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Batek of Malaysia
In Malaysia, the Batek are an indigenous people related to the Aborigines of Australia and the Negritos of the Philippines and other countries. They live in an old-growth tropical rain forest in the interior of the state of Kelantan, on the Lebir River. Unlike the Malays or Chinese, they have "dark skin, curly hair and broad, flat noses." In 1975-76 their population stood at about 300 "of which 200 were nomadic foragers and traders of forest produce," and this has increased to about 500 today (Endicott 1997, p. 110). In recent decades, logging has been destroying most of the old-growth forest so thee Batek today are mostly confined to about 1,900 square kilometers of national forest land. They have maintained their traditional culture for centuries in the face of dangers from slave traders and lowland elites who wished to exploit them. Batek culture recognizes no private property in land and obligates all members of the community to share food resources, although they allowed their own money from tradition and personal possession of non-food items. Some Batek have settled in villages and become traders or small peasant farmers, while young people are increasingly being attracted away by money, education, jobs and consumer goods available in the larger society. Malaysia is a society undergoing rapid modernization, urbanization and industrialization after all, and the dangers and encroachments on the Btaek's traditional way of life are quite obvious. Such egalitarian, hunter-gatherer cultures are becoming increasingly rare in the world, and the long-term survival of the Batek is problematic at best.
Before the Communist insurgency in the 1940s and 1950s, Malay villagers lived in close proximity to the Batek and some of them adopted rice cultivation from these agricultural neighbors, but their removal "opened up a larger area for exploitation by the Batek" (Endicott 1997, p. 112). At the same time, they lost access to the agricultural products and manufactured goods provided by the Malays. They also have folk memories of the slave trade, particularly in the colonial period, when Batek were forced to work on lowland rubber plantations. For much of history, they were leery of the Malays and engaged in only indirect trade and contacts, although their rattan has long been a popular product for use in construction, baskets and furniture (Endicott 2005, p. 81).
Batek economics, culture and society is based on hunting and gathering the products of the forest, all of which are owned collectively but traded individually. Some Batek engage in small-scale planting of crops, but mainly they obtain fruits, vegetables and game from the forest, such as yams, monkeys and gibbons -- the latter obtained by hunting with blowpipes and poisoned darts. They also trade wood and forest products with Malay and Chinese merchants in return for rice, flour, tobacco, cloth, tools and ironware. Once the rattan bundles are harvested, for example, "the owner has exclusive rights to use it or sell it" without having to share the proceeds (Endicott 2005, p. 83). All Batek live in conjugal families in which "each married couple is politically independent and relatively self-sufficient economically," rather in small camps consisting of two-fifteen related families (Endicott 1997, p. 112). Often they make camp in areas where rattan wood is harvested and traded.
Walking is an integral part of Batek language and culture, and no group is more intimately familiar with forest plants, trails, plants and animals. Batek are constantly on the move, "from camp to forest and back again in the course of a day's activities" (Lye 2008, p. 21). They are confident in moving around the forest, but also fearful and alert to its many dangers. Rain forests have been heavily logged in Malaysia and today there are paved roads within walking distance of the Batek communities, but they still prefer to use the forest trails. For the Batek, "walking itself is an act of sociality" and "paths are a social phenomena, and are remembered in relation to social events" (Lye, p. 26). Even their language reflects this, with special terms for walking and returning to camp, walking uphill and downhill, one-way movements, and movements with the intention of returning. While the Batek cannot see far in the forest, they are always "hyper-alert to sound shifts and changes," and learn this from childhood (Lye, p. 28). They take great care about exactly where and how they step, since the paths are often narrow, slippery and treacherous, and were easily amused and the frequent slips and falls of an anthropologist who accompanied them -- especially because she was carrying so much weight that she risked death or serious injury. She was like a child in the forest who had never learned the most basic lessons about how to survive there, or how to walk and navigate in it.
Batek do not have fears of evil spirits in the forest like many other hunter-gatherers, but they do fear tigers, fires, floods and strangers. On one occasion, a group of 60-65 people relocated immediately when they discovered than an insane Batek who had been banished to live on his own was hiding across the river from their camp. They moved very quickly and efficiently away from this perceived danger, with no noise, for their feared this man greatly. Their ability to slip away rapidly from perceived threats "could be traced to the history of slavery, specifically the raiding of forest peoples by representatives of lowland polities" (Lye, p. 31).
There is no formal government of any kind, among the Batek, although elders have great personal influence, but the practice of appointing 'headmen' (pengholo) has always been done by outsiders like traders of the Malaysian government rather than by the Batek. Elders are respected for their "intelligence, experience and good judgment," but they have no formal political power (Endicott 1997, p. 123). These are small, anarchic communities with customary rather than written laws and informal leadership and decision-making. They are also free to "move and reorganize" as they see fit, but all have "free access" to the forest and its products (Endicott 1997, p. 121). In general, the headmen appointed by the government are elders respected by the community, and they generally represent that Batek in any dealings with outsiders or the state. In addition, the Batek have "religious prohibitions" (lawac) such as an incest taboo or eating certain foods, which are punished by a thunder god called Gobar with illness, earthquakes, accidents and storms. According to Emile Durkheim, such gods are the "personification of the power of society over the individual" (Endicott 1997, p. 124).
Batek society is socialistic or communistic in the sense that there is no private ownership of land or natural resources, which has often been the case with many indigenous peoples around the world. All land and forest resources belong to the hala or supernatural beings, while human beings have only usage rights "and no one has the right to exclude anyone else from living or working anywhere they wish." Individuals and families may have a "special connection" or pesaka with a particular place or region, where they and their parents grew up and they have "strong sentimental times" (Endicott 1997, p. 113). These areas are not owned or managed by any individual or family, however. In this, the Batek are different from other indigenous peoples in Malaysia like the Semang, in which each tribe and family owns a specifically delineated area of the forest. Among the Batek, all animals hunted in the forest "must be shared according to strict rules" but the producers of honey, wood and other forest products are permitted to sell them to traders. Batek custom requires everyone to "share any food they obtain with other members of a camp," with children, parents and in-laws receiving the first shares (Endicott 1997, p. 116). Even bags of rice and flour obtaioned in trade must be doled out to the entire community as needed (Endicott 2005, p. 84). Indeed, this sharing of food is "an absolute obligation to the Batek, not something the giver has much discretion over," and hoarding is not allowed (Endicott 1997, p. 117). Nor do they consider appropriation of food to be theft or stealing, since they believe it should be available to all without having to ask permission. As a highly mobile society, the Batek are reluctant to accumulate too much property that would limit their movements, so there is a "practical limit to the amount of equipment or property they could transport" (Endicott 2005, p. 85).
Those who do not share may be cursed or suffer illness and bad luck, and may be banished completely. Some purchased goods like tobacco and kerosene are also shared in the same way as food, but all individuals are also obligated to support themselves as best they can. Batek culture places high value on personal independence, although the elderly, handicapped and ill are also cared for by their families and communities. Batek who cultivate rice and other crops are also required to share these like…[continue]
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