The Orang Asli peoples are near 140,000 in number and belong to 14 ethnic tribes. Human rights activists have insisted that the Orang Asli, among Malaysia`s poorest citizens, be granted ownership of their ancestral lands which their people have occupied for thousands of years. This important government concession comes after years of forced eviction from their lands to make way for development projects.
"This is the first time in history that the Orang Asli will have land ownership titles," said Jaafar Jantan, a spokesperson for the government`s Organ Asli Affairs Department. "It will help them to generate a good income and give them a better future."
The authorities plan to plant rubber and palm oil crops on these lands which the Orang Asli will eventually cultivate. The land titles will likely become official in 2009, Jaafar said.
However, the struggles for customary Orang Asli lands continue despite hopeful progress. Reporting for the Malaysia Star Online, Sarban Singh and C.S. Nathan write that lands customarily used by indigenous families from the Temuan tribe living in a state-defined aboriginal reserve are being developed and destroyed.
"We depend on the land and the forest for our livelihood. How are we to earn a living or feed our families when outsiders come in here and just destroy our crops? Many of the fruit trees and herbs we use for medicinal purposes have been cleared by these trespassers. Even the Temiang trees from which we make blowpipes for hunting were felled," said village head Tok Batin Uval Bujang.
Even though the tribe has been cultivating forest products from their customary lands for decades, some of the lands fall outside of the reserve. Despite petitioning local and national government officials to recognize these lands as also being owned by the Orang Asli, the area continues to be cleared for development and crops. State Orang Asli Affairs Department director Bakar Unus stated: "We can`t do anything much because the customary land or tanah saka does not belong to them. From what we understand, the state authorities had given out the plots to be worked on by other parties," he said.
A local assemblyman Cha Kee Chin supports the Orang Asli plight stating: "What they want is just to stop others from clearing the land of crops they have cultivated for decades as well as from destroying ancestral graves located in the area. The forest is their livelihood and I feel we should at least respect that."