The twentieth-century spread of the timber, rubber and palm-oil industries through the interior had a huge impact upon the region’s Orang Asli, who were traditionally nomadic peoples living by hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture. These days many have been forced to settle down, existing at the fringes of the cash economy (a transition steered in large part by the government’s Department of Orang Asli Affairs). The mountain-dwelling Temiar, for instance, trade in forest products such as herbal medicines and, increasingly, timber (though their logging activities are minimal compared with those of the State Forestry Department). Some Batek do still live fairly traditional lives at Taman Negara, where you might meet shy groups walking in single file along forest trails, or come across their temporary vine-and-forest-brush shelters in jungle clearings.

However, three-quarters of Orang Asli peoples (including many local Batek, Senoi and Semang) live below the poverty line, compared to less than a tenth of the population as a whole. That fact makes it all the harder for them to confront the many forces, from planning agencies to Christian and Muslim groups, who seek to influence their destiny. The issue of land rights is among their gravest problems, for while the country’s Aboriginal People’s Act has led to the creation of Orang Asli reserves, at the same time many Asli traditional areas have been gazetted as state land, rendering the inhabitants there, at best, tolerated guests of the government.

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