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CAREY ISLAND, Malaysia (Reuters Life!) - Their artworks have been recognized as part of the world's heritage and can fetch thousands of dollars in auctions, but the Mah Meri tribe, and their wood carving tradition, are increasingly falling victim to Malaysia's lucrative palm oil industry.
Any hope for the Mah Meri, who are known as the "people of the forest", to create their prized wood carvings lies with them getting access to a few mangrove swamps that still stand within the oil palm estates on the 32,000-acre Carey island in central Malaysia -- an area twice the size of Manhattan.
But guards patrolling the estates do not always let them in, threatening a tradition that the United Nation's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has lauded as well as styming the development of larger works that can fetch up to $100,000 at art auctions.
"Palm oil has given us development but it should not change our way of life," woodcarver Gali Adam said as he etched out an elaborate figurine from a block of the rare nyireh batu wood at his small workshop on the island.
"In the past, we would go in to the mangroves and make offerings to the spirits and get their permission to cut down just one tree. Now we have to get written permission from the estate manager before we can do anything."
One of 18 tribes collectively referred to as "Orang Asli" or Original Peoples in mainland Malaysia, the Mah Meri have lived on the island for more than 400 years, long before plantations came in the late 19th century.
The tribe amounts to about 3,000 of Malaysia's 28 million population. Of that, just 30 Mah Meri woodcarvers in a rustic village of thatched houses ply their trade in figurines, which are modeled after ancestral spirits.
At the corner of Gali's workshop, lies a one-foot statue of the crocodile spirit - a ferocious creature in human form with a thorny tail that is believed to ward off evil spirits.
The wood carvings are also used to heal illnesses. When a member of the tribe is sick, the family makes a carving of the spirit causing the ailment and gives it to the shaman who "transfers" the illness to the figurine and casts it out to sea.
"These carvings help us live. If you don't want the wind to blow away your roof, you carve a tornado spirit, if you want safety when at sea, there is the anchor spirit," Pion Bumbon, a master woodcarver in his 60s, said.
Art collectors prize the larger wooden statues that show off the rich reddish-brown coloring and fine grain of the batu nyireh, a species of mahogany tree that is already listed as endangered in Singapore.
One plantation firm on the island, Sime Darby has stepped up to conserve the tree species that takes more than 15 years to mature. The firm has tried to replant seedlings grown by tissue culture, officials say.
"We are not an evil palm oil company. There are some plantations that have not been sustainable but we do believe in helping to keep these traditions alive," a Sime Darby official who declined to be named due to company policy, said.
(Additional reporting by Angie Teo)
Editing by Miral Fahmy