Malaysia: Promote equitable, sustainable development of Orang Asli indigenous people

Maritime Fairtrade speaks to Mia Yusri, field office manager, Global Peace Foundation Malaysia, about her work to help Malaysia’s indigenous people. Mia is from the Jahut tribe, one of the Orang Asli indigenous people living in Pahang, Malaysia. Initially, she found inspiration from her father, and spearheaded a social movement to help indigenous people in her twenties. After a decade, she still remains resilient and steadfast in her belief.

Mia Yusri, field office manager, Global Peace Foundation MalaysiaPhoto credit: Global Peace Foundation Malaysia

“In Malaysia, the Aboriginal Peoples Act stands as a beacon of hope, with its preamble declaring a mission to safeguard, uplift, and propel forward the indigenous communities. The true essence of this legislation, however, has regrettably been constrained by narrow interpretations and limited implementations, often favoring the interests of authorities,” Mia told Maritime Fairtrade. 

“During my tenure as the vice president of Jaringan Orang Asal Youth Networks from 2013 to 2016, I actively participated in various events to share our ideology and fight for the indigenous people’s rights. Whether as a panelist in a discussion, supporting a protest, organizing a series of events, or representing our movement in meetings with ministers, I was constantly left with a sense of something profoundly absent in my existence. But I was unaware of what was lacking within me.”

Recognizing that the difference between her and her team’s leadership was widening, she decided to leave and take a break, reflecting on her professional future. This was when her friend told her about Global Peace, which is dedicated to empower the Orang Asli communities.

“Initially, I had some reservations. I have always believed that indigenous communities should lead our own advocacy efforts. It was somewhat perplexing to discover that an organization dedicated to supporting our communities was founded by a Malaysian Chinese individual. To compound my initial confusion, I erroneously referred to the founder as Dr. Tek instead of his correct name, Dr. Teh,” she said.

The job interview shattered Mia’s skeptical mindset and she found that she shared similar values with Dr. Teh, the founder.

Indigenous people live precariously within or on the edges of palm oil plantations and forests, and depend on farming, forest gathering and hunting for a livelihood. It is a life fraught with uncertainty as they navigate the delicate balance between their traditional ways and the anthropogenic environmental threats.

At times, complex land ownership disputes forced the indigenous communities to move away from their ancestral lands. They are often relocated to areas devoid of lush forests or where the land is significantly degraded. This not only deprived them of their homeland but also disrupted their traditional livelihoods which are deeply intertwined with the forest ecosystem. For the indigenous people, it is a loss on multiple fronts – emotionally, culturally, and economically.

Indigenous people’s village.

Self-sustainability

“The implementation of the Movement Control Order during the Covid-19 pandemic served as a pivotal moment, prompting us to acknowledge the necessity for a dedicated Farming Team. In spite of owning a modest farm, we recognized its lack of sustainability. Eventually, we resolved to adopt the syntropic farming approach and facilitate indigenous communities in their journey towards self-sustainability,” Mia said.

When asked why Global Peace chose the syntropic farming method specifically, Mia replied: “The tenets of syntropic farming empower agriculturists to emulate the natural rejuvenation processes inherent in forests, thereby fostering a dynamic and successional ecosystem. By planting in accordance with strata and succession, the plot can maximize sunlight utilization and bolster synergistic interactions between various species and the soil. In essence, an increase in plant life equates to greater sunlight absorption, which subsequently accelerates soil regeneration.”

The indigenous community was taught how to install a water filtration system called LifeStraw Family 2. 0. This user-friendly water purification device is capable of eliminating 99. 99% of bacteria, ensuring safe and clean drinking water.

Lack of essential services

Indigenous people’s villages are still deprived of essential amenities and there is a lack of paved roads, electricity, clean water supply, and sanitation services and facilities. The rights to safe potable water and proper sanitation facilities are globally acknowledged as fundamental human rights, as stipulated under Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.

“While many of us relish the comfort of air conditioning and savor iced tea on sweltering days, numerous indigenous communities, particularly women and girls, are compelled to devote hours each day to the arduous task of fetching water from distant sources. This laborious duty is not only time-intensive but also imposes a significant physical burden on them,” Mia said.

In an effort to improve water accessibility, Global Peace has introduced solar-powered water pumps at the villages’ water sources. By utilizing a DC-powered submersible water pump with solar panels and establishing poly-pipe connections from the water source to each household, families now have direct access to water from their homes. Global Peace is also working to bring a water filtration system to the villages and to educate on personal hygiene and sanitation.

Mia said: “I am truly grateful for this job, especially as it allows me to deeply connect with indigenous communities. My past experience involved liaising with tribal leaders and addressing their concerns, yet I yearned for a deeper understanding of their core challenges.”

Working closely with the community in her role at Global Peace, Mia has gained a deeper understanding of grassroots challenges, which and this has deepened her commitment to uplift the indigenous communities. 

“This role is a precious gift that enables me to do just that. I pledge to honor this responsibility, continually reaffirming my commitment and dedication.”

All photos credit: Global Peace Foundation Malaysia

Top photo: Teaching indigenous children about personal hygiene and sanitation, including how to brush their teeth and wash their hands with soap.

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