GUA MUSANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - For thousands of years, Malaysia's nomadic Batek tribe have roamed the country's ancient tropical rainforests, completely at one with their natural habitat.
But now the Batek's traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle is under severe threat from deforestation and development, and mainland Malaysia's last nomadic community may soon have no choice but to abandon their traditional life and settle down.
"We are just guardians of the forest and we cannot take more than we need," said Hamdan Keladi, a Batek headman in Gua Musang district about 500 km (310 miles) northeast of Kuala Lumpur.
"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 plight of the Batek is not unique.
The United Nations has warned that the impact of deforestation and desertification could displace 50 million people globally by next year and will address the issue at its climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.
The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization's Global Forest Resource Assessment 2005 report said the rate of negative change in the extent of Malaysia's primary forests increased to 140,000 hectares per year between 2000 and 2005, from 78,000 hectares between 1990 and 2000.
With their habitat shrinking, Hamdan leads 30 families who for the past year have set up a village they hope to call home in a clearing next to the entrance of the Kuala Koh National Park in the northeastern peninsular Malaysian state of Kelantan.
The village is a collection of about 30 dwellings with thatched roofs and flattened bamboo strips. Children play in a clearing, watched over by the womenfolk while the men head off into the thick forest each daybreak to hunt for birds, barefoot and armed with blowpipes and machetes.
Census figures vary but experts say there are about 1,000 Batek, spread out in the forests of Kelantan and neighboring states.
The Batek are part of the Negrito, peninsular Malaysia's last indigenous community categorized as semi-nomadic.
Collectively referred to as "Orang Asli," or Original Peoples, peninsular Malaysia's indigenous communities make up about 150,000 of the country's 27 million population.
THREATENED BY DEVELOPMENT
Apart from expanding towns, the Orang Asli habitat is also threatened by palm oil, one of Malaysia's main export industries.
Malaysia is the world's second largest producer of palm oil, and Hamdan's village, located at the edge of the national park, is surrounded by plantations.
According to the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, an indigenous community non-governmental organization, land belonging to the indigenous community in peninsular Malaysia is presently less than 19,000 hectares.
Another pressing threat is logging.
The 1,048 square km national park Hamdan calls home, nearly 1.5 times the size of Singapore, is off limits to all forms of development. But officials say logging companies have long eyed the park's buffer zones rich in valuable timber.
Abdul Rasit Mat Amin from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks said there is a proposal before the Kelantan state government to conduct logging near the park's buffer zone.
If approved, it would lead to siltation of the river the Batek rely on.
"The river flows right through Kelantan state to the capital of Kota Baru, which is often flooded. If the river here is jeopardized, it is likely that flooding could get worse," said Abdul Rasit.
INTEGRATION OR ASSIMILATION?
Early efforts at settling down haven't been easy for the Batek.
Batek children are encouraged to attend school, and the government provides aid to enable the children from the village to attend a boarding school two hours drive from the village. But only 12, or about half the village's children, enrolled.
"They 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," said Ani, a mother of three who only plans to send her first-born son to school.
Despite pre-dating all other ethnic groups in Malaysia, experts say the rich heritage of the indigenous communities is not given enough attention in the government's policy of encouraging the country's Orang Asli to settle down and integrate with mainstream society.
"The government wants educated Orang Asli to lead the community, but the people also need those with indigenous knowledge to lead them," said Juli Edo, an anthropologist and Orang Asli expert at the University of Malaya.
Headman Hamdan, whose title "Tok Batin" roughly translates as "Spiritual Elder," possesses in-depth knowledge of the community's traditions.
There are 10 other Batek headmen, each leading encampments spread out in the forests of Kelantan and its neighboring states of Terengganu and Pahang. Some have settled in a permanent settlement set up by the government outside the national park.
"But most of the others are still in the forest, watching us to see whether it's worth it for them to join us," said Hamdan.
(Reporting by Razak Ahmad; Editing by Sugita Katyal)
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