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Being Forest Peoples: Globalizing Local Sustainability?

Habiter la forêt : peut-on globaliser la sustainabilité locale ?
Lye Tuck-Po
p. 35-48


Les débats conventionnels sur le développement durable sont souvent biaisés par des considérations de technique et de gestion. Notre démarche actuelle consiste à rechercher des modèles de sustainabilité et à tenter de les rendre mieux à même d’être scientifiquement testés et étudiés. Pourtant, les termes de l’étude sont fixés par le paradigme externe; ainsi, si nous pouvons trouver des modèles locaux de sustainabilité, nous pourrions bien ne pas les reconnaître, ou encore les interpréter de travers. L’épistémologie des Batek de Malaysia indique qu’une approche ontologique peut se révéler un solide paradigme local. Les Batek interprètent les catastrophes naturelles comme des témoignages du mécontentement des êtres surnaturels envers le monde des hommes. Il incombe donc aux Batek de maintenir la sustainabilité, car ils mettraient en danger leur propre vie en ignorant les messages des êtres surnaturels. Cependant, une telle interprétation cosmogonique est difficile à transposer dans les préoccupations pratiques de la gestion des ressources.

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1A major environmental concern is how to achieve sustainable development. The question is: How do we operationalize sustainability? Despite its wide currency, the meaning of environmental sustainability remains “hotly contested” (Peet & Watts 1993: 1). There seems to be general agreement that sustainability is an important goal of environmental management, but considerable controversy on the means or even feasibility of achieving it (Norgaard 1994, Rambo 1997). The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) revealed this point most forcefully: “Neither the practitioners, nor the politicians, academic community or NGOs were able to come to an agreement on the approaches needed to solve the global ecological crisis, leaving the term ‘sustainable development’ open to almost any interpretation” (Fauziah 1997: 141). To claim that one is managing one’s resources sustainably is to claim the moral high ground; struggles over meaning are as important to the world of environmental negotiation as the empirical evidence supporting or challenging that claim (Cooke 1999). It is precisely the lack of clarity (and malleability) of the sustainability concept that renders it so attractive as a rhetorical strategy—and, critics would charge, discursive ploy (Bryant & Parnwell 1996).

2There is no lack of ideas then; a multitude of concepts and methods (both local and global in scope and origin) are available to us. A pervasive concern is the need for better methods; better methods of evaluation and analysis, we hear from policy-makers and scientists alike, will uncover more accurate results. The search for better methods, however, is only part of the story. A more fundamental problem is that our search for sustainable management systems is premised erroneously. One of these premises is the faith that people can rationally manage the environment (Botkin 1990). Indeed, this faith has underlain the emergence of international legal agreements from UNCED 1992. Managerial and organizational concerns predominate in the world of environmental legislation. On a smaller scale, we often hear governments blame their inability to solve environmental problems on the lack of available funds and personnel to carry out the rule of law.

  • 1 This paper was originally prepared for an audience of scientific investigators at a Kyoto Universit (...)

3Although these are important considerations, I shall argue that sustainable use of the environment demands more than just more governance, more money, or more people.1 Rather, we have to create the conditions that foster sustainability at all levels of society. My argument is similar to Rambo’s (1997). Arguing that sustainable development is a myth with minimal basis in fact, Rambo offers an alternative, which he calls “adaptive development.” Adaptive development rejects the premise that we can manage, stop, and predict environmental change; rather, resources should be redirected towards “improving our capability to cope with inevitable but largely unpredictable changes” (1997: 6). Thus change is accepted as part of the normal order of things, and attention should be given to innovative and creative responses as things change. I should like to emphasize the concepts of response and change here.

4I am not here to follow up on Rambo’s recommendation as such, but rather to introduce an alternative way of knowing the environment which is founded on creative responses to change and which has thus far not entered into the broader debates on sustainability. This way of knowing is that of the Batek, who live in the forests of Peninsular Malaysia. I will examine how this alternate set of representations can look like, and yet is different from, what we usually think of when we talk of sustainability. In the current search for sustainability, we look for models of sustainability and seek to render them more transparent to scientific testing and investigation (Meilleur 1994, Nadasky 2003). The problem, however, is that the terms of the investigation are laid down by the external paradigm (Dwyer 1996); thus, even if we find local models of sustainability, we may not be able to recognize them—or we misconstrue them (Fairhead & Leach 1996, Scott 1996). The link-up between local peoples and scientific conservationists, in sum, is fraught with tension in defining problems.

5A problem that this paper raises, then, is interpretation. The aim here (elusive though it may be) is to offer an interpretation of how the Batek define environmental relations. As this discussion will show, environmental relations—defined as the inter-relationship between a social group and its environment—are the relationship of a people to their place. Given that the Batek’s definition of place also encompasses the cosmos, the world in which they dwell, the study of environmental relationships is also the study of cosmology. It is also, I believe, the study of how the people’s sense of their being is linked to their sense of what the world is. I would argue that we not dismiss alternative ways of knowing as quaint cultural curiosities best left in the exotic hinterlands of the world. Rather, we need to take these environmental perceptions seriously and try to understand those using local notions and concepts rather than the orthodox managerial approach (compare Dove 1998). Faithful adherence to the latter, its embedded premises and systems of protocol, undermines our ability to be creative problem-solvers. Such a limitation is a serious one, for we cannot make substantial progress until we are in a position to integrate alternative premises into our standard repertoire of scientific hypotheses.

6A cautionary word: I am not arguing that local peoples like the Batek necessarily have notions of sustainable development or, more narrowly, conservation, or even that those notions always have positive implications. I do not argue that the Batek have the “correct” vision that the rest of us should learn from, but rather that their vision—whatever that might be—is not couched in the language of sustainability. They do not use this word themselves, and they are relatively isolated from the global discourses on the environment (Lye 2004). Further, as often argued (Hames 1991), local peoples are no more or less prone to have such ideas than the wealthiest international elites, and there may be a broad range of approaches from one local group to another. When these ideas do exist as culturally shared norms (see Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975), however, then we are unlikely to uncover them using standard idioms of resource management. The problem, then, is not whether the people harbor notions of sustainability. The problem is whether we, as analytical observers, can recognize these notions when we see or hear them.

7In this paper, I draw on my own experiences working with the Batek. One of their central ideas is that they look after the forest. This position is based on their premise that, if there were no people in the forest, the world would collapse. So, as batek hep, ‘people of the forest,’ they are the ones who prevent this collapse from happening. Initially, I dutifully recorded these views and placed them in a conceptual category I considered to be “belief.” I did not see how these “beliefs” approximated any notion of conservation; nor did I see any empirical evidence that the Batek do what they say. That is, I was looking for evidence that the Batek actually care about their forest, care enough to avoid harming or depleting resources. I came to the conclusion that such evidence does not exist. On the one hand, then, the Batek express their belief that they are the guardians of the forest. On the other, they seem to do nothing that I would consider to be a form of guardianship. Hence, I concluded that the Batek do not practice what they preach: the need to safeguard the forest. I have now reversed this position. Not necessarily because I have documented splendid methods of resource management, but because I have reconsidered my own biases towards technical practices and observable effects.

The social-ecological context

8Like most forest dwellers in Peninsular Malaysia and possibly beyond, the Batek have long engaged in the collection and trade of forest products (Dunn 1975, Fox 1995, Lye 1997: 67-70). Today, the two major products collected are rattan and aromatic woods. Unlike most of Malaysia’s forest-dwellers, however, the Batek continue to maintain a way of life that is based on mobile hunting-and-gathering.

  • 2 The official label for the 21 or so indigenous ethnic minorities of Peninsular Malaysia.

9They live in the lowland forests in the states of Kelantan, Pahang, and Terengganu. In Pahang, where I worked, roughly half of them acknowledge the national park, Taman Negara (4,343 sq. km), as their home; most of the park straddles the traditional Batek territory. There they are acknowledged as the original inhabitants, but do not have an administrative role and are not consulted on management issues. All the sub-groups can move freely in and out of the park, but are not allowed to harvest resources for trade in the park. Despite having the advantage of a sizeable tract of land protected as the national park, they experience the social and political pressures common to Orang Asli (Malay, “original peoples”2): pressure to assimilate via Islamic conversion, land loss and reductions in resource bases, and environmental degradation (Dentan et al. 1997, Nicholas 2000). In Pahang, although the Batek have largely maintained a mobile hunting-and-gathering way of life, the problems of losing forest land to encroachers, logging, plantation estates, and other developments like road-building are never far from their realities and their consciousness (Lye 2004).

10The locus of social interaction is the forest camp (hayã’). A camp is a fluid grouping of 6 to 70 people (average 36) living temporarily together. Flux is a central characteristic of daily life. A group might stay in one camp anywhere from one night to a month. Within the camp setting, individuals might move in and out as social, economic, ecological, and political conditions change. A group’s movement from one river valley to another is less frantic and occurs about once every three to four months. Time and seasonal variations help to pattern movement. In general, although caloric and food-getting needs are important reasons why people move (Kelly 1995), social and political reasons are probably more important (see Bahuchet 1992). Also of significance is phenomenology; movement is integral to the Batek’s sense of how to live in-the-world.

11Movement is not random. Rather, there is a system of walking trails and other pathways incorporating rivers, streams, and logging roads. These pathways connect one camp with another. Encampments are both fresh ones, set up because people have discovered new resource zones, and established sites, where people have lived in the past. Returning to an old site occurs after a couple of years or so. The picture of the society that emerges is one where ties to land are deeply historical and wide-ranging, and where individuals cannot be identified with a particular micro-environment only.

12The landscape, as imputed above, ranges from advanced climax to recently logged-over Dipterocarp forest, which is cut up by an intricate system of rivers and streams. The landscape can be described as a mosaic of cultural sites, each site distinguished by the presence or absence of paths, encampments, and more biological traces of past and present human use and modification. Notably, this is lowland forest (less than 100 m a.s.l.); the terrain is gently undulating and generally unbroken. Mountains might stand between river valleys, but the Batek rarely ascend to the higher elevations. More common are the series of low or high ridges that form easy means of getting from one place to another.

13The landscape is characterized by a great diversity of resources (Burkill 1935). Taking advantage of the patchiness of the landscape, the Batek are not resource specialists but, rather, broad-spectrum foragers. They harvest a wide selection of foodstuffs: game (including fish, turtles, and crustaceans from the rivers) and tubers are the traditional staples, but seasonal fruits are probably the favorite foods (Lye 2004: 132-142). The fruiting season historically lasts from June to October. The Batek recognize two kinds of fruit seasons: an indifferent year (ckey) and a bountiful one (tahun bew). The latter corresponds roughly to a year of mast fruiting. Cash from day work (including guiding and hosting tourists) and trade enables the Batek to buy additional sources of food (like the staple, rice, which they do not plant); thus, trade tends to add variety to the diet and reduce the Batek’s reliance on forest foods, and, correspondingly, the level of their impact on the ecology. To my knowledge, this point has yet to be fully investigated. We now know a great deal about the Batek’s dwelling practices and their tendency to engage in a broad array of economic activities (Endicott 1984), but we have never systematically investigated forest ecology and biodiversity as a function of these practices and activities. Indeed, in Kawanishi’s recent study (2002), Batek are cast vaguely as generic “local peoples” who are largely threatening to the tiger populations in Taman Negara rather than integral constituents of the forest world.

14This picture of the Batek is based largely on their lives inside the forest, but relations with externals (like government agents, Malay villagers, traders, other Orang Asli peoples, urban Malaysians, foreign tourists, and anthropologists) help to shape the Batek’s views of themselves as a culturally distinct people. External relations not only have an economic and political basis, but are also an important source of new ideas and knowledge (Endicott 1979, Lye 1997: 83-96; see also Sellato 1994).

15The points to note from this summary are: a heterogeneous and constantly changing physical environment, a landscape full of important cultural sites, a diversity of peoples and resources, constant movement spacing out people in small groups around the forest, and the people’s ongoing shifts from one economic activity to another. This last has been labeled opportunism, a characteristic that anthropologists have noted for many hunter-gatherer societies in the region and elsewhere (see, for example, Benjamin 1973, Brosius 1991). It is related to the hunter-gatherers’ preference for autonomy, freedom, and flexibility in their lives. I have argued that the instabilities of the forest make it hazardous for the people to be passive and rigid in their responses (Lye 1997). I prefer to think of “opportunism” as the ability to, as it were, move with the times.

The Batek’s environmental perceptions

16How do the Batek’s views of their relations with the forest amount to a local conception of sustainability?

17Let us begin with what the Batek know: that they are the people of the forest. Accordingly, they are privy to the stories of the forest. Further, they are not the only inhabitants of the forest: living together with them, and the plants and animals, is a host of other-worldly entities, some benign, some malevolent. Of these, the most significant for my purpose are the superhuman beings, hala’ ‘asal. These beings used to live on earth, too. Kirk Endicott writes that the superhuman beings “have existed since before the creation of the earth, and it is assumed that that they have always existed” (1979: 124). In creation times, they transformed themselves into, or caused the creation of, important components of the forest, like various landforms, plants, and animals. They continue to supply the forest with its nutrients, look after the stability of the cosmos, and maintain an interest in the health and well-being of the people (Endicott 1979). But the Batek’s relationship with the beings is double-edged, for these creators can also be destroyers.

  • 3 I use the masculine pronoun in a generic and not restrictive sense; women can also be shamans.

18Of significance is that the hala’ ‘asal also have the common stock of emotions and are ever-present in the world. When things are not going right, these beings will feel despair or anger and convey these emotions to the Batek. On an everyday behavioral level, the beings are attentive to the transgression of norms and taboos. For example, a shaman cannot run around showing off or boasting about his3 knowledge; nor can others freely identify his shamanistic status and discourse on his powers. Such open displays invite punishment or lead to a loss of efficacy. During the fruiting season, another set of taboos prevails, to prevent the hala’ ‘asal from feeling shy and embarrassed and thus withholding the ripening of the fruits. In the past, logging accidents were attributed to the displeasure of the beings, and to this day no Batek man is involved in timber-production.

19More broadly, the hala’ ‘asal are also looking at conditions in the world at large, as linked to the maintenance of the forest cover. Thus, shamans like Tebu (discussed more extensively in Lye 2004) recognize that, as more forest land has been lost, so has the health and safety of the world declined and the beings feel longing for the world that once was. They communicate their responses in two broad ways: indirectly, through the agency of the shamans (who can interact with the beings through dreams and trances) and/or, directly, by unleashing unseasonable or unnaturally strong winds, rains, and floods, which can cause the land to collapse and the world to end. The beings can also withhold the annual crop of fruits if they are displeased with human behavior generally. These climactic phenomena are integral elements of the Batek’s conceptions of the world, interpreted both as ecological process and, more symbolically, as indications of cosmological upsets. These are not clearly distinguishable. For example, Tebu links forest hydrology to the maintenance of natural tree cover, arguing that loss of trees causes erosion, which in turn causes siltation, river overflow, floods, and land degradation (compare Douglas et al. 1993, Nasi et al. 2002, Sahabat Alam Malaysia 2001), but he also recognizes that these processes can be traced to the other-world’s despair with what people are doing to and in this-world.

20Let me offer an image of my own: We can liken the hala’ ‘asal’s behavior to that of a “pulse.” The pulse indicates what is going on inside the body. Similarly, the actions and emotions of the beings—what we can regard as signals and stimuli—indicate what is going on in the world.

21The idea that personages from the other-world are able to communicate their knowledge of the environment by sending a diverse array of signals is, of course, not unique to the Batek. Over in Borneo, for example, the practice of bird augury is “based on the belief that the major deities of the spirit world have foreknowledge of events in the human world and that, out of benevolence, they endeavour to communicate this knowledge to the Kantu’. If the Kantu’ can read the intended meaning of these communications correctly, they too can possess this foreknowledge” (Dove 1996: 559-560). With the Batek, I cannot say whether they desire to “possess foreknowledge;” it is, rather, that the knowledge is made available (most specifically, to the shamans) and they do with it what they will. This seems of a piece with the egalitarian ethos of valuing autonomy (Gardner 1991, Griffin & Griffin 1997, Robarchek 1989, Widlok 1999). They can choose to ignore these sources of information, but they do so at their peril. Sometimes information is erroneous and their sources unknown (Lye 1997: 122-124). Doubt is a central characteristic of the Batek’s knowing process, as well as the instinct to revise interpretations and offer new explanations—the scientific method par excellence (Scott 1996). What is perhaps culturally distinctive is what counts as relevant and important as people seek a better understanding of the world around them (Nadasky 2003).

22To reiterate, the Batek’s relationship with the hala’ ‘asal is not harmonious. Like all relationships, this one needs work and needs to be maintained. The beings can give but they can also take away. They are powerful, and guard their secrets and knowledge jealously. For this reason, the Batek do not fit the model conveyed by Bird-David (1990): unlike the other hunter-gatherers she examines, perhaps, the Batek do not view the forest as “a giving environment” where the hala’ ‘asal yield their bounty unreservedly and unconditionally. And the relationship has an important inter-subjectivity to it. To return to Tebu, he says that the beings “feel sorry” for the Batek when they hear the latter’s songs and that, in turn, the Batek “listen” and “hold on” to the beings’ voices (Lye 2004: 33). Thus, on the one hand, we find much imbalance in the power relationships between Batek and beings; the power terrifies by its potential for destruction, but it can also be a source of goodness. On the other hand, the knowledge borne of that power is given to those who would listen, but if the Batek were to ignore the warnings of the superhumans (such as is within their remit), then they face the dangers alone. As such, a refined sensibility of environmental conditions, linking these to religious concepts, and the willingness to respond by adjusting behavior, is necessary.

23For, ultimately, information pulsating from the superhuman beings is needed to save the world, stave off ritual danger, and prevent ecological collapse. They can send upwelling floods that inundate everything, cause the world to come apart. The Batek are attentive to this. They closely monitor the everyday occurrences of thunderstorms and rainfalls and try to figure out what people, both among them and in the world at-large, may be doing that is causing unnatural occurrences. For example, Tebu identified a heavy spate of rainfall in 1996 as being caused by the use of heavy explosives to widen a road, which disturbed the other-world (Lye 2004: 27-28). To pre-empt disaster, they cannot afford to be complacent. They have to be careful about their own behavior. For one is connected to the other. The onus for keeping things stable lies squarely on the moral consciousness of the people of the forest.

An ontology of sustainability

24This is a simplified description of a complex configuration of ideas. I am emphasizing the Batek’s consciousness that it is necessary to have people in the forest, looking after the forest. We can, of course, understand this position in other ways.

25As I have described in more detail elsewhere (Lye 2004: 123-144), the Batek monitor and intervene in the life process of favored foods like fruits and yams, return to harvest upon regrowth and regeneration, and track all-round availability of supplies by tracking each other’s movements through the landscape. Although they do not practice agriculture, they transform the environment, improve its productivity on their behalf, and “look backwards” to evaluate the effects of their predation on biological populations. Since so much of the forest is a product of the Batek’s dwelling practices, then, if those practices are gone, so too is a major selective force in the forest (Rambo 1979). The forest as we recognize it would cease to exist.

26Politically, the Batek position that people are important to the forest is also correct. Having resident populations in the forest is often regarded as something of an embarrassment—that within the borders of a modern nation-state there are still “primitive peoples” pursuing “traditional” lives and much effort is mounted to erase this “problem” (Dove 1988, Li 1999). Thus in Peninsular Malaysia the general policy favors development for all, but it is very much a top-down style of development that gives little credence to local needs and definitions of problems (Kua 2001). Where this broader context meets the Batek is in the efforts of various government officials (albeit not systematically and without overt coercion) to persuade the Batek to adopt a more sedentary way of life, preferably in government-operated settlement schemes where they may practice agriculture as their first step towards “modernisation” (Zahid 1990). Turning the usual definition of problems around, we may ask what the effect on the forest is if the people were no longer present in it. The forest would be freed up for occupation by alternative stakeholders, as is already happening. To take one example, plantation estates and their attendant infrastructure (housing, processing plants, roads, etc.) have encroached upon much of the Batek territory in all the three states and fragmented it, thus replacing the original forest ecosystems with monospecific stands of trees (Lye 2004: 7-9). Nothing in Malaysian (or, for that matter, global) history suggests that such operations improve the quality of the forest.

27On different levels of interpretation, then, the Batek are absolutely correct. But I want to return to the issue of consciousness. In seeking to uncover local notions of sustainability, our usual impulse is to extract the people’s ecological knowledge, compare this knowledge to what is scientifically known about the ecology, and examine, test, or legitimate the former by using the premises and hypotheses of the latter (see, e.g., Oldfield & Alcorn 1991, Sheil et al. 2002). Thus, for example, the Batek’s superb knowledge of forest biodiversity would be used to improve conservation techniques. Although this approach has promise, it is to some degree epistemologically naive. Among many issues (see Nader 1996), one is power. On the one hand, the power resides with the scientific investigator who defines the problem to be studied, the evidence that counts as relevant, the time spent and the method used to gather that evidence, and ultimately how to transfer knowledge across different cultural contexts. Even so-called participatory approaches are often guilty of this (Scoones & Thompson 1994). On the other hand, the “knowledge” that emerges from such research is not really local knowledge at all, but only those bits and pieces that the local community chooses to make available to the scientific investigator.

28While it is theoretically possible to overcome these problems, more challenging is the nature of knowledge itself. This approach assumes that local knowledge, which is inherently processual, can be objectified as a thing extractable from its local context and easily integrated into the language of science. At the heart of knowledge is the process of learning and teaching. Local peoples like the Batek do not necessarily communicate knowledge formally: they may (for example) do it through stories that contextualize scientific observations within the narrative of a person’s life (Cruikshank 1998, Nadasky 2003). Such stories may be dismissed as “noise,” but are integral to the understanding and interpretation of the observations.

29In essence, knowledge is always culturally embedded (Agrawal 1995, Ellen & Harris 1997): in the Batek case, embedded in the physical context of a culturalized landscape, the social context of movement as a response to changing conditions, the ideological context of proper relations between humans and superhumans. These, and much more besides, constitute a total lifeworld. These are the conditions I alluded to earlier: the conditions that foster sustainability. What they engender is not a mechanistic, recognizably Batek, response to signals and stimuli, unchanging in style and content, but a consciousness of one’s place in the world. If they want to retain this place, if they want the place to continue existing, they have to heed the messages and lessons of the hala’ ‘asal, they have to respond appropriately as conditions change.

30Thus, what the Batek have is not a stereotypical notion of conservation as the organization and regulation of biodiversity and the habitat, nor an ideal of sustainability as a managed (or manageable) environment. Rather, I call this an ontology, a theory of one’s state of being forest peoples whose actions in-the-forest are critical to the survival of that forest. Such ontology is premised on linking up the connections between one’s own actions, the responses of the superhumans, effects on the ecology, and one’s own life and death. And what this chain of causation leads to is a consciousness of caring – if you do not care, you risk your life.


31The major point of this discussion is that there are other ways of getting at sustainability. These do not necessarily translate into recognizable methods of resource management. The conflict here is between different ways of knowing and behaving in the environment: if you would, a conflict between the local and the global perception. I would place myself closer to the global end of the spectrum and, as I wrote earlier, it took me a long time to understand what the Batek were saying to me.

32Sustainability in the global environmental discourse is often allied with the phrase “resource management” (see, for example, Poore 1998). Faced with an environmental perception like that of the Batek, we have to question this discourse. Is the word “management” appropriate? Management implies the existence of intentionality, of people consciously regulating resource use so as to achieve some desired end-state, ideally positively. For example, I was asked (by a sympathetic ecologist who heard the first version of this paper) whether the Batek use information from the superhuman beings as a predictive and managerial tool, thus combining ontology with resource management. The answer, as far as I can tell, is a flat “no.” But science does not make predictions, either, nor can it account for the unintended consequences of selecting any particular mode of resource regulation (Botkin 1990).

33The scientific method can offer scenarios based on probabilities, and those probabilities are all the Batek have to work on, as well. For them, “I don’t know” is a common response; by and large, intentionality lies in the province of the superhumans. What people can try to do is pre-empt disaster, and that means careful attention to the signals and stimuli that are emanating from the other-world. Although my interpretation of their behavior implies a radically different approach and epistemology, I would suggest that it is not so different from how scientists work. Where they depart, perhaps, is in the absence of any pretence that they can manage the senvironment. And this means ultimately that this approach will remain invisible to us so long as we cannot understand it on its own terms.

34So, when we take this ontological approach to sustainability, what are the expected results? That the world continues to exist. That perfection of method is an illusory goal. We would accept that there are dangers here and risks there, successes in some places and crashing failures in others (see Rambo 1997). This is all part of the model and one does not presume to transcend these realities. One does not assume that one can predict and control and stop the environment from changing. One recognizes that the cosmos—the burning forest, the haze, heat, oil slicks, tornados, snowstorms, collapsed hillsides—is not some impersonal environment “out there,” but is, in some measure, a function of one’s own behavior in the world. As one’s behavior changes, so does the cosmos; reciprocally, as the cosmos changes, so does one’s behavior. Sure, this is a difficult model to extract from its cultural context; nor, I think, can we simply reproduce it in some alien part of the world like a computer model. But it is worth taking seriously as a challenge to our embedded premises of similarities and differences in the world and, ultimately, of how the world works.

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1 This paper was originally prepared for an audience of scientific investigators at a Kyoto University Center of Ecological Research workshop on “New Perspectives to the Human Oriented Ecosystem” (1998) and subsequently published in the workshop proceedings (in Japanese). I would like to thank the organizers, especially Katsuyoshi Fukui, for their invitation and all participants for their stimulating feedback. I also thank the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the East-West Center, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Japan Society for Promotion of Science for supporting various field visits to the Batek. I am also grateful to the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department, Kuala Lumpur, for permitting me to do research with the Batek. The Batek, of course, deserve special thanks for permitting me to live with them for so long and doing so much to tutor this skeptical mind. This paper is respectfully dedicated to the memory of my father.

2 The official label for the 21 or so indigenous ethnic minorities of Peninsular Malaysia.

3 I use the masculine pronoun in a generic and not restrictive sense; women can also be shamans.

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Lye Tuck-Po, « Being Forest Peoples: Globalizing Local Sustainability? », Moussons, 12 | 2008, 35-48.

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Lye Tuck-Po, « Being Forest Peoples: Globalizing Local Sustainability? », Moussons [En ligne], 12 | 2008, mis en ligne le 22 octobre 2012, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/moussons.1456

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Lye Tuck-Po

Lye Tuck-Po is an environmental anthropologist based in Malaysia and is affiliated with the Naga Research Group. She has conducted fieldwork among Batek hunter-gatherers of Pahang, Malaysia, and Kuay and Khmer farmers and traders in Cambodia. She is the author of Changing Pathways: Forest Degradation and the Batek of Malaysia (2004), editor of Orang Asli: A Comprehensive and Annotated Bibliography (2001), and co-editor (with Wil de Jong and Ken-ichi Abe) of The Political Ecology of Tropical Forests in Southeast Asia: Historical Perspectives (2003) and Migration and the Social Ecology of Tropical Forests (2005).

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