FOR hundreds of years, the Orang Asli roamed the jungles of the Malay peninsula that provided all they needed for a living.
Modernity crept in, turning jungles into villages that turned into towns, and the Orang Asli retreated further and deeper into the humid embrace of their jungle home.
But for at least one Jakun tribe in Pahang, their source of livelihood now is a jungle turned into a landfill, a stench-filled tip that yields a fortune of recyclable stuff among the dangerous rubbish dumped there.
The 60 families, including children as young as two, work at this landfill in Bukit Ibam, near Muadzam Shah, oblivious to the danger of unknown chemicals or broken glass among the tonnes of rubbish strewn there.
This was what photojournalist S.C. Shekar saw when he went there to research for his latest book, Rivers of Malaysia, and to document the lives of the Orang Asli there a year ago.
“Most of these communities have been displaced from their original ancestral lands deep in the rainforests because of logging and mining activities.
“With their main source of food and water contaminated by these activities, there has been a mass exodus of our Orang Asli to the periphery of the jungles close to towns where they struggle to assimilate into mainstream society,” says Shekar in an open letter to friends recently.
The group in Bukit Ibam numbers about 250 men, women and children who have to resort to scavenging.
“Entire families have moved into the periphery of a rubbish dump and landfill site to scavenge for recyclable materials which they then sell to traders for a measly pittance, hardly enough to feed themselves, let alone their families.
“What is even worse is that children from as young as two to 15 have also been recruited to scavenge with their families,” says Shekar, adding that these children don’t go to school, get proper nutrition or any medical assistance.
“It is also unknown how many of these children have been vaccinated.”
The children treat the landfill as a playground and run around barefoot among the rubbish and are often injured by broken glass, rusty tin cans and other sharp objects.
“I have personally seen hazardous medical waste like syringes and other items contaminated by blood as well. As you might imagine, there is no drinking water or even water to wash themselves properly every day.”
Having shot pictures of this tribe this past year, Shekar says the situation is distressing and has called friends and government to solve the situation.
“Remember, these are Malaysians and contrary to what our government says, abject poverty is still alive in our country.” – February 14, 2020.