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Authorities in Perak State recently sent bulldozers into an ancient rain forest near a Semai community in northern Malaysia to clear land for a proposed National Botanical Garden.

The Semai protested. An Orang Asli group living in the kampong (village) of Chang Sungai Gepai, northern Perak, they number about 600 people in one account and 1,000 in another. The villagers consider the area designated for the garden project to be part of their historic, ancestral lands to which they feel they should have title.

Tijah Yok Chopil, a resident of the village, said the project would harm their traditions and homes, and would turn them into tourist attractions. They do not want it. She commented, “The authorities say this project will benefit us. But if it only means that visitors will come here to view the forest and look at the villagers as though we are animals in a zoo, then that’s not a benefit at all.” The village is just over a mile from the proposed garden.

When the community launched an official protest, the construction was stopped a few days after it had started. The government of Perak has indicated that it won’t resume work until the matter has been resolved with the Orang Asli community.

The Perak Chief Minister, Tajol Rosli Ghazali, speaking to reporters last Saturday at the groundbreaking for a new hotel in Ipoh, the capitol of Perak, stressed that talks would be held with the Semai villagers and that they would be offered jobs in the new facility once it is built. His government has not offered them any compensation for the land, and the government will not discuss the land title issue. It is adamant that the land belongs to the state.

The Chief Minister said that the proposed park would boost the economy of the area. He said that the land occupied by the village was, in fact, part of the Bukit Tapah forest preserve and that part of the land had been designated for the proposed arboretum. He told the national news agency, Bernama, that “I have a lot of respect for the Orang Asli because I’ve had a close relationship with them since I was (young). I can give and take, but I cannot compromise ….”

He said that the government did not intend to prevent the Semai from entering the land, and as long as they didn’t cut any trees, they “can take whatever they want from the forest.” Apparently, 92 ha of the forest will be converted into the arboretum. He said that the project was patterned after the Botanical Garden in Vancouver.

The state planned the garden to be close to the Semai community because of the attractive natural surroundings. It seemed like a good location. He said the government wanted to provide jobs for the Semai people.

However, the Chief Minister told reporters that if the problem with the Semai has not been resolved by May, the proposed arboretum would be moved to a different location. One can suspect that recent court victories by the Orang Asli in some land rights disputes, analyzed a few months ago in a journal article by Alice M. Nah, may be having an impact on the willingness of Malaysian governments to consider the Semai viewpoints.