"There, I would have to work for others. I would be a slave. Here, we are the lords of the jungle," she said, a proud smile across her face.

But the jungle stalwarts face an uphill task.

The Bakun dam has been condemned by opponents as a catastrophe for the mighty Balui river watershed and the people that depend on it.

But in a push to develop Sarawak's backward economy, the state government plans still more dams and has opened up virgin forest to loggers and palm-oil plantations that increasingly encroach on tribal lands, natives say.

The Swiss-based jungle-protection group Bruno Manser Fund says about 90 percent of Sarawak's rainforests have been damaged by logging and other pressures.

Tribes in many areas have pushed back, repeatedly barricading logging roads in recent years in an effort to protect forests.

But Malaysia's top court in September ruled against a tribal coalition including the Kayan and Ukit in their 12-year legal battle to reclaim ancestral lands lost to the dam in what many called a dire blow for native rights.

Three years ago, Kayan and Ukit natives moved upriver, deeper into the forest, establishing Nahajale in a bid to escape the outside pressures and rising reservoir waters that flooded their ancestral homes two months ago.

Here, communal lifestyles are preserved. Private property remains a relatively new concept, and everyone pitches in with hunting, fishing, foraging, building of traditional longhouses, and other village tasks.

As night falls, Kayan women in sarongs prepare dinner for families who, seated in a circle in their longhouses, tuck into a meal of chicken, rice and vegetables as the jungle comes alive with its symphony of insect and other night life.

After dinner, elders puff on handrolled cigarettes of home-grown tobacco and complain by flickering candlelight of the challenges ahead.

Once-abundant game is now more scarce. Natives blame the logging and other disruptions to the forest ecology.

A wooden racing boat lays on the ground, unfinished. Villagers say the now slower-moving waters of the Balui river are no long suitable for the traditional paddling races that enlivened the village.

Meanwhile, the rising waters of a reservoir the size of Singapore threaten to destroy rice paddies before they can harvest them, while the Balui's waters have been fouled and fish catches have dropped, they say.

"We had clear river water with lots of tasty fish. Now it is gone," said Bulan Avun, the 70-year-old wife of the late village headman, breaking down in tears.

"The water is itchy. We no longer bath in it," said Bulan who sports traditional tattoos that run from just above her knees to her upper thighs.

Youngsters nod attentively as Bulan urges her grandchildren to continue on the forest.

But elders fret about outside influences, particular the televisions in the village, which are powered by petrol-fueled generators and favoured by the young.

Steven Thiru, co-chair of a Malaysian Bar Council committee on native rights, warned the culture of many of Malaysia's "orang asli", or "original peoples", faced extinction.

"It would be a shame if these great people of our land, which have been described by the Malaysian Court of Appeal as the "first people", become a footnote in history," he said.

Inuk acknowledged the challenge of keeping later generations in the forest. Her two children attend school in Sungai Asap, but she will encourage them to return to the village after completing their education.

"I will die here to preserve my culture, teach my children of our lifestyle, and fulfil my father's wishes," she said.

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