Pandemic leaves indigenous rights at risk

IN Sarawak’s Sg Asap settlement, social distancing is near impossible.

This ramshackle town two hours east of Bintulu is home to thousands of indigenous people displaced in the early 2000s to make way for a mega-dam. Living in communal longhouses, often with bathrooms and kitchens shared among extended family, a Covid-19 outbreak would be disastrous for them.

Medical facilities here are already stretched, with one small clinic serving the 10,000-strong community.

“There’s only one ambulance.” said Miku Loyang, a local carver of poison blowpipes.

“If someone is sick enough to need an ambulance, they wait until another sick person comes along so that they’re not wasting the drive. Too bad if you’re having a heart attack.”

Further into Borneo’s interior, logging companies continue to extract timber, according to Penan headman Komeok Joe.

Sarawak is a world leader in tropical timber extraction, with 80% of its forests degraded within the last few decades. In 2010, more timber was exported from the state than all Latin American and African countries combined. The forests left standing, along with the staggering array of wildlife that call them home, remain thanks to communities like Komeok’s.

Unsurprisingly, logging has been classified as essential by the Sarawak government during the movement-control order (MCO), meaning potentially virus-carrying crews are still venturing into indigenous areas where medical supplies are non-existent.

“Ongoing logging will help spread the virus, and is, therefore, an immediate health threat to communities,” said Komeok.

This is especially risky in the many communities whose population is made up largely of retirees.

Remote communities would ordinarily protect their unceded land by putting their bodies on the line, forming a blockade between themselves and bulldozers, or by reporting illegal loggers to authorities. Under the MCO, indigenous villagers have been told to stay put. While a free-for-all is greenlighted for logging companies, resistance has come to a grinding halt.

In mid-March, Malaysia rolled out one of the swiftest shutdowns in Southeast Asia. The MCO has left many afraid to leave their homes even for essential reasons, with those who break the curfew facing heavy fines and up to six months in prison.

Kenyah leader Peter Kallang is concerned about how remote communities will cope with a complete shutdown.

“Indigenous communities need to travel to town to get coffee, milk powder, sugar, flour and tea. You can’t get these essentials from the jungle supermarket,” he said, referring to the hunting and gathering through which the majority of food is procured for Sarawak’s indigenous villages.

“Rural communities still need to travel to the nearest town to buy these things, even if doing so poses a threat to their safety”.

Seemingly lost in the Malaysian debate is the growing evidence that diseases such as Covid-19 emerge from the way humans interact with the natural world. It is not just a story of wayward bats or infected pangolins; the coronavirus crisis is a story of tropical rainforest destruction.

Zoonotic diseases like Covid-19 could be caused by the very industries that are being protected from a shutdown. These activities disturb the ecosystems where diseases live, forcing animals out and humans in, increasing interaction between species. Another pandemic caused by human and wildlife interaction is not far-fetched – Malaysia has already created one epidemic-level virus through environmental degradation and mismanagement. The 1998 Nipah outbreak has been linked to fruit bat displacement, with slash-and-burn deforestation to make way for industrial planting pushing the bats into areas with pig farms. This is also the plot of the movie Contagion.

If the coronavirus has shown us anything, it is that reality is stranger than fiction. Previously unthinkable social and economic upheaval has been legislated in a matter of hours all around the world. Rethinking how we treat our natural environment is not outside the realm of possibility. It might even be a moral imperative.

Outposts like Sg Asap are starting to receive rations, distributed via logging roads and helicopters by army and rescue personnel. Local politicians and civil society groups are receiving complaints about the distribution methods and a lack of information about who is eligible for what.

“Many hopefuls are not getting it,” DAP’s Senadin chief told The Borneo Post.

“This seems to be the case in both rural and town areas. We understand that the budget may not be enough for everyone to get a share.”

While limited rations are worrying, a crackdown on access to wild meat would be a much greater risk to indigenous food security. Although a shutdown of the wildlife trade and illegal sale of wild meat to people who have access to other proteins could help prevent health crises in the future, banning the capture and consumption of wild animals by subsistence hunters could leave indigenous communities malnourished. As in Sarawak, indigenous people all over the world rely on the forest as their main source of protein.

In response to calls from indigenous leaders to shut down destructive industries, many in Malaysia are pointing to the economic cost of doing so. The cost of leaving palm fruit to spoil would be immense, and the price of timber has reportedly dropped by nearly half within a matter of weeks. If these industries were to crumble, many would lose their jobs, especially the impoverished Indonesian workers on the bottom rung. But, these costs pale in comparison to the trillions that the coronavirus has wiped out from the global economy. Not to mention the loss of human life around the world.

As if the climate arguments for forest protection and restoration aren’t reason enough, it is hard to argue against the fact that the world can’t afford another coronavirus. Pandemics are bad for business, no matter what that business might be.

Covid-19 is hitting indigenous communities in Sarawak hard, even though thankfully, the virus has yet to reach them. To prevent the next devastating pandemic, policymakers need to be able to see the forest for the trees. Deforestation is a public health issue. We should halt the destruction of tropical rainforests as a matter of urgency, not exempting the very industries that create the problem.– April 14, 2020.

* Fiona McAlpine is communications and project manager for The Borneo Project.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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