The Malaysian indigenous people or Orang Asli were represented at the COP26, or United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference 2021, not in person but through their woven artwork, which was displayed in the city for the duration of the event.
The project, called Weaving Hopes for the Future, is organised by non-governmental organisation (NGO) Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY), Students for Global Health UK and Gerimis Art Project. It features woven art pieces and a documentary produced by 11 indigenous youth and women from the Jakun, Jah Hut and Temuan tribes in Peninsular Malaysia.
The project aims to tell the story of indigenous people in Malaysia who rely on and live closely with nature, and who are now at the frontlines of climate change. Weather changes, frequent flooding and deforestation activities have led to the loss of land and resources for indigenous communities.
“For instance, the mengkuang leaves that they use for weaving in this project is a scarce resource at this point because of the amount of deforestation that is happening. This is a raw material that is sustaining the indigenous people in Malaysia. They have to forage deeper into the forest just to retrieve the leaves now,” KAMY deputy chairperson Hailey Tan told The Edge Malaysia at the COP26 venue.
More deforestation is also resulting in flooding, since forests are important water catchment areas and can prevent the erosion of land, she added.
In January this year, around 480 houses belonging to indigenous people in Pahang, Perak and Johor were devastated by floods, according to reports. Some villages were cut off by floodwaters for days. Similar large-scale flooding has occurred in previous years.
Earlier this week, Malaysia had just committed to halting or reversing deforestation by 2030 together with over 100 countries. It’s an important statement since the indigenous people have been protesting against the de-gazettement of forest reserves, deforestation and logging where they live. For instance, in the past year, such protests were sighted in Selangor and Perak.
“I really hope that the government takes this more seriously, especially when it comes to native sacred land. These lands have been protected by the Orang Asli communities and it’s much more than just a forest to them. These are carbon sinks, water catchment areas, and it’s important to their native culture and tradition,” said Tan.
“We cannot continue watching their culture and land being taken away from them. Their knowledge in climate mitigation is so important and we need to work hand in hand to create a more sustainable future.”
The organising and fundraising for the project have been done online in the past year due to the pandemic. It was challenging, Tan observes, especially since the indigenous people in question didn’t have good internet connection in their villages. The project raised RM14,014 via the Simply Giving website from July to November.
“Meeting them physically wasn’t really possible because we wanted to protect them from the pandemic. We had to think of creative ways to push the agenda online and via social media. Because of the pandemic, everyone has been online, so it’s easier for us to grab a bigger audience through social media,” she added.
It’s interesting to observe the indigenous people from other countries dressed in their traditional clothes at COP26, participating in panels and sharing their views. There isn’t a similar representation from indigenous tribes in Malaysia.
Tan explained that they faced difficulties in obtaining accreditation for the indigenous women they were working with to come to COP26. A limited number of badges are given to recognised organisations and country delegations.
This lack of representation has been highlighted by international media. Some of these activists have voiced their difficulties in getting accreditation and funding to join COP26. They have also criticised climate policies that violate the cultural and territorial rights of indigenous people.
Tan got her COP26 badge through Fridays for Future, which is a youth-led global climate strike movement that started when activist Greta Thunberg began a school strike for climate in 2018.
“We need the support from the government and other civil societies to push the narrative that indigenous people should be here and speaking for themselves because it’s not right for us to speak over them,” she said.
On that note, the presence of youth in and out of COP26, demanding change, has been palpable. Two major marches through the city of Glasgow took place during COP26. Within the venue, youths have also been staging protests and voicing their demands for countries and governments to take real action.
“The COP gives platforms to CEOs of big corporations that directly cause the climate crisis, so it’s been really conflicting. But at the same time, I feel really grateful that there is a platform for activists and the most vulnerable people to speak up,” said Tan.
She hopes that corporations and developed countries will play their part and provide financial support to developing countries that are suffering from the impacts of climate change. She also hopes for more representation from the indigenous community in policymaking, as well as transparency from the government on how they plan to tackle the climate crisis.
“It’s important that we stay informed. We need to know how the government is going to tackle this problem. We want to see real action taking place.”
Weaving Hopes for the Future has been on display in Glasgow since the beginning of the month. It hosted a documentary screening and discussion on Nov 8 for members of the public.
“We’re grateful to have this kind of international support and it’s the first time that the indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia have a platform at the global stage. It’s such a beautiful thing [to see] people learn about our culture and the importance of indigenous people in Malaysia,” she said.
This story was produced as part of the 2021 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.