A recent Reuters dispatch provides a brief update about the Batek, a peaceful society that still manages to hold on to its nomadic ways despite encroachments by outsiders. Major challenges faced by the Batek, according to the article, are development and deforestation. However, the Batek may soon have no other option than to abandon a wandering, gathering, fishing, and hunting subsistence lifestyle.
Hamdan Keladi, a headman of one Batek band, told the reporter, “we are just guardians of the forest and we cannot take more than we need. 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 30 families in the band that he leads are now living just outside the Kuala Koh National Park in Kelantan state, where they have cleared the land for a more permanent village. The reporter describes village houses with their thatched roofs, children playing in the clearing, and men heading into the forest to hunt with their blowpipes and machetes. There are about 1,000 Batek in northern Malaysia.
But the buffer zone forests around the national park are threatened by a logging proposal, now under consideration by the state government. If allowed, the logging would add silt to the rivers of the region and might affect the Batek.
The reporter considers the efforts by the state government to educate the Batek children, who are encouraged to attend a boarding school a couple hours drive from Hamdan’s village. The ones that do go are teased by the other children because they look different. The Batek are one of the Negrito groups, people who are smaller than the Malays with more wiry hair.
Ani, a Batek mother of three, said she only plans to send her first son to school. The children who do go to school, she said, “are always homesick and get teased because they don’t look like the other children, and because some enter school late and cannot read as well as the others.”
Hamdan, the headman, is accorded the title “Tok Batin,” which can be translated as “spiritual elder,” according to the article. He is especially knowledgeable about the traditions of his community. Julio Edo, a Semai who became an anthropologist at the University of Malaya, believes that it is essential for the Orang Asli (original peoples) of the country to continue to have their own leaders, who will preserve the indigenous knowledge of their groups.
Hamdan is conscious of the fact that 10 other nomadic Batek bands are aware that his group has settled into a village situation. “Most of the others are still in the forest, watching us to see whether it’s worth it for them to join us,” he said.