14 Orang Asli have died after an outbreak, and experts are blaming environmental destruction for their declining health

 24 patients from the Bateq tribe are being treated in hospital, while 14 people have died, Malaysian media reported.
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Environmental destruction such as pollution and logging are endangering the lives of the Orang Asli in Kuala Koh, Kelantan, experts say.

According to Colin Nicholas, the executive director of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, the destruction of the Orang Asli’s environment has left the people of the Bateq tribe weak and sickly, The Star reported on Tuesday (June 11).

On the same day, Bernama reported that four patients, including two infants, of the Bateq tribe had been warded at the Intensive Care Unit of Kuala Krai Hospital since Sunday (June 9) after suffering from breathing difficulties.

The hospital’s director Dr Mohd Salleh Mat Jusoh was quoted as saying that a total of 24 patients from the Bateq tribe are being treated at the hospital, and have been placed in a special cluster ward.

Previously, 14 people were reportedly killed from May 2 to June 9, following the outbreak of an illness in the tribe, New Straits Times (NST) reported.

Citing Nicholas, The Star reported that almost half of the original customary land area of the Orang Asli – meaning “original people” in Malay – had been cleared.

“As a result, their subsistence base was severely affected by logging, plantations and mining,” The Star reported Nicholas as saying.

He also said that malnutrition became an issue because the areas the tribe used to hunt in were also cleared. “When they are malnourished, even a minor infection can be fatal. They also fell ill from pollutants in the environment. The cause for the spate of deaths was therefore likely to be a combination of preventable issues,” he was quoted as saying.

According to NST, Nicholas called for the state and federal governments to issue moratoriums on logging, which is the prelude to farming, mining and other forest activities that pose threats to the Orang Asli.

While two of the 14 deaths last month were caused by pneumonia, Nicholas was quoted by NST as saying that the issue stemmed from a long-time disregard and destruction of the Orang Asli’s land and customary rights.

He added that the tribe were healthy and contented until their land was slowly taken away by the Kelantan government 10 to 21 years ago.

“Without access to their traditional way of life, they become malnourished and underweight. They end up eating junk food and consuming more sugar to substitute their diet of fruits and other things,” NST quoted him as saying.

“With their resistance being low, many diseases – whether it’s pneumonia or tuberculosis, or even diarrhoea – can be fatal. But the root cause is that their environment has been taken away,” he added.

According to The Star, the president of civil society group Sahabat Jariah, Johan Halid, said that the Orang Asli’s water source had already been polluted due to deforestation 10 years ago.

“There is much deforestation due to the land having been cleared for rubber plantations. We are talking about clearance of areas as big as 10,000 hectares,” The Star quoted him as saying.

The chemical fertilisers used for palm oil palm and rubber plantations later polluted the land, Johan added.

He was quoted by The Star as saying: “When this happens, the area in which they (the Bateq people) hunt and gather food gets affected. Most of the Bateq people in Kuala Koh are just skin and bones now.”

According to Johan, there are currently around 2,000 Orang Asli living the Malay peninsula, and approximately 300 of them live in Kuala Koh. The oldest in the village are aged around 58 to 60 years old while the rest are mostly in their 20s to 30s, The Star reported.

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