Conservation news

They safeguarded nature, but now Malaysia’s Mah Meri face eviction for an eco-resort

  • Members of the Mah Meri Indigenous community in Malaysia are fighting an attempt to evict them to make way for the expansion of a beach resort.
  • The notice, served by the Selangor state government, says the land in question belongs to the government, and has threatened legal action if the Mah Meri settlement is not cleared.
  • In a countersuit, the Mah Meri say the land should have been legally recognized as Indigenous territory long before this dispute developed.

An Indigenous community in Peninsular Malaysia is fighting an eviction notice that could see it displaced to make way for a “world-class eco-city.” The Mah Meri families residing in the coastal town of Bagan Lagang, in Selangor state, were given 30 days to clear the area, at their own cost, or face legal action.

Their fight to stay on the lands they have foraged for more than 500 years shines a light on the ongoing struggles between Malaysia’s Indigenous peoples, known collectively as the Orang Asli, and logging companies, property developers, and even their own state governments.

After building 30 houses over the past 20 years, the families, five of whom are permanent residents, received an eviction notice on April 20, 2021, stating they had committed an offense by building structures on government land.

A Mah Meri village in Carey Island close to Bagan Lagang, in Selangor state. Image by tian yake via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The notice, served by Sepang Land Office and Permodalan Negeri Selangor Bhd. (PNSB), the investment arm of the Selangor government, warned the residents they “could be fined up to RM500,000 [$118,000] or serve a five-year jail term, or both, if found guilty of the offence.”

“You are required to empty the land and return occupation peacefully to PNSB within 30 days of this notice, and all costs will be borne by you, and you are not allowed to seek any form of compensation,” the notice said.

This notice was sent just nine days after PNSB transferred a 99-year lease for 41.12 hectares (101.62 acres) of land in Mukim Sepang, where Bagan Lagang is located, to the private company Mangrove Lifestyle Sdn. Bhd., which is developing an extension to the Sepang GoldCoast resort.

Aerial view of the Sepang GoldCoast resorts along the Bagan Lagang coastline. Mangrove Lifestyle Sdn. Bhd., a private company, is developing an extension to the Sepang GoldCoast resort. Image by Фотобанк Moscow-Live via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Activists have been quick to take up the tribe’s case, pointing out both their right to ancestral lands and the fallacy of deliberately displacing Indigenous people to make way for luxury “eco-centric” tourism projects. The Center for Orang Asli Concerns, an NGO, is helping the Mah Meri take their case to court.

“All these places which have a big potential for ecotourism and tourist resorts like this, it is because many Orang Asli are still living in these places and have kept the land that way,” Colin Nicholas, director of the COAC, told Mongabay. “People’s idea of going back to nature is going back to nature in luxury, and the industry caters for them. This mentality of tourism has to change.”

The Mah Meri are one of Malaysia’s 18 recognized Indigenous ethnic groups, and arrived in the 15th century on the shores of Bukit Bangkong, where they have mostly remained. There are now 4,200 Mah Meri in Malaysia, living along Selangor’s west coast from Sungai Pelek up to Pulau Carey.

The Mah Meri are one of Malaysia’s 18 recognized Indigenous ethnic groups, and have lived on these shores since the 15th century. Image by zol m via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The website for the planned development, Sepang GoldCoast, says the objective of the project is “sustainability and value creation,” with PNSB telling news site The Malaysian Insight in May: “The plan is to develop the place into a tourist destination.”

Opponents of the resort’s expansion say it will hurt the very people who have helped generate tourist interest in the town: the Mah Meri of Pulau Carey, who have drawn international interest in their traditional wooden carvings and masks. In 2011, the Selangor state government invested in a Mah Meri cultural village to showcase the traditions, arts and rituals of this “unique culture.”

This official recognition by the state government of the Mah Meri as an Aboriginal people is key to the court case. The affidavit filed on behalf of the Mah Meri argues that the land in question should have been legally recognized as Orang Asli territory long before this dispute came to light. The document holds the state land department, state government and federal government responsible for land’s current status, saying they “breached their constitutional, statutory, fiduciary and/or international law obligations and duties by failing to gazette the Native Customary Land as aboriginal reserve.”

Mah Meri in their festive costume for New Year celebrations in Carey Island. The Mah Meri have helped generate tourist interest in the town with their traditional wooden carvings and masks. Image by tian yake via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Much of the coastal and inland areas are the traditional lands of the Mah Meri people, who have been gradually displaced by resorts and oil palm plantations over the past 40 years. Most of the mainland’s 2,000 Mah Meri people now reside in Kampung Bukit Bangkong, an inland village with 1,062 residents. However, the affidavit says the beachfront has remained their main foraging and hunting areas since the 1970s, where the tribe built huts and shelters for use while looking for crabs, mussels, fish and other food from the mangroves and mudflats. The villagers would travel between these beach settlements and Kampung Bukit Bangkong. Historically, Bagan Lagang was the main beach settlement before the tribe developed more locations along the coast.

The court affidavit continues that “at these beach settlements, the Mah Meri people had full access to the mangroves, beaches, mudflats and coastal waters which they used to source their livelihood needs. However, with the opening of Avani Sepang Goldcoast Resort in 2014, the Mah Meri people were restricted from entering or foraging in certain parts of the coastal area.”

The Avani resort was the first phase of Selangor’s GoldCoast Development, billed as “the longest coastal paradise in Asia at 22km [14 miles]” on the land the tribe lived and foraged on. PNSB served the eviction notice in April to develop the adjacent land as an extension of this resort. The proposed D’Festival, the project’s second phase, will be a mixed development for “resort living, business and entertainment,” with 437 condominium units and 48 retail units available.

Initially, the tribe accepted the eviction notice because it was unaware of its customary rights, and merely pleaded for more time to clear the land. However, after meeting with lawyer Siti Kasim, the Mah Meri decided to ignore the notice and fight the eviction in court. A helpful precedent has been set by the landmark Sagong Tasi case, in which the Selangor government unsuccessfully attempted to evict the Teuan people, claiming their land belonged to the state despite its status having never been ruled on in court. Justice Gopal Sri Ram ruled in the Court of Appeals that the state “cannot make the Orang Asli victims of your own negligence.”

Avani Sepang Goldcoast Resort. With the opening of Avani Sepang Goldcoast Resort in 2014, the Mah Meri people say they have been restricted from entering or foraging in certain parts of the coastal area. Image by andre oortgijs via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Much of the coastal and inland areas are the traditional lands of the Mah Meri people, who have been gradually displaced by resorts and oil palm plantations over the past 40 years. Image by zol m via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

“The state government will try to do anything and everything, whatever they like, without the Orang Asli knowing, but the courts have time and again confirmed these ancestral land rights,” Siti Kasim told Mongabay. “Legally, it’s not about the fact that they’ve had settlements for 20 years. It’s about the fact that they have been occupying and using the land for 500.”

The Orang Asli’s fight to reclaim their native customary lands is crucial for the maintenance and protection of Malaysia’s wilderness, most of which has already been lost to logging, plantations and property development. Eighty percent of forests in Malaysian Borneo have been directly lost to logging, and only 11.6% of Malaysia’s remaining forests are classed as “pristine.”

“Other people have destroyed the beautiful parts of Malaysia’s land,” Nicholas said. “What remains is only there because the Orang Asli manage the land that way.”

Banner image of modern Orang Asli people by Vin Crosbie via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).