Ghazaly Uju, 47, sat across us, his hand gesturing an outward to inward motion as he explained how their bodies are strong and healthy, that they’ll grow old without much complications, when they source food from the land, forests, and seas. But when these resources are pillaged by the greedy and powerful, they are forced to source food from the outside—and that is how the community began to suffer from a variety of diseases unknown to their ancestors.
Although the Mah Meri are still able to forage from the land, forests, and seas – despite in dwindling numbers – they are wary of the quality of the foraged food. “We do not know if the area where we forage or fish is polluted. Whether there is bleaching of chemicals, fertiliser, or pesticide from the oil palm plantations and factories into the land, rivers, and eventually the seas,” Ghazaly added.
30 to 40 years ago, their land (or Pulau Carey to be precise) began to experience change. Mangrove trees were marked; seawalls built; the trees removed and sand took their places—reclaimed; monocrop oil palm plantations mushroomed; a golf course laid out; and now a housing estate plotted.
Across Peninsular Malaysia, rapid and reckless development as well as external forces began encroaching the lives of Orang Asli in between the 1960s and the 1980s. Many of them still have recent memories of peaceful years. ‘Peaceful’ not in the sense of the conflict the Orang Asli were caught in between the British, Japanese, and the communists, but ‘peaceful’ in the sense where they were still able to practice their traditional ways of life living off the land.
Julida Uju, 53, reminisced about the time when she was a teenager. “After school, we could just walk to the mangroves and sea, it was just right in our backyard. We would get seafood from there and then back in no time to cook our lunch. I remember following my father to the seas on his sampan with a white sail to the islands nearby.”
Today, it is no more. Although they still do go out to the seas, the mangroves and sea/beach are not in their backyards anymore. Even the river that their village is named after, Sungai Bumbun, has been buried. “There are many rivers that are now gone. It shouldn’t be a wonder why floods happen often now. The water has nowhere to flow to the seas,” said Julida.
While the Mah Meri link climate change to the quality of the plants they forage, especially their ulam, citing that the increase in temperature and heat wilt these plants, the biggest culprits in their eyes are unconsulted development, plantations, housing projects, factories, and pollution from fertilisers and pesticides—all of which affect the health of the land and therefore the sea creatures that also depend on the land.
“The movement of salt- and freshwater is important,” explained Gali Adam, 52. It is nature’s way of renewal and also keeping the balance. When man plays God, overchanging the face of the landscape and disrupting the natural cycles, the land suffers. And in return, the people and the animals.
“We must always respect nature. We follow the adat (customs), offering betel leaf and nuts to the ancestors before heading to the mangroves and the sea,” Gali added. When we, as humans, forget our responsibilities to the land/nature, when we langgar adat (break the customs), everything falls apart.
This sentiment, or belief, is true across Orang Asli communities as they experience firsthand the abnormalities not present decades ago when the land was undisturbed. Human-wildlife conflicts, raging thunderstorms, floods, unpredictable wet and dry seasons, diseases, and local extinctions of flora and fauna. To the Orang Asli, adat or customs, are a way of remembering those who were there before them, and also remembering their roles and responsibilities as they navigate their daily lives in nature.
Despite the onslaught of changes, the Mah Meri retain their pride in holding on to their culture and traditions, being active practitioners of their art of wood carving, weaving, and sewang dancing. In their language, ‘Mah’ means people/human and ‘Meri’ means jungle/forest. Traditionally, they refer to themselves as Hma’ Btsisi’, which means humankind. During celebrations, whether spiritual, cultural or simply birthdays or weddings, the must-have foods are lokan, siput sedut, ketam nipah, sayur tanjung, and pucuk ubi. A few of these are hard to come by now, but the community still tries to have them served.
The areas where the Mah Meri dwell was once rich with edible flora and fauna. Most are typically difficult to find now, perhaps locally extinct or hidden from harm’s way or migrated to better land. Together, Ghazaly, Julida, Gali and their close relatives listed and sketched out mahjong paper full of what they traditionally caught, foraged, and consumed.
From herbs to mushrooms; crustaceans to squirrels; their lists illustrated the vast choices of food available to the Mah Meri. One observation was that the ladies drew the umbut nibong (umbut is the base of the shoot of the palm tree which is soft and edible), and when we said that umbut sawit (umbut of the oil palm tree) is also edible, Ghazaly nodded in agreement but did not proceed to add it into their list. Understandably, the oil palm was only introduced in the 1980s and is not considered a traditional food, but also it may not be a choice of food to the community due to the pollution as shared above.
The biodiversity of Pulau Carey up till Pulau Ketam is undoubtedly rich—and they wish that developers or decision-makers could see how many lives they rob with every inch of natural land is disturbed, altered, and removed. To care for the land is not only important for the traditional foodways, culture, traditions, and heritage of the Mah Meri, but also crucial for the food security of our country.
“If the land is taken care of properly, this area would still have been beautiful. Rivers flowing, mangroves thriving, the beach, and the sea. We could have some income from tourism, and that way too, everyone can enjoy nature,” said Julida.
Common to the worldview of Orang Asli, looking after the land doesn’t only reflect back on themselves. It also reflects back on us as a whole, within this shared space of a home: Are we still humankind, if we are unkind to the land that raised us?
The unpredictable seasons, raging thunderstorms, floods, human-wildlife conflicts, and diseases afflict everyone and are not isolated to people whose lives depend on the land. Ultimately, we are within the cycle of nature and are not above it, in which reciprocity is central within this cycle and whereby our wellbeing depends on – and our actions determine – the health of the land.
This thought piece was written upon return from fieldwork with Dr Rusaslina of University Malaya for her research on Mah Meri foodways.