Drawing links between food security, culture and tradition

Hill paddy plantation @ Pos Lenjang

A year later, we’re back in Movement Control Order (MCO). Although Malaysia has experienced many calamities, such as the devastating 2014—15 flood, disaster relief is something we need to urgently work on. When COVID-19 hit, nothing could have prepared us for the pandemic crisis we are in today—but it’s everything that we must learn from.

During the first MCO, a group of NGOs and volunteers came together as Misi Bantu OA to crowdfund and send food aid to Orang Asli villages across Peninsular Malaysia. There were other joint initiatives such as COAC-Raleigh-Impian Malaysia and EPIC-JAKOA. Nothing like #kitajagakita, right?

Nonetheless, none of us foresaw that the MCO would be a recurring nightmare…and with economic and social repercussions.

Piecemeal food aid only provides temporary relief and isn’t a permanent solution.

There are communities who were forgotten while some received more than needed. There were cases where the food aid did not arrive in a timely manner. Moreover, daily necessities go beyond food.

It’s not only about the access to food, but also Orang Asli’s continuous right to food. The key is to guarantee food security and sovereignty to the Orang Asli—and when talking about these two, ensuring land rights is at the core of it.

Children fishing @ Lubuk Yang Remi

WHAT IS FOOD SECURITY AND SOVEREIGNTY, AND HOW DO THEY RELATE TO LAND RIGHTS?

In Malaysia, the majority of Orang Asli live in rural areas or in remote parts of the forest, rely on agriculture and subsistence activities to survive, and typically do not own the land that they live, roam and hunt, and cultivate on.

To achieve food security and sovereignty among the Orang Asli, we must ensure that they respectively…

  • at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life
  • have the right to produce and procure their food using traditional practices and cultures according to their taste preferences, food and cultivation knowledge.

So when Orang Asli are denied access to land, fishing, gathering and hunting grounds, they are deprived of the means and access towards the realisation of the right to food. But when Orang Asli have access to land and the freedom to practice their traditional ways of living, food systems and knowledge, as well as traditional subsistence activities, they are able to achieve a certain degree of food security during the pandemic.

A few of the Orang Asli communities we closely work with have proven that with agency over their land, they can provide for themselves in dignity through their own means, despite the challenges.

Danga Bay to the left of the horizon

Although supply chains were disrupted and wet markets were closed in the first lockdown, the Seletar fishermen at Kampung Sungai Temon, Johor Bahru could still fish and feed themselves, while providing protein sources to the people of Johor. The pandemic has proved that Orang Seletar’s intimate relationship and knowledge to the sea are essential to food security.

This poses the question of ‘supply’:

Which is more important—more developments or protecting the land, seas, and people?

There is an oversupply of buildings in Johor, and these developments are threatening the existence and homes of the Orang Seletar, as well as the coastal marine life.

Nevertheless, not many Orang Asli communities have the same opportunity, especially the ones who live in a forest reserve or who live in remote areas and were unable to sell their produce during the lockdown.

Pounding rice using traditional pestle and mortar

The Semai community at Kampung Kenderung, Pos Lenjang, Pahang still actively plant hill paddy, which heirloom seeds and cultivation knowledge are handed down from their ancestors. It is customary practice to prepare the land in July, and then dibble the land for direct seeding the month after in time for monsoon. Then every new year, in January, is the harvest season.

According to our host family, their rice stock is enough to last up to 6 months when it is a good harvest. In between the harvest seasons, they would grow a variety of plants, one of them being the ubi kayu, which serves as a rice alternative.

They also planted other cash crops such as peanuts, however when the head of the family drove to Cameron Highlands during one of the MCOs, he was unable to find any buyer—also noting there was a drop in rubber sales as no one came into the villages to buy from them.

He said that when they have an excess of raw materials, such as ubi kayu and peanuts, they would look for buyers. Land also means income to the Orang Asli, as they would sell their harvest or forest produce to buy food unavailable in the forest such as salt, oil, flour, and baby milk to achieve the ideal nutritional balance.

Nutritional deficiency among Orang Asli children is not uncommon, as the communities who live in protected areas (Hutan Simpan Kekal) cannot hunt or fish protected species. Plus, they are required to have a permit to sell forest products such as bamboo and rattan, which allows the middleman to profit the most while Orang Asli does the toughest work of harvesting them.

With the excess of ubi kayu and peanuts, there is an opportunity for Bek and his family to turn them into products if they continue to face difficulty in selling the raw material—something which we can learn and apply from the next community.

At Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Buloh, Selangor, Hanim Apeng’s ingenuity in creating products from raw materials, and then selling them at markets or word of mouth, has made her quite the entrepreneur.

Besides her best-selling artisanal soap, Hanim makes and sells rempeyek and kerepek pisang as a way to support her family (among other things ranging from crafts to upcycled school bags, and more).

During the first MCO, Hanim and her husband started tending to their garden. The results? They didn’t need to shop for veggies and only ate their harvest. Of course, in her words, you have to be motivated and also “kena rajin”. As the saying goes, you reap what you sow.

Nevertheless, she noted that she was blessed to have received many opportunities to learn different crafts and to kickstart her home business.

On the way to the home of the elders of Kampung Pen

When we went to Pos Piah, Perak early 2020 before the lockdown, the villagers of Kampung Kembok always made sure we were well fed. The ingredients (except oil and santan) were either sourced from the surrounding river and forests or from their kebun—pucuk ubi, pucuk paku, umbut bayas, ikan tengas, ubi kayu…

If you’re wondering, umbut bayas is the inside of the stem of Pokok Bayas, or Mountain Nibong Palm that is native to our rainforest. We eat the apical bud of this tree as vegetables, which has a similar texture of jackfruit. Slice it into smaller bits and cook it into soup, and it would have the texture of mushroom.

Deeper into Pos Piah is Kampung Pen, which is the original village before they were moved downstream during the insurgency period. Some villagers eventually went back to their original home after the insurgency.

Here lives an aged man with his wife, who both cultivate the land surrounding their humble abode, growing plants such as corn, spinach, pumpkin, okra, tobacco, and the sacred sekoi. The elders of Kampung Pen told us that the sekoi is considered a sacred plant. They can’t have the sekoi planted beyond the village. It was the staple food offered from the divinity way before the Temiar people learnt to consume ubi kayu and hill paddy rice.

According to one of our coordinators, the Pos Piah community received food aid during the lockdown. However, they said that it’s not what the community want or need. The type of help they had been asking throughout the prolonged waves of pandemic and lockdown were either taking actions against timber logging in their areas or healthcare and medical issues.

“People do not understand. We are not poor. We have plenty of food. We gather our diet from the jungle, or we plant them in our farm. Our hardship is about the land (rights),” said one of the villagers.

After the flood at what used to be the Pos Titom-Pos Lenjang connecting bridge

THE BIGGER BATTLES BEYOND COVID-19

While we continue our fight against the pandemic, the Orang Asli are concurrently facing bigger battles: deforestation, land grab, and climate change.

The five villages above have shown that with access to land, the villagers are able to feed themselves. It goes to show that land is crucial in achieving household food security for the Orang Asli. Local communities must be given autonomy to maintain control over their food systems in order to build resilience against the risk of future external shocks

If taken away, it threatens not only their right to food, but also their culture and tradition as subsistence-based activities such as agriculture, hunting and fishing form an important part of Orang Asli’s cultural identity—tied closely to these activities are handcrafts, harvest festival and its accompanying singing and dancing, and folklores.

That said, heightened attention on and work toward ensuring secure land rights for Orang Asli communities are integral for sustained, universal food security. Not just for our indigenous communities, but also the wellbeing of the nation as a whole.

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