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[Photos] How One of Malaysia’s Last Nomadic Tribes Suffers From Societal Neglect

The semi-nomadic Batek, who live in Kuala Koh Village beside Peninsular Malaysia’s Taman Negara National Park, made global headlines recently after their community was torn apart by pollution, disease and, ultimately, societal neglect.

Over the last few months, 15 Batek have died, with officials pointing to a multitude of causes. Exactly what caused the deaths depends on who you ask: pneumonia, measles, water pollution and deforestation have all been blamed. While the former illnesses have been diagnosed, the wider picture is not quite so clear.

One of the country’s most marginalized indigenous groups, the Batek have lived in the region for around 60,000 years. They depend on the native forest to maintain their traditional way of life, yet encroaching palm oil plantations have undermined their ability to source food, leaving them malnourished and susceptible to disease.

Community leader Mohamad Pokok, however, told Urbanist Hanoi that he believes an illegal manganese mine that looms beside their village has polluted their water sources. Long-term consumption of manganese can cause damage to a person’s brain, liver, heart and other vital organs. The results from recent water tests, which found extremely high levels of metal in the community’s water sources, suggest he may be right.

According to Dr. Steven Chow, a dermatologist and president of Malaysia's Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations, numerous factors contributed to the disaster.

“This tragedy is the result of a perfect storm — where socio-economic pressures on an indigenous hunter-gatherer community, environmental degradation, disparity and inequality of basic healthcare needs and disease have culminated in preventable deaths and suffering in a community left behind,” he said in a statement.

“Clearly, as indicated by numerous observers, there is just not enough jungle now in that area to sustain the Batek’s traditional way of life. It is a death trap. Their land has been taken away for commercial activities. Year by year, the land area for their livelihood shrinks. We cannot lay the blame on them or their lifestyle. We should look for where and how the system has failed.”

See more below:

The Batek are a semi-nomadic, indigenous Malaysian tribe.

Members of Kuala Koh Village, including Mohamad Pokok (second from right).

Girls from the village walk down to a stream to collect water.

A worker in the mine begins sorting through rocks.

Health officials and NGO workers come to investigate the mine.

Water, Land and Natural Resources Deputy Minister Tengku Zulpuri Shah Raja Puji gives a speech during a visit.

Community Leader Mohamad Pokok takes water samples for testing.

Fish drying in the sun.

Much of the native forest the Batek depend on has been turned into palm oil plantations.

Deforestation is rampant in Kelantan State.

A young Batek boy plays with a slingshot.

Villagers playing guitar and singing together.

Water purifying units were installed in the village, but have long been broken.

Children look on as a digger clears the entrance to their village.

Kids watching machinery at work in the mine.

A mother and her child.


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