Malaysia's oldest nomads struggle to find a home

Thu Nov 5, 2009 9:03pm EST
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By Razak Ahmad

GUA MUSANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - For thousands of years, Malaysia's nomadic Batek tribe have roamed the country's ancient tropical rainforests, completely at one with their natural habitat.

But now the Batek's traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle is under severe threat from deforestation and development, and mainland Malaysia's last nomadic community may soon have no choice but to abandon their traditional life and settle down.

"We are just guardians of the forest and we cannot take more than we need," said Hamdan Keladi, a Batek headman in Gua Musang district about 500 km (310 miles) northeast of Kuala Lumpur.

"But town people come here and take everything like the trees and pollute the river with development, so I don't know how long we can continue to roam the forests."

The plight of the Batek is not unique.

The United Nations has warned that the impact of deforestation and desertification could displace 50 million people globally by next year and will address the issue at its climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization's Global Forest Resource Assessment 2005 report said the rate of negative change in the extent of Malaysia's primary forests increased to 140,000 hectares per year between 2000 and 2005, from 78,000 hectares between 1990 and 2000.

With their habitat shrinking, Hamdan leads 30 families who for the past year have set up a village they hope to call home in a clearing next to the entrance of the Kuala Koh National Park in the northeastern peninsular Malaysian state of Kelantan.   Continued...

<p>A family from the Batek tribe walk to their village next to the entrance of Kuala Koh National Park in the northeastern Peninsular Malaysian state of Kelantan October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Zainal Abd Halim</p>