In this episode, host Ashley Crowther, speaks with James Whitlow Delano about his time documenting the plight of one of Malaysia's last indigenous peoples, the Batek. We speak about what drew James to this particular story, who the Batek are, the attitudes from Malaysian government towards indigenous people, palm oil deforestation affecting their traditional lands, the notions behind resource extraction and the costs to planet and people, and many other topics.
James is a documentary storyteller and photographer who has been based in Asia for over 20 years but whose work spans across the globe. James' career has focused on environmental issues and climate change, human rights, migration and Indigenous cultures affected by industrialisation. His projects have won awards, such as the Alfred Eisenstadt Award (from Columbia University and Life Magazine), Leica's Oskar Barnack, Picture of the Year International and NPPA Best of Photojournalism. He is also a grantee from the Pulitzer Center. James' work has been covered by publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, New Republic, The Guardian, Foreign Policy and many more. He is the founder of the EverydayClimateChange Instagram feed.
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Host (1:30): We are here with James Whitlow Delano. James, thanks so much for coming onto attributions.
James Whitlow Delano (1:33): My pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Host (1:36): You've written this wonderful article on Climate Impacts Tracker Asia about the indigenous Batek of Malaysia and the impact of deforestation that's having on their community. First, I wanted to start with a little bit of background on you. Now, you've covered a really broad range of topics throughout your career, but I think, at least for me, you've had a general kind of consistency in terms of themes regarding people and the environment, and maybe a better description would be people's interactions with the environment and their relationship to it. Would that be somewhat correct to assume, and what drew you to capturing and covering these issues?
James Whitlow Delano (2:27): Well, I mean, I've always been interested in the environment, even from my elementary school days, having been raised near [the] outside of New York City. This is the sixties, I was quite familiar with environmental destruction, but I did also see environmental laws come into place. We saw the environment rebound significantly, so I could see what was going on there. But I've also been very interested in justice, in general, environmental justice.
So if we fast forward to when I moved to Asia, which is actually 30 years ago this year, I was of course, interested in just being in Asia and seeing the culture. But I started to notice that, as I was doing stories in beautiful places, I would land in a city and have to travel through, oftentimes, hours of incredible pollution, social injustice, environmental injustice. So I started seeing more and more over time that those issues were the story more than the beautiful national park that I'd be visiting. My perception of the world, my worldview, began to change the more I traveled, and I wanted to document that along the way.
Host (3:47): Lovely. So let's jump into the story of the Batek now. I think it would be first good to get a good idea of who exactly they are and their history in Malaysia. Could you describe, based on your experience and then based on your knowledge, who they are and what their history is in the region?
James Whitlow Delano (4:11): This kind of ties into that personal history, particularly with Asia, and I'll get around to answering as quickly as I can exactly what you're asking. My ex-wife was Filipino-American and her father, if you know Filipinos, they like to joke a lot. So he was always playing practical jokes, but he was from Cebu in central Philippines and he said there'd be these small-statured people with willy hair who would come out of the mountains to sell forest products. I thought he was joking with me. Then in 1994, I went to Taman Negara National Park in Malaysia. I had no idea that there were similar related cousins to those people you described in the Philippines, but there were. I came to a boat landing in the National Park, a beautiful rainforest, and I saw a Batek man standing there and I was like, my gosh, my ex-father-in-law was right. He wasn't joking.
Instantly, the fascination came, became who are these people? And it really took decades because I would find a little bit of information here, a little bit of information there. But I found a professor, I can get the name later from the University of New South Wales, who put it all together in a book called The First Migrants. He talks about the first human migrants out of Africa who followed the Indian Ocean Coast. In fact, they're the predecessors to the Aboriginals of Australia. Same migration waves of, it's not one migration, it's waves. So the Batek migrated from Africa to an African-like climate. We know now for example, that 10,000 years ago, Swedes had brown hair, brown skin. Like Africans, we know that the cheddar man in England was brown. We were all brown. But with the Batek, they migrated from Africa to an African-like climate, and the evolutionary process that changed some people's skin was not necessary.
So what happened is they were the people of Sundaland for, starting maybe as early as a hundred thousand years ago, 80 to 1,000 years ago. Six thousand years ago, the predecessors of the Austronesian peoples, the Filipinos, Indonesian, Malays as we know them today, started to emerge from what is now China. There was no China then. Through Taiwan and started heading south. They were farmers versus the, what are called, the Australo-Papuan peoples that the Batek are, and they’re hunter-gatherers. The Austronesians had bigger families, they had boats, they possessed agriculture, and they started pushing the ancestors of the Batek and then the Negritos of the Philippines into the mountains.
Because I always wondered why they're these little pockets of people who look different, have different cultures, different languages, and also they also kind of have similar cultures to each other. How did this happen? And what happened was that 6,000 years ago, that migration of Austronesian peoples that eventually went as far as Madagascar, as far as the Hawaiian islands and Rapanui, Easter Island, that migration started. Today, most of their ancestors are in these little pockets that are getting smaller and smaller, and they're instinct, and this is something that most of them share. Their instinct is to move into the interior, move away from an aggressive outer pressure, and now they've run out of room. They're literally cornered. That's the Batek I first met. That was the situation when I first met them and it has only grown much more intense in the interim.
Host (8:23): If we’re talking geographically-wise in Malaysia, whereabout is traditional territory for the Batek?
James Whitlow Delano (8:3): The Batek, traditionally, mostly are in the north center of the Malay Peninsula. They extend from, I believe it's Pahang state, Kelantan, on up into Thailand actually. There are various language groups. There are various intermarriages with other indigenous peoples. For example, the Batek intermarry with the Temiar. In fact, the Temiar kind of pushed Batek out through intermarriage. I don't think it was any war or anything, but their neighbors, the Temiar, are bigger, more powerful people, indigenous people, and suffering from many of the same problems that the Batek are now. So yeah, the north-central part of the Malay Peninsula, extending up into what is now Thailand. It's the Malay area of Thailand, Yala state, and some of those other ones in the deep south of that country. That's their traditional territory.
For example, I mentioned the Temiar are more engaged with modern life. They have cell phones, they have communications, they organize legal action now to save their land, but the Batek are less engaged. Some people are engaged with the outside world, but many don't even have cell phones. So, you know, if I visit them, I can't actually call somebody, say, I'm coming to Malaysia. This disempowers them now and this is a big issue because we're living in a time when there's no land [left] for them to retreat into, and legal action is the only form of resistance. So it's a tough struggle. It really hits for them.
Host (10:18): If we talk about the natural environment of their traditional territory, I mean, is this generally like, well, what could be argued once was pristine forest. I mean, is this also a place where scores of wildlife call home as well?
James Whitlow Delano (10:38): Well, that's the thing. The Malay rainforest is the oldest rainforest on the planet. No ice age penetrated this. The most diverse ecosystem on the planet as well. One of the reasons I think that the Batek exist and some of their allied cousins still exist is that they live adjacent to protected areas. I mentioned Taman Negara National Park; up north there's a [Royal] Belum state Park, I believe. It's not Batek up there, but it's a related so-called Australo-Papuan people who live there. Home to tigers, asian elephants, the bovine gaur - massive animal. Sadly, the Sumatran rhinoceros has just gone extinct. Many kinds of monkeys, more insect species than you can count. It's an incredibly robust ecosystem.
The problems are many. One is that, in Malaysia, as far as what I've seen, most national parks have seen the buffer zones around them nibbled up. In the case of the Batek, there is no buffer zone anymore. Also, you have a lot of poaching. So you've got poachers from Thailand, even from Vietnam, that the Batek tell me who come in and they hunt for traditional medicines that they can sell, including killing tigers.
And then the other issue I'm researching right now is there is an, I saw there, elephant tracks everywhere. Apparently, elephants like oil, palm fruit. Not only in Batek areas, but all around Taman Negara I've seen elephant tracks and up north near the Thailand border. I've been reading and talking to people there now talking about a lot more animal encounters, primarily elephants, but tiger.
One Temiar man was recently killed within the last couple of years by a leopard. Another Temiar man was attacked and brutally injured by a sun bear. So there are consequences, and they agree that this is because of habitat fragmentation and reduction, and I've seen massive deforestation. I thought by the time I first visited the Batek, most of the logging on Peninsula Malaysia was pretty much finished. But there seems to be a resurgence of logging and conversion to oil palm. This is a critical time, particularly right now for indigenous peoples. By the way, the umbrella term for indigenous people in Malaysia are Orang Asli, original people, literally the translation. So the Orang Asli on the Peninsula are at a crucial stage right now.
Host (13:45): Just lingering on that point of deforestation. I mean, was seeing that deforestation back when you first started reporting on this back in, I think it was 2010, was that kind of the catalytic moment where that drove you to go and cover this issue, to begin with?
James Whitlow Delano (14:06): The catalyst was, I've been deeply interested in this issue since the nineties. I've spent a lot of time in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo in Malaysia, and I had been to Taman Negara in 1994 as well. I've been many times to Sarawak. So the seed was already planted then, but the first time I visited this particular clan of Batek in 2010, driving from where I was staying, where I arrived by bus, I stayed in the national park that time, brought me 30 kilometers through oil palm plantations that I did not know at the time was all Batek territory before. I know that because of the work by Kirk Endicott, he's with Dartmouth University in the United States, he started living with the Batek in the 1970s. He described how the loggers began coming up river valleys. It was a group called Felda, which is a government organization at the time that was cutting down the forest and converting [it] to oil palm plantations to stimulate the economy. Actually, making that possible was funding from Japan to make a highway to get in there.
So by the time I met them in 2010, all of these oil palm plantations were in situ, and there was this little buffer forest that the Batek lived inside of and on the edge; there are two settlements they had. Since 2010, that buffer forest has been cut down and other buffer forests that I've seen have been cut down. For Taman Negara in particular, there's a road that goes over the north part of the fringe of the national park. There is some protected land there, but you build a road, and then people come, they can access it. And I've seen a lot of that forest cut down and converted to oil palm in the interim as well. It's just like a vice. Like an anaconda snake constricting on the Batek and the question will be, is there a breaking point? We can talk about, for example, things I've seen in that time as well.
Host (16:28): On the topic of roads, I think there are pretty similar observations in other parts of the world in forests where a road has intruded into previously an untouched part of the forest. That in a sense, you can arguably say in many ways it irreversibly changes the land because it gives people easy access into what was once [an] untouched environment. Would you say that these roads into, and I think you alluded to this before too, but would you say that these roads had the same effect in the context of the Batek’s territory?
James Whitlow Delano (17:10): This is fascinating because every country's different. The short answer is yes, but in different ways than you would expect. I've actually documented the Agta people in the Philippines, who are Negrito people as well. Roads there meant that settlers, squatters would come in; they call them kaigineros; bit by bit these peasant farmers with the lowlands would make farms where the road allowed them to access.
That's not happening in Malaysia. It's much more corporate. These roads open it up so corporations can come in and wholesale appropriate land, cut down the forest, profit from the wood, [and] fund the conversion to oil palm that way. It's a similar mechanism in Sarawak as well on the island of Borneo. Again, they don't have the population pressures in Malaysia that are present in most Asian countries. So the Philippines is 110 million people, Malaysia, last time I checked, was around 30 million people. It's a wealthier country. It's probably the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia, as you go by country. Singapore, of course, is the wealthiest city-state. So, per capita income is pretty good. You're not gonna have the squatters that you'll have [in] another. There’s plenty of other job opportunities, but the roads open up the access to corporations. So it’s a familiar problem manifesting in a different way.
Host (18:53): When you first went down there in 2010, during that first reporting trip, you mentioned you were asking around, or you were asking questions to national park officials. I just wanted to get you to elaborate on that story a little bit. What was their initial reaction when you went down there to ask about the Batek and what was going on in particular?
James Whitlow Delano (19:16): So I started documenting in Malaysia during the Mahathir Mohamad era, and that was a time when he would say that the BBC reporters were, he used a different word than genetically corrupt, but he said that. There has long been an information and movement control movement in Malaysia. Malaysia is a wonderful country, and it's fairly open, but if you touch resource development, you find out it's a lot different. It's more similar to China than it is to a democracy. So the first time at Taman Negara, I wasn't surprised, but I sensed the evasion. A couple of Batek men walked by where I was having lunch, and I said I'd like to meet the Batek. I saw them on the way in, is this possible? Oh, no, well, the headman is not there. He's gonna be gone for a few days. Then, a couple of days later asked again, and then the evasion continued. Basically, I just walked down the road and met them myself.
There is an issue; a ticklish issue; I wasn't aware of then, one is supposed to register with a government organization to meet them under certain circumstances. I don't know if it would've actually applied to me. Similar thing in the Philippines. This is my opinion, and it's shared by many, that [this] is just a mechanism to shut down the flow of information because we've seen in Malaysia an industrial scale of land appropriation, lack of consultation with indigenous people, grabbing their land, cutting it, profiting from it. This has happened in Sarawak, probably worse at this point than [in] Peninsular Malaysia. I mean, in Peninsular Malaysia, there are more people living there. They're gonna have landslides and it's gonna hit a village where as in Sarawak, it'll just go into a semi-empty valley.
So it's an industrial scale, and particularly in Sarawak, sometimes the same companies own the logging company, the sawmill, the oil palm plantation, and the oil palm refinery. They're kind of operated like [the] mafia. You're never quite sure who owns what and now they're exporting to places like Papua New Guinea, places like South America, the Congo Basin, and it's kind of interesting. I was in Suriname, the former Dutch Guiana on the northern coast of South America; next to it is Guyana, which was a British colony. The Malaysians are in Guyana, and then the Indonesian companies and the Chinese are moving into Suriname. It's funny how this colonial connection still exists in the post-colonial.
So Malaysia seems to go to post-colonial English colonies. They're now expanding, and the destruction spreads to other continents. Going back to your original point, it's that control of information that people aren't in a meaningful way, in the mainstream media, are not aware of the mechanisms at play. We see a lot of reporting on the Amazon, and it's severe in the Amazon, but I've been to the Amazon, and there's a lot of forests there like you do not see in Asia. People are not aware of how severe deforestation is in East Asia, [and] Southeast Asia.
Host (23:14): Would you say that, I guess, going back to when you mentioned that about the isolation of the Batek, would you just say that has really kind of contributed to the aggressive land grabbing and deforestation in the area, and you mentioned this before, where they haven't tended to be people that fight back against land incursions. Would you say that isolation has contributed to this kind of overarching problem?
James Whitlow Delano (23:44): I absolutely think so. I have documented the Penan, who were hunter-gatherers in Sarawak. They built blockades, and they've lost almost all their primary forest, but more slowly than other indigenous people in Sarawak. And they've retained their identity because of these blockades. I mentioned going back to Peninsular Malaysia; the Temiar ate the larger indigenous group next to the Batek. In fact, they've intermarried. They’re building blockades now. The Penan and the Temiar are using the courts. To my knowledge, the Batek are not at all using courts. And so yes, the Temiar are probably going to be more successful in saving. Therefore, again, the Batek have that national park next to them. But as far as I can tell, all of their land that's outside the park has either been degraded or clear-cut. So it's a pity and as you pose the question, yes, they're [a] pacifist kind of, or evasive way of dealing with outside pressures, sadly, I think has worked against them.
Host (25:06): If we talk about the deforestation from palm oil, for example, on traditional Batek land in this case, and I should mention also that palm oil is found in basically hundreds of different types of consumer products all over the world. So my question is, since your first reporting trip and then also the subsequent trips that you've made back, in your observations, how has that impact of palm oil plantations, what kind of impact has that had on the Batek, in their lifestyles, and of course the environment in general?
James Whitlow Delano (25:46): Well, it's important to remember that the rainforest is not like a temperate forest. This is primary to answering your question because in temperate areas, the top soil is thick and it acts like a biomass bank account. The rainforest, I would describe if a temperate forest is a candle at burning the energy, a rainforest is like a blow torch. It consumes all the biomass, and it's all above ground. So when you cut down the rainforest, it's the most diverse ecosystem on the planet, but you're left with a quasi-desert because it only takes a few downpours to wash away three or five centimeters of rainforest. You have to see it to believe it.
For example, they log in Japan, and it's not great. I mean, 35% or 40% of the forest land here is monoculture forest, but the rivers are clear because it's not all washing down into the streams like it does in Malaysia. The rain tends to be less intense, but the soil holds by its nature better here.
Immediately, when you cut the forest in Malaysia, the rivers become anaerobic. They become the color described as café au lait. They were clear and kinda tannic, like tea from all the leaves. The minute you cut it, cut down the forest, they become cloudy and orange from the sub-soil, in order to grow palm oil. There's no soil left. It's almost hydroponic, with chemical fertilizers providing the nourishment. And where does all of that go? It goes into the water. So immediately, the indigenous people, the first thing they realize is, oh my gosh, either there's no fish or the fish we eat make us sick. It’s a disaster for the environment.
The problem is, in order to build, to make an oil palm plantation, you have to clear-cut the forest, and you cannot simply replant a rainforest. It takes at least a thousand years. You know, frankly, the Mayans in the Yucatán Peninsula cleared a lot of forest. There's rainforest there, 800 [to] a 1,000 years after their civilization kind of disintegrated and the cities broke up. But still, you can tell the difference between that forest, all these centuries later, from an indigenous forest that never was cut. It's a very fragile, very sensitive ecosystem.
Host (28:26): You mentioned before that the Batek are traditionally a nomadic society where, and I'm sure this probably played to their advantage in the beginning when the forests were getting cut, they could just pick up and move. But then, I just want to get your thoughts on this; as the years went on, that became increasingly harder as there probably was less forest to retreat to.
James Whitlow Delano (28:51): It's an interesting situation. As mentioned now, for the first time in the particular clan I've been documenting, they are surrounded by oil palm plantation. I mean, it's not that far to the national park, but just the fact that they are now on an island surrounded by oil palms and a magnesium mine. All since 2010, this has happened. It’s quite remarkable. It's affected their society in the sense that some engage a bit with the cash economy, and they live in a government settlement. Others still have a little forest settlement nearby, and then still others try to maintain quietly, going into the national park. They're allowed to go in, but the government doesn't like it.
If an outsider asks them about, for example, I've never seen them eat bush meat. I know they eat it. I don't care because it's their life; it's their culture. But they're afraid that I might turn around and tell the government, hey, they're hunting in the rainforest. So they'll keep that secret from me. But there is a group that spends most of its time in the national park. It's become a; it hasn't fragmented them yet, they still live communally, they share food, but other communities of indigenous people, this is the beginning of when people stop sharing their goods. They're in that critical phase where, some of them, a couple of people own cars, and then the car breaks down, and they can't repair it. So they've got a broken down car just rotting in the rain. So you've got the beginnings of a nascent capitalist society infiltrating this group society.
Host (30:46): You mentioned before that, now, some of the clans that you've been documenting and working with over these years, they've moved to a government housing community. From your experience on the ground and from your documentation of that, what was the reaction of the Batek?
James Whitlow Delano (31:07): It's actually been disastrous. Just to give a little historical background, the government has been trying to settle Batek down actually, since colonial times, the British tried it. They've never been successful. But again, at the time, they were allowed to, well, there was plenty of forest so they could just move away. Tried to help. I saw a classic example in 2019, 2018, where the government came out and showed them how to do a plot to grow eggplants. I thought to myself, I read about the British trying to do this, and this is not gonna work, and it didn't. It was just too, you know, they're like we can go dig tubers in the rainforest, we know where they are, they provide us sustenance. Why are we gonna bother with this farm here? Sadly, it didn't work out.
But the disastrous part is this. Before people lived in the government settlement, they built bamboo and thatch huts, and then around 2011, they built these concrete houses that are like furnaces. Again, they largely didn't live in them until in 2015 they cut down the buffer forest, and they had a settlement by a river that was quite pleasant but it became so hot because there's so little forest left. They could no longer live there. The oil pump plantation didn't want them to live there. Then interestingly, they had erected an electric fence to keep out the elephants but they didn't electrify it because they would've killed children.
Host (32:49): This was the logging companies that built the fence, right?
James Whitlow Delano (32:52): The oil palm company. Apparently, the leasing of, or gifting or whatever it is of land is done on the state level. So the sultan of Kelantan, I was told, gave permission to a company to go in there. They told the Batek they would selectively log the clear cut without consultation, and then they put in the oil palm plantation. There were just a few trees left, right by the river, but it was just hot the last time I visited them down there, that was [in] 2015. In 2016, a manganese mine was opened up above their water source, and all of the tailings went down into that river. The river was contaminated, they couldn't eat the fish and the settlement was hot. So they moved to the settlement, more permanently, most of the people. That's when measles broke out in 2019, and then living in these concrete close quarters, it spread like fire, and 10% of the settlement died.
Ordinarily, what they would have done is move away and find someplace healthier to live. They couldn't do that. So that's where it became disastrous. I think 18 people died. Many people were in the hospital, the symptoms really mimicked a lot of covid-19. You know, months in the hospital, intubation, people dying of respiratory ailments. [In] the meantime they're drinking water contaminated from the runoff of the manganese mine, weakening them. They have malnutrition already. So all of these things come together, and I have not been back since. I want to get back and see how they're doing. I do have communication with people who do see them trying to lay the foundation to go back and see what's happening.
Host (34:50): Just from a personal perspective, James, I wanted to just get your reaction to, I guess, you documented a lot of the deforestation that was affecting the community itself, and then, of course, you went back and then you talk about this manganese mine. What was your feeling watching this impact of both deforestation and then mining? How did you see that? What was your thinking when you went down there to do those two very, I guess, different kind of resource extraction methods, but affecting one community itself?
James Whitlow Delano (35:32): I just feel like they're really going to take everything. What I mean, they is [that] outsiders are gonna come in, take advantage of these weak people, who are politically weak people, and they're really gonna come out in and take everything. That was my honest thought.
It was interesting, they took me up first to their water source because they thought the illness was water-related, and I was with them trying to suss out this. So they took me up to the water source and walking through parts that were not oil palm yet, and they were utterly devastated. It looked like the worst typhoon in the history of the world went through there - this ragged forest. We made a turn into a little river valley, and they're telling me along the way, this valley here was where we hunted, say, for example, wild boar. This valley here, we would collect medicinal plants, and that was where the water came from. We went up the last, you know, it was a farce, but they left this one little watershed forested. Suddenly it's cooler and you're in a beautiful rainforest and there's a rubber piping going up. That's the only indication that something is happening here. It went up to this, just a kind of a runoff pond, [a] little pond where water collected. They actually collected a medicinal plant while I was there, and then they said, well come with me, we'll climb up this, and it was a rather steep slope to the mine.
We climbed from where the water is, the top of that little watershed, up a steep slope, and by the way, with elephant tracks. Elephants can climb very steep tracks. So we were following an elephant trail, got up to a road, and there was the mine directly above their water source, and it was just barren. They succeeded. One of the things I wanna find out, they had succeeded in 2019 in shutting down that mine. Whether that lasts or not is another question, but the damage had already been done. It was just, I've seen it in so many places; when are dominant people going to stop doing this? We have to think about others, including wildlife and other disempowered human beings. You know, these aren't empty spaces. These are places where people live. They have their history, they have their mythology, they have their religion in these places, and they have every right to determine their own future.
These Batek have had their future, if not taken away from them, greatly handicapped in the sense that everything upon which; they're the Einsteins of the forest, and when you take that away from them, they just become unskilled laborers. They're ill-equipped for the post-modern world. We can't tell them to get it. I value education. They value a different kind of education. We can't tell them what education they should get because they don't want to engage in the cash economy any more than they have to. And they have, in my opinion, every right to decide what their future is.
So that’s how I felt. It was just all too familiar, sadly. I was, it was something I thought that they had avoided because it was a buffer forest. I thought it was quasi-protected. Apparently, obviously, it was not.
Host (39:28): I guess this also goes back to the entire notion of resource extraction in general. And, of course, we can place deforestation into that basket as well. You've covered this for decades too, and I'm sure you've kind of had a similar realization where it's extracting, without the acknowledgement of the costs and the risks to not only human life but also if we even paint a bigger picture, of the environment in general.
Now, I guess what I want to ask you, bearing that in mind, is what are your thoughts on that? And do you think that there can be a balance where human rights or the notion of conservation and the notion of modern life can coexist together if that is even possible?
James Whitlow Delano (40:19): I think originally, resources could have been extracted without destroying the environment. It was just too easy to go in and just pick the best and take it out. Look, enough of this land has been cleared already. We don't need to clear more. That's my opinion. I've been documenting this for 30 years. Had the forest been planted with quasi-native species, it would be ready for harvest now if they had done it properly, and they wouldn't have to keep on going.
It's about greed and power and profit, quick profit. There's no absolute, and actually, as well, the forests that remain in much of Malaysia are on mountainsides. It just doesn't make sense to cut down forests in an ever-wet tropical rainforest on slopes because you're just gonna have flooding, and they are having flooding.
I'm not even telling you all of the things that the Batek have gone through in the past ten years. One thing that happened to them in 2015, before I visited there, they had Noah's flood. I know the landscape there and they live on pretty high ground. The river flooded because of forest deforestation. The river must have come up close to 10 meters. That's a lot. So the consequences are happening, and again, this is where the lack of international reporting. There's a fair amount of free reporting within Malaysia. But I think the outside world needs to know what we are doing with our consumption habits to people in Malaysia.
Enough land is cleared now. We don't need to clear anymore. The height of irony [is] that some of these oil palm plantations I described to you, that used to be Batek soil, territory that were clear cut, are now claiming to be sustainable oil palm producers. You cannot create an oil palm plantation sustainably. You have to clear-cut the forest. That's not sustainable. But since it's cleared already, I mean an enlightened approach might be to try to restore enough, some of the forest. Maybe that's adjacent to quasi-intact. Don't cut more. If you want to grow oil palm, I suppose just do it on land that's already rubber or whatever, already agricultural land, we don't need to clear more.
All Malaysians are gonna be better off for this. They're gonna have less flooding; they're gonna have better air, they're gonna have better water. And they're gonna have a carbon sink. We're not even talking about climate change here. The greatest living carbon sink on the planet are forests. A healthy planet means healthy people. We are given false choices, but we all benefit from a healthier climate, from the most conservative to the most liberal. We all want clean water, clean air, and good, safe food. And that's probably the best way to do it.
Yeah, maybe I'm an optimist, but as I mentioned in Sarawak, they're going further and further and further. On a bit of an optimistic note, there seems to be a nascent movement by indigenous peoples in Malaysia to use the courts, and they're starting to succeed. That is in getting ancestral land designations for their land. This is what my next stage in this journey will be, is to document that and try to get [the] word out beyond Malaysia that this is happening.
Host (44:10): Sticking on that optimistic note, you finished the article on the publication where you talk about, I'm gonna butcher you a quote here, but where you say something along the lines of if there's Batek, there's still hope. You gave a good comparison there with an indigenous tribe that is now completely gone in the Andaman Islands in India. Now, speaking to that notion, how optimistic are you that things will start to change or hopefully change in the future?
James Whitlow Delano (44:50): If we can get through the next decade or two, I think that the chances will increase greatly. You know, the whole concept of the indigenous people losing land is that forces bigger than all of us are happening, right? That we can't hold back. If indigenous peoples can get some momentum in the courts, then I'll be optimistic. And the fact that they're starting to do that now, the Penan are doing it. They've stopped a dam project. [This is] unheard of in Malaysia, and they stopped an oil palm project. This is hugely optimistic. The Temiar set up blockades, one in court just in the last couple of years, to keep loggers out of their mountains nearby. That's hugely optimistic. That could be, I don't wanna say it's sea change, but it could be the beginning of sea change in Malaysia.
You go to the Philippines, the Tagbanwa now have [an] ancestral domain over Coron Island, their island. That's good news. So if we can get momentum and keep world peace at the same time, because it does affect locals. I mean, if there's a war in Asia, it's gonna affect everybody. Then, good things could happen. I'm cautiously optimistic and I wanna learn more about what people are doing on all of those fronts down there.
Host (46:22): Well, James, on that note, thank you so much for offering the time and also your stories and your experience on this really important issue. I hope that more people realize what's going on and they take notice of what's going into their products. For example, in something like palm oil, and people can start to try to contribute to the solution rather than being part of the problem. Thank you so much for your work and time and offering your thoughts.
James Whitlow Delano (46:53): Thank you, Ashley. What I really appreciate is you giving this venue so that more people who may not have heard about this are now more aware of what's going on. I really appreciate it. It's always a pleasure. So thank you very much.