Bringing awareness of sustainability to Malaysia’s indigenous tribe

In conjunction with International Zero Waste Month 2024, the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) organized a candle-making workshop for the Mah Meri tribe, one of the indigenous tribes of Malaysia, at Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Dua, on Pulau Ketam.

Watch the video here.

The workshop, attended by 17 villagers, mostly mothers and their children, was intended to bring awareness of the concept of sustainability and recycling to the indigenous tribe, through the process of making candles using recycled cooking oil collected by the mothers.

“Once we gather the used cooking oil,” Kristy Goh from MNS Conservation explained, “we meticulously filter it multiple times to ensure there is no residue before using it to create our scented candles.” The filtered oil was then blended with rose-scented drops to eliminate any odor. 

Some children brought crayons to be used as coloring for the candles. “To ensure a safe and enjoyable experience, we request young ones to choose their favorite color and gently place it in the transparent glass container. We will assist them in pouring the wax into the container,” Goh said. “This precautionary measure is taken because of the higher temperature of the wax, allowing our little artists to express their creativity while avoiding any potential accidents.” After that, the children placed wicks as the wax cooled.

“In Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Dua, resources are limited,” said Goh. “Thus, repurposing waste materials such as used cooking oil for candle making is a practical and cost-effective approach for the Mah Meri indigenous community. This approach not only minimizes waste but also utilizes readily available resources, contributing to a more sustainable community.”

Mah Meri children.

Candle making.

Colorful candles.

Although the villagers regularly collect rubbish, segregate them in a community-built recycling station and transport them to designated collection points, it is a losing battle as there is an ever-increasing accumulation of waste but infrequent collection and disposal by the relevant authority. 

As the tribe is located on an island, boats are needed to take away the rubbish but shallow water hinders the docking and access of larger boats. Additionally, tides also bring in more rubbish from neighboring islands to their shores.

On Pulau Ketam, rubbish comes from the main village, which is located on the southern side; Kampung Bagan Sungai Lima, situated on the northeastern side; Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Dua, located at the second inlet; and tourists.

Goh recognized the difficulty of rubbish collection and that there is a lack of consistent commitment from the government. She believed the solution lies in the adoption of zero waste practices by the villagers.

The jetty at Kampung Orang Asli Sungai Dua.

Rubbish seen during low tides.

Rubbish seen during low tides.

The village head has designed these creative recycling bins to inspire children to segregate their rubbish and dispose of it in the bins instead of allowing it to end up in the ocean.

In the Mah Meri language, the term Mah Meri literally means jungle people. However, the villagers are also known as Orang Laut, the sea people as their settlements are near the seaside and most of them work as fishermen. According to historical accounts, they migrated from the islands in southern Johor to the coastal shores of Selangor to escape from their enemies. 

“We (MNS) aspire to empower the Mah Meri community by offering a DIY candle workshop. This workshop not only generates income but also promotes environmental consciousness and encourages sustainable practices. By providing valuable economic opportunities, this initiative contributes to the growth and development of the community,” Goh said.

“It is of utmost importance to bear in mind that the opportunity to make a positive contribution is never beyond our reach. Therefore, let us proceed with prudence and handle our used cooking oil wisely, rather than disposing it without due consideration.”

Watch the video here.

All photos credit: AnnJil Chong

Top photo: The children are patiently waiting for their turn to experience the candle DIY process.

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