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The Orang Asli, the Original People of Peninsular Malaysia, have linguistic, ancestral, and spiritual ties to the land that allow them to effectively manage and conserve their natural resources. The Semai, Batek, Chewong, and other Orang Asli peoples “live in areas that are rich in biodiversity,” according to Colin Nicholas, and outsiders, such as loggers, developers, and settlers, do not share their traditional ties to the land.

Nicholas presented his ideas in a paper, “Biodiversity, Local Livelihoods, and the Link with Culture, Politics, and Development,” that he prepared for the 10th International Congress for Ethnobiology, organized by the International Society of Ethnobiologists and held in Chiang Rai, Thailand, November 6 – 9, 2006. He has made his paper available on the website of his organization, the Center for Orang Asli Concerns.

He argues that the Orang Asli societies maintain close, symbolic relationships with their natural environments, and both their cultural and physical survival depends on their using the resources that they also help maintain. Their knowledge of natural processes is closely tied to their worldviews—their spiritual beliefs, psychological characteristics, languages, and cultures.

Their holistic knowledge of the forest environment does not necessarily mean that there is a correlation between indigenous societies having control over their natural resources and the preservation of biodiversity. That would be an oversimplification. Indigenous societies tend to be economic pragmatists regarding their resources. The approach that these societies take is not destructive, but it also is not necessarily oriented toward conservation goals.

The nature of their management depends on whether they subsist on a resource or only use it for trade purposes. They tend to have much stronger feelings of ownership toward resources on which they have subsisted for centuries than toward resources such as non-timber products from the forest that they use as trade goods. Since demand for trade goods, such as rattan that they gather in the forest, may rise and fall with market conditions, they have not developed as strong a set of management beliefs and practices for them as they have with their food and survival products. This pattern is not unique to the Orang Asli—it is a worldwide phenomenon among indigenous peoples.

Nicholas argues that there are many connections between the cultures and social structures of indigenous societies and their resource management practices. The Orang Asli peoples are able to diffuse internal conflicts, such as disputes over land or problems with community approaches to the management of resources, with traditional conflict resolution techniques (see Robarchek 1989 for a good example of this). But threats from external users of their resources are harder for them to deal with. When outsiders appropriate their lands and resources, that clearly threatens the social systems and survival of the Orang Asli. These external actors are not just commercial users. Government bodies, with their agendas of trying to subvert Orang Asli beliefs, are also destroying their social and cultural systems.

Nicholas also maintains that scientific conservation approaches to the management of the land are based on western values, not on those of the Orang Asli. The conservation strategies of the Orang Asli are founded on their traditional uses, their spiritual obligations, and their social patterns, such as, he writes, “among other things, respect for traditional leaders, human dignity, and the observance of cultural norms…”

He decries the approach advocated by some western-based conservationists of wanting to exclude the Orang Asli from critical conservation areas because their traditional uses appear to be “unsustainable.” He questions the vague meaning of the term “sustainable.” Sustainable for whom, at what cost, and for how long, he asks. The term projects meanings that may not really suggest just and equitable land uses for the traditional owners of the land.

Conservationists should recognize that resource stewardship by the Orang Asli represents probably the best way of maintaining the natural ecosystem of Peninsular Malaysia. If the native peoples are to continue protecting the land, conservationists must support their needs for adequate health care, education, rights to their resources, and land ownership. It is not enough for conservationists to focus just on the analytical tools of the social sciences. The Orang Asli must also be viewed “through the lenses of culture and politics,” he argues.

He concludes his paper with the thought that sustaining biodiversity and natural resources can be best achieved through understanding the social, political, cultural, and physical characteristics of indigenous societies. He compares cultural diversity to biodiversity—both can be considered as resources. And, he concludes, “we should … recognize that not only is biodiversity being threatened today, but that cultural diversity (and traditional knowledge) is as much under threat today.”

This paper is one of many that Nicholas has put up on a website that also features current news about the Orang Asli societies, relevant publications, photos, and more.