The river named Ong Laba used to be a fishing spot, says Said. He knows because he used to fish there, at a point where the river runs near his village of Kampung Ong Jangking, an Orang Asli settlement in the forests of northern Peninsular Malaysia. There used to be flowing streams that fed into wide pools of water, amid large boulders mottled with sunlight filtered through trees.
A perfect spot to find lunch, or maybe take a bath.
For the indigenous Orang Asli who still live in Peninsular Malaysia's forests, clean rivers and healthy forests are not merely aesthetically pleasing. They serve life's basic necessities – food, water, building material, sanitation, even spirituality. Many of their rituals involve specific plants sourced from their environment.
A broken forest or river, means a part of their lives is broken.
Today, the Ong Laba river is shallow, its banks thick with the reddish sediment that is the trademark of logging activity. A sign that, somewhere upstream, the red-hued clay soil beneath the forest topsoil has been churned up. On one side of the river bank, where the land slopes up through secondary forest to where a logging road runs, the same red earth lines the seams of the roots and rocks.
He digs a finger into the sediment. It is reddish, smooth, and mud-like, unlike the greyish gravel and sand common in the other rivers. "The river, it's finished," he says.
He whips out a mobile phone and takes a few photos, documenting the damage. In a landscape far removed from urban centres, the experiences of Orang Asli communities like Kampung Ong Jangking have little hope of wider attention.
But village journalists like Said are making sure their stories will be told. With smartphones and digital cameras, they have been trekking along the rivers gathering evidence of the environmental damage brought by logging.
Suddenly, Said goes quiet. Beyond the trees, the sound of machinery interrupts the forest. It grows louder and louder, ominous and approaching. Said listens, almost in awe.
"That's them, another santaiwong is passing through."
The santaiwongs – loud, lumbering lorries that look like something out of a dystopian movie. They heave and hiss exhaust smoke as they grind up the logging roads into the forest, returning with stacks of logs as thick as the santaiwong's wheels, balanced on their carriage.
Said hurries on. He needs to record this.
This is not the first time Kampung Ong Jangking's village journalists have taken action. Their watershed moment was in 2019, when those same santaiwongs started passing through their ancestral land.
In protest, the village built a blockade on the logging road, at a point where it runs almost within sight of the Ong Laba river.
Made of sticks and branches, the blockade was a frail defence against the steel and diesel of the santaiwongs. So the Orang Asli themselves, women and children included, fortified it.
These markers of Orang Asli identity, now worn as symbols of resistance.
The key contention in this dispute was whether the land belonged to the Orang Asli. The forests they claimed to be protecting was gazetted as the Air Chepam Forest Reserve in 1992. In Malaysia, forest reserves can be earmarked as production forests for timber, which is what happened to the Air Chepam Forest Reserve. But the Orang Asli have always lived in and foraged these same forests, and claim it is part of their ancestral lands.
The standoff lasted days. After a period of negotiation, where state officers crossed over the blockade and tried to talk down the Orang Asli, the battle lines became clear. On one side, the Orang Asli wanted the forest protected. On the other, loggers and state agency officers wanted the logging to continue.
Even JAKOA, the Department for Orang Asli Development, the state agency charged with advancing the Orang Asli in Malaysia, stood on the side of the loggers.
The protestors were handcuffed, and the blockade was torn down with chainsaws.
No journalists were there, perhaps the story was too far off the asphalt roads that lead to the newsrooms in city centres. So the Orang Asli filmed and took photos on their own and sent them to activists. This successfully raised some media attention, which led to interventions from a federal minister calling for the arrested Orang Asli to be freed.
After that, the logging stopped. A monumental triumph for a tiny village of around 20 families.
But the reprieve was temporary. In June 2020, soon after COVID-19 movement controls were lifted, logging vehicles reappeared.
Before dawn, the people of Kampung Ong Jangking are already awake. In the pitch-dark, torchlight peeks out through the slits in the bamboo walls of the houses.
One man goes to fetch water from the nearby river. Two women start preparing breakfast.
Anjang, one of the community's leaders, calls out to the houses on the other side of the settlement. "I'm asking them to go watch the blockade," he says. Anjang is the talker of the village, one of the few who finished secondary school, and often takes the lead when communal action is needed.
The women arrive with coffee and tea, and fried meehoon.
But before they can finish, a santaiwong rumbles in the distance, and the men sprint off in its direction. The village journalists are off to document.
Since the logging vehicles returned in June 2020, this has become their routine. Every morning, they hide near the blockade and take photos and videos of logging company representatives tearing it down.
Then they document the procession of santaiwongs rumbling in and out of the forest, ferrying huge logs. In a notebook, Anjang lists down the time and description of each vehicle, while the others take photos and videos.
Although the blockade is built at the same spot they last made their stand in 2019, they are adopting a different strategy.
Instead of confronting the logging company, they are documenting how it is ignoring the Orang Asli's objections.
It might seem like a futile exercise, but this evidence could be crucial in court.
In past cases, Malaysian courts have ruled, based on common law principles and the Federal Constitution, that the Orang Asli are entitled native title rights to their ancestral lands, if they can prove the legitimacy of their claims in court.
In this matter, evidence of continuous assertion of control over the land is important. If you believe you own the land, surely you would defend it.
In past cases, evidence of assertion of control has helped Orang Asli communities win native title rights to their ancestral land in court.
Today, Anjang's stakeout is behind dense foliage, almost directly above the passing lorries, where the hill was cut off to make the logging road. Said's stakeout is on the opposite side, on the next hill. There should be no need for subterfuge, but they remember the arrests during the last blockade when their mobile phones and motorcycles were confiscated by the authorities. They want to avoid a repeat.
Whenever they hear an approaching santaiwong, they call out to each other. Mobile phones are quickly strapped to makeshift tripods fashioned from branches, and in an instant they disappear behind the foliage.
Said has strapped a leaf in front of his phone for added camouflage. Anjang has his notebook and pen ready.
Then the forest sounds return, until the next lorry passes. In the evening, after the loggers call it a day, the Orang Asli rebuild the blockade.
In July 2020, soon after the COVID-19 movement control order was lifted, logging activities resumed in the forests near the Orang Asli settlements of Kampung Ong Jangking and Sungai Papan.
In response, the Orang Asli built blockades on the logging road, to protest the deforestation and assert their rights over their ancestral land. They did the same when logging activity encroached on their ancestral land in 2019.
These photos were taken over August and September 2020, and show how the Orang Asli repeatedly rebuilt the blockade to make known their objections.
Photos and captions by Puah Sze Ning and Elroi Yee
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Almost every day at the crack of dawn, the Orang Asli walk around 1km to the blockade site, where they will build a blockade as a sign of protest against logging. Sometimes, children tag along to help.
Ironically, they walk there using an old logging road. These roads are a testament to the environmental impact of logging – they remain barren years after they have been abandoned. Along the way, one can see rivers that have been smothered by collapsed logging bridges.
Experts say 70% of the environmental damage caused by logging comes from logging roads, especially when they meet rivers.
Along the way, the men gather the sticks they will use to build the blockade.
Each gathers a shoulder's load.
Just before they reach the blockade site, they pass the Ong Laba river.
This river used to be a place where they could catch fish and tortoises for food, or bathe. But since logging began upstream, the water has turned murky and shallow, most likely due to sediment from the logging activity.
Over the past months, the Orang Asli have gathered photos, videos, and geospatial evidence that demonstrates the impact logging has on their environment.
At the blockade site, work is quick. Sticks are thrust into the ground and lashed together with rattan strips. So familiar are they with the task that they finish it almost wordlessly, within half an hour.
They first built this blockade in July 2019, to refuse passage to logging vehicles. It was a standoff that ultimately led to a halt in logging activities.
However, in July 2020, soon after the COVID-19 movement control order was lifted, logging activities resumed, and the Orang Asli are again building blockades.
After the blockade is built, the community documents how logging companies repeatedly tear down the blockade, ignoring their assertions of control over the land.
As the community takes steps to legalise their ancestral land rights in court, evidence of their continuous assertions of control over the land could tip the court's decision in their favour.
Here, one of the Orang Asli has set up his lookout point, with a tripod fashioned from branches to keep his smartphone camera steady.
The Orang Asli hide in the foliage near the blockade site, to take photos and videos of the logging company dismantling their blockade, and note down the number of vehicles, passengers and logs that pass through.
Located far from urban centres, the Orang Asli receive only sporadic attention from the mainstream press. However, the evidence they have gathered has filled the gap.
The community supports those who watch the blocakdes by sending them food and drink. Pictured here is a bottle of coffee, sent to them in an upcycled cooking oil bottle.
That day, they were also sent a bottle of tea and a tub of fried meehoon.
Logging company staff dismantle the blockade every time they pass, showing that they are aware of the Orang Asli's objections but ignoring them.
The forests of Perak are certified by the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC) as being sustainably managed.
MTCC's standards include ensuring free, prior and informed consent of local communities are sought prior to logging activity.
Despite clear objections from Kampung Ong Jangking and other Orang Asli settlements since 2018, Perak's MTCC certification was renewed in July 2019.
One of the Orang Asli citizen journalists emerges from his lookout point, and prepares to rebuild the blockade.
Logging affects the environment, which is a source of basic necessities for the Orang Asli, like food, water and building material. But there is a deeper impact.
"Obviously, the environment is affected, but the more important effect on the Orang Asli is it tells them that, 'Hey you have no rights to this land, I can do whatever I want, and you can't do anything'," says Colin Nicholas, founder of Center for Orang Asli Concerns.
"This insecurity of their land tenure affects their mental health, happiness and so on."
With little hope of gaining wider, sustained media attention, Orang Asli citizen journalists have taken to documenting issues on their own.
Here, one of the village's citizen journalists looks through the photos taken during that day's blockade watch.
Aside from the logging, they have also been documenting their village's history and culture, in preparation for a court battle to legalise their ancestral land rights.
Some 370km away from Kampung Ong Jangking to the south, in an air-conditioned office, the village journalists' photos are taking a professor by surprise. In particular, those that show the condition of the logging roads.
"I have been to other logging sites before, but I've not seen conditions like these," he said. "This is at a critical level."
Prof Mohd Hasmadi Ismail lectures on forest extraction at Universiti Putra Malaysia, a government university renowned for its forestry programme. On a computer screen before him, are photos of the logging roads snaking past Kampung Ong Jangking's land, pinned on a digital map.
Even as village journalists documented the blockade, they continued walking the logging roads and rivers to gather evidence of environmental damage.
Time and again, the photos and videos show mud flowing from the logging road into rivers. Or landslides spilling onto the logging roads. Or bridges that throttle rivers into muddy spouts.
The river most damaged is the Ong Laba river, which remains heavy with sediment some three kilometres downstream, where it runs close to Kampung Ong Jangking.
At the spot where Said used to fish.
A little further downstream, at the point where villagers usually ford the river on foot when they head to town, photos show the river overflowing its banks during rains, likely a consequence of the logging upstream.
A digital map of the impact of logging in Kampung Ong Jangking
"Sediment from upstream will be deposited downstream, and make the river shallower," said Prof Hasmadi, as he examined the photos. "So during heavy rains, the river's water level will rise faster."
Although the logging site in question is around three kilometres away, the logging road runs within a kilometre of Kampung Ong Jangking, while the logs are gathered at a log yard just 300 metres from Kampung Sungai Papan, another Orang Asli settlement.
Research has shown that logging roads and log yards are as harmful to the environment as logged forest, if not worse. The weight of the santaiwongs and other machinery compacts the soil and leaves it barren, even years after logging has ceased. Reforestation of logging roads also takes longer than the logged forest itself.
Other scientifically proven effects of logging roads include increased incidences of landslides and sediment accumulation in streams, leading to poor water quality.
The Orang Asli themselves can point out the old logging roads around them, and show where these red-ochre mud tracks have smothered rivers. In one spot, they had to dig a trench around a collapsed logging bridge so the river would not remain stagnant.
"The impact is worse when logging roads cross rivers, or are built too close to rivers, violating guidelines," he says, noting that many logging companies don't pay enough attention to building proper bridges.
"Logging roads usually don't impact human communities, but when they affect rivers upstream, the sediment will flow downstream and that's when communities are affected," adds Prof Hasmadi.
Seen on a map, these logging roads appear as little more than tiny scars on the face of the earth, but each new scar brings a change in the environment that only the Orang Asli need to bear.
Timber or wood certification helps buyers identify timber products that originate from sustainably- managed forests. Buyers are more likely to purchase certified products to avoid the bad publicity if found procuring from unethical supply chains.
Malaysia has developed its own timber certification standards, under the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC). In Peninsular Malaysia, forests in each state are considered a single Forest Management Unit (FMU). MTCC awards the certification to the state forestry departments, who oversee the FMU of their respective states.
The Perak FMU, where Kampung Ong Jangking is located, is MTCC-certified, and therefore needs to meet certification standards.
Among other indicators, this includes ensuring that logging does not "threaten or diminish the resources and tenure rights of indigenous peoples". Logging companies are also required to seek the free, prior and informed consent of local communities that will be affected by the logging activity, and put in place mechanisms to address their grievances.
According to the Orang Asli, they have been actively objecting to the logging since 2018. They produced a letter dated Nov 13, 2018 addressed to MTCC, protesting the "intrusion of logging onto (Orang Asli) ancestral land".
In July 2019, they blockaded the logging road in protest.
Despite these clear objections, Perak's MTCC certification for forest management was renewed on Jul 11, 2019, following an audit conducted from Feb 18 to Feb 23.
Under MTCC's standards, certification is renewed subject to independent audits conducted every five years. Between these recertification audits, surveillance audits are conducted every year. Auditors are also obliged to investigate non-compliance when reported. Currently, the only company actively conducting MTCC audits is SIRIM QAS International – a subsidiary of SIRIM Berhad, the national standards and quality control body under the purview of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry.
It is understood that residents of Kampung Ong Jangking have sent the evidence they compiled to MTCC, SIRIM QAS International, the forestry department of Peninsular Malaysia, and the Perak state forestry department in a letter dated Dec 7.
MTCC, in an email response, confirmed receipt of the Orang Asli's complaints, and said the actions taken by the state forestry department will be assessed by the auditors in the coming surveillance audit in early 2021.
We approached the state forestry department for a response, and presented the same evidence to the director Datuk Mohamed Zin Yusop and deputy director Tuan Haji Ramli Mat on 1 Dec. They asked for a week to investigate the matter.
This might seem like a victory for the village journalists of Kampung Ong Jangking, but it is a hollow one.
Each compound is understood to cost RM1,000 – loose change for logging companies. According to a price list on the Malaysian Timber Industry Board's website, hardwood timber is worth between RM1,020 to RM5,000 per tonne, depending on the tree species and quality.
The three-axle santaiwongs used by the logging company in Kampung Ong Jangking are allowed to carry between 13 to 27 tonnes per load, according to forestry department guidelines.
Profits from a single load of timber would likely be enough to pay for these fines several times over. At the peak of logging activity, village journalists recorded as many as seven fully-loaded santaiwongs a day leaving the forest.
While logging companies leave with the logs, and their profits, the Orang Asli are left to live with the broken landscape, which affects them beyond mere access to natural resources.
"For the Orang Asli, when their forest is destroyed, it's equivalent to a church or museum being desecrated by outsiders, and they can only watch on helplessly," says Colin Nicholas, the founder of Center for Orang Asli Concerns, who has researched and worked with Orang Asli communities for over 30 years.
"The insecurity of their land tenure, and their powerlessness to defend it, has a major impact on their mental health, happiness, autonomy, and so on."
Ramli, the young headman of Kampung Ong Jangking, looks out at the land below him. On one side of the hill is his uncle's farm, freshly cleared and now sprouting crops like tapioca, chilli, curry trees, and tobacco.
On the other side, where Ramli is staring, is the log yard – a large tract of cleared land, flattened by tyre tracks, where piles and piles of logs sit in the evening sun.
This is where the santaiwongs bring their cargo. From here, lorries with twice the capacity of the santaiwongs will carry the logs to sawmills.
There the trees will finally become products.
With friends, Ramli can be quite the joker. But atop this hill, he is silent. From here, he can hear the loud conversation of the workers, brash and confident, floating in from below.
At one point, he suddenly stands up in full view of them and takes more photos.
"They are saying 'If he wants to take photos, lantaklah!'," Ramli says. "So, lantaklah." Screw it.
"We are living like this, and they're enjoying themselves."
So he stands there, atop that hill in the sunset, taking photos, and he says nothing but his face bears this new insult along with the many insults his people have received over the years.
Not just the repeated encroachment on their land. There is the bullying many Orang Asli experience in school. The name-calling, that even today happens when they visit the town. The constant stream of government agencies implying their way of life, and religion, is backward.
In official documents, their animistic belief is simply listed as "No religion". Worse, in the 1980s there were government-instituted policies to Islamise Orang Asli communities.
Ramli himself was unable to marry his wife because she was somehow registered as a Muslim, and he refused to convert. In Malaysia, non-Muslims cannot legally marry Muslims without converting.
So his children are officially fatherless.
On Nov 16, his family welcomed a new addition, and he is still trying to find a way to get a birth certificate that lists him as the father.
All these insults, like soft slaps to the face, again and again, and his face bears them all.
Even his daughter's death, he seemed to take as an insult.
We received news of Jessica's death at night, in September 2019. This was a period of time just after they had managed to ward off the loggers following the blockade last year. We had known she was ill, but it seemed she had turned a corner after Ramli brought her to a private clinic in town. They often distrust government hospitals, even though treatment there is free, and would rather pay for treatment elsewhere. The doctors and nurses at private clinics don't scold them, they say.
Moreover, government agencies are often seen to be siding with logging companies in opposition to the Orang Asli.
But when Jessica's condition worsened, Ramli brought her to the government hospital in the nearest town. That's when he called with the news.
She was two years old.
Around the same period of time, a number of children from the village fell sick with the same symptoms: coughing and fever. Nine other children were hospitalised in the following weeks, with one – Said's six-year-old daughter – narrowly avoiding death after spending over a week in intensive care.
The health department made emergency trips into the village, to try to contain what appeared to be an outbreak of unknown cause. At one point, they insisted on hospitalising seven villagers at the same time for further observation. They even took water samples from the river for analysis.
In the end, there was no conclusive evidence of an outbreak. Samples from the hospitalised children found some with influenza A, some with influenza B, and one with leptospirosis. However, the department's prompt action likely prevented more deaths as even those with mild symptoms were given treatment.
Sadly, sickness continues to be common in Kampung Ong Jangking.
In September 2020, when logging was in full swing, Ramli's mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Another man spent days in intensive care fighting leptospirosis.
In November 2020, Ramli's brother Johari was hospitalised for almost a week for dengue fever.
Just two weeks ago, in mid-December, Ramli's sister was warded in intensive care for leptospirosis.
Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection often transmitted through the urine of infected wildlife, which contaminate water sources or stagnant puddles.
Like the puddles left behind after logging activity, and along logging roads.
Scientific studies have linked spikes in infection numbers to deforestation, not just for leptospirosis but for many other zoonotic diseases, carried by wildlife and insects emerging from the disturbed landscape.
After the spate of sickness last year, health department officers were concerned enough about the threat of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever that they sent mosquito nets to the village.
"When I go to the forest these days, the mosquitoes are scary, the way they cover your arm," says Ramli. "It wasn't like this before."
It is almost impossible to prove that any of these inflictions – the broken rivers, the poor health, the mistrust towards state agencies – are a direct result of logging activities, especially in court where logging companies have a clear advantage in terms of access to the state bureaucracy and larger resources.
All the community can do, is to stockpile evidence in their favour, and send it out into the world.
In early September, village journalists uncovered documents that showed large swathes of the Air Chepam forest reserve had already been approved for logging since 2018.
These documents were presented to them when logging company representatives showed up at their village informing them of the impending logging activity. They took a few surreptitious photos.
These logging concessions would be within the ancestral boundaries claimed by at least seven Orang Asli settlements. The area approved for one particular concession appears to include the site of Kampung Ong Jangking's settlements.
If these logging concessions proceed, there will be little forest left which the Orang Asli of Kampung Ong Jangking can call home. Their quality of life – so dependent on the forest – will continue to degrade.
However, there could be a win-win solution: "If you recognise the Orang Asli as co-owners of the land, it can be collaboratively managed in a way that benefits all parties," said Colin Nicholas, citing three examples where there has been precedent of such agreements.
In 2012, the Endau-Rompin National Park in the southern state of Johor wanted to evict Orang Asli from its boundaries. However, courts ruled the eviction unlawful and instead affirmed the Orang Asli's native title rights to an area that includes sections of the Park. Subsequently, a consent agreement between the parties allowed the Park to remain as a conservation area, with the Orang Asli agreeing not to cultivate new land within Park boundaries.
Courts in the northern state of Kelantan have also ruled in consent agreements in two Orang Asli settlements, namely Pos Belatim and Pos Balar. This granted the Orang Asli native title over their settlements. Meanwhile, the state agreed to ban logging in large swathes of the surrounding forest to preserve the Orang Asli's water catchment areas and hunting grounds.
The compromise in these cases is found in the Orang Asli's willingness to relinquish native customary title over their wider foraging grounds, and accepting title only to their settled and cultivated lands. In exchange, the state agreed to protect the wider landscape around them from logging, and allowed continued access for traditional practices such as hunting and rituals.
Armed with their mobile phones and cameras, they hike to their destinations: one is an imposing tree strangled with roots. Another is an old fruit tree. Still another, a strange steel structure on a hill. Then there is a brook-side rock with strange markings, and many more.
Unremarkable sites to the uninitiated, but rich with stories. The old fruit tree used to feed their ancestors. The strange steel structure is said to have been built by the British. The brook-side rock is where a young girl had her hand trapped, according to local mythology. There are old grave sites too, which are archaeological evidence of their ancestry on the land, and also where Jessica rests.
These are stories that tie their community to the land, since time immemorial. Which is what they need to prove in court, for the land to be recognised as their ancestral land.
Beyond their history with the land, they also need to prove their community's dependence on the land, that the land is an ecological niche inseparable from their identity. They need to prove that their community is distinct from the mainstream population, with its own customary methods of managing the land and its populace.
Essentially, they need to prove their civilisation, to a bureaucracy that often denies it.
While volunteer lawyers are advising them on legal matters, the evidence to support their ancestral claims will need to come from the community.
Unlike mainstream history, theirs is rarely documented. So oral history from their elders becomes their primary source.
Jekeh, Ramli's uncle, stands before the giant tree and tells its story in their native language. He is as animated in storytelling as he is in person.
Then he explains how they find potable water from the aerial roots of certain trees, as another elder demonstrates. The root is lifted high and clear water trickles from it into his mouth. He lets out a dramatic sigh, to show just how refreshing the water is.
Said, a generation younger, records all this on his phone, then uses a GPS app to mark the locations, digitising these oral histories in a format that urbanites can understand.
And because of the village journalists of Kampung Ong Jangking, so too can all of us.