“They kill the world the way they live,” a Batek shaman says about the modern, industrializing, high-tech society of the Malays that surrounds their forest homeland in Malaysia. The attitudes of peaceful societies toward their natural environments are often important facets of their overall approaches to life. A recent journal article explores the values and practices of the Batek with regard to their forests.
Lye Tuck-Po, author of a fine book about the Batek and their forests reviewed here over a year ago, explains that the Batek view themselves as upriver people of the forest, in contrast to the downriver agrarian Malays. Part of Batek mythology focuses on the horrible ends that befall innocent forest people who stray downriver toward the violent Malays. The land of the Malays is land where the forest has been destroyed, where the indigenous trees no longer are allowed to grow.
Their cosmos and worldviews are tied up in their protective forest cover. Their spirits may dwell in the forest canopy, or on sacred stone pillars that are reminiscent of the emergent treetops. In their origin myth, half of the original people became trees so that the remaining people would have enough to eat. Trees and people, thus, share a common identity and history. Continuing careful harvesting of trees, they believe, recycles the plant nutrients through the people and back to the forest.
But the loss of trees and the forest, through wasteful logging practices and the conversion to agriculture, cuts people off from their origins. It destroys the earth deity below and shows superhumans that people are out to destroy the world. Destroying the forest kills the homes superhumans as well as people, and it shows them that the people have rejected them.
The Batek place a lot of importance on their forest stewardship. The forest world will survive and thrive, they feel, as long as the superhumans remain satisfied with the things that people are doing. That is, people like the Batek need to continue to live in and utilize safely the forest, carefully “observing the moral codes and playing their part in receiving knowledge and looking after the forest” (p.257).
Lye Tuck-Po concludes that, for the Batek, the forest is a social environment. Human stewardship is absolutely necessary, and the forest could not exist without the involvement of caring humans. The author does not accept the concept that separating humans from forests may be necessary—the Batek challenge that approach. They are, she says, “first and last, ‘people of the forest’” (p.258).
Lye, Tuck-Po. 2005. “The Meanings of Trees: Forest and Identity for the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia.” The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 6(3): 249-261