The Semai continue to lose their lands to state-sanctioned developers in Malaysia, but they are learning to defend themselves—with maps. A story on Tuesday this week in The Star Online from Malaysia covers the threat posed to the Semai villagers of Kg Chang Lama, in Bidor, Perak State, from a massive agricultural development scheme being pushed by the State Agricultural Development Corporation (SADC). The Semai villagers are taking strong counter-measures to defend their rights.

The contentious 486 ha agricultural project was launched in 2003 with a 60 year contract signed by SADC and a private firm, Kg Poh Plantations, which gained the rights from the state to clear land for planting. Part of the area to be cleared for agriculture is forested land that customarily has been owned and used by the Semai community.

When the company encroached on 80 ha of Semai lands in November 2003, the Semai protested, forcing the temporary suspension of the project. The Semai contend that the agricultural project was destroying forests that they have traditionally relied upon for their food, medicines, and building supplies. The resolution to the protest will be surveys that will establish the boundaries of the Semai lands.

An advocacy group, Sinui Pai Nenek Sungik (SPNS), assisted the Semai in preparing a sketch map of their customary lands, 7,200 ha, which included a core area, 120 ha of homes and gardens. The map showed their water sources in the forest, their hunting grounds, and areas they considered to be of spiritual importance.

Not surprisingly, the State Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) dismissed their arguments, maintaining that the Semai claim to about 20 ha of land per family was too much. The department indicated that it will send in its own surveyors to allocate lands for the village. The resolution of the matter, in other words, comes down to mapping.

In response, SPNS organized a week-long mapping workshop in the village to teach the people of the Orang Asli community how to make maps using GPS devices and GIS programs on computers. The trainer at the workshop, Adrian Lasimbang, believes that native maps showing their land-use patterns can be effective bargaining tools to use when negotiating with government agencies and developers with their maps. “We have an oral tradition,” he said. “We don’t record things on paper but we carry a mental map. Community-mapping is to transfer this map in our mind onto paper.”

Colin Nicholas, Coordinator of the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, visited the site and found that the land-clearing was taking place on steep slopes that will be susceptible to erosion. His assessment: “Before, [the Semai] were losing their rights to sources of livelihood but there was still hope as the forest was regenerating. But now, they are losing their land for good. There is nothing to hope for unless they resist the encroachment.”

The coordinator of SPNS, Rizuan Tempek, agrees. “Our lives are so closely related to the land that any destruction will have a negative impact on our survival. We hope the maps will serve as tools to uphold our rights to the land.”